New Zealand media have dubbed the 2013 All Blacks “The Unbeatables” after their perfect season, but acknowledged their rivals are closing the gap ahead of the next World Cup.
The tone was more relieved than triumphant after the New Zealanders snatched a 24-22 result over a desperately unlucky Ireland to record 14 wins from 14 and become the first international side in the professional era to win every single Test in a calendar year.
Rather than hail the dazzling skills of Steve Hansen’s men, pundits praised his side’s mental toughness in clawing back from a 19-0 deficit at Lansdowne Road to keep their record unblemished.
The Dominion Post labelled it “the great escape” and said New Zealand’s rivals would feel encouraged in the lead up to the 2015 World Cup in England, when the All Blacks will seek to win the trophy on foreign soil for the first time.
“France, England and now Ireland will all have told themselves that they are only an adjustment or two from being right up there with the best team,” it said.
The New Zealand Herald produced a wraparound poster of the team topped with a banner headline reading “The Unbeatables: The Perfect 2013 All Blacks”, although it conceded that it was “a perfect season clinched with (an) imperfect performance”.
“They will know they are not as far ahead of their challengers as it appears. For three weeks running they have been rattled in Europe,” it said.
Despite the scare produced by the unfancied Irish, former coach Graham Henry said the achievement of becoming the first New Zealand side to win every Test in a year since 1989′s amateur-era All Blacks should not be overshadowed.
“This side is the best rugby side in the world right now, and may be the best rugby side that’s ever played the game,” he told RadioSport.
“There’s not too many areas where you think you can improve.”
Henry, who masterminded the All Blacks’ 2011 World Cup triumph, said Hansen had strengthened the team since he took over after the tournament to create a unit with exceptional skills, never-say-die attitude, superb fitness and big-match experience.
He said the attributes were on display in the final 35 minutes at Lansdowne Road, when Ireland “ran out of petrol” and the New Zealanders stormed home.
“It ranks right up there, I can’t remember a Test match in the last decade or so where we’ve been down by that number of points, so it’s a special comeback,” he said.
Former All Blacks lock Ian Jones said the current crop of players had earned themselves a place in history but it was impossible to say how they ranked along the sides of yesteryear.
“It’s really hard to compare era and teams and all the circumstances that go with it but all All Blacks fans, and rugby fans around the world, will look back on this team pretty fondly,” he told Prime News.