The finishing thrust that All Blacks coach Steve Hansen had been seeking all season finally returned on Saturday as Beauden Barrett scored a last-gasp try to give them a 35-29 victory over Australia in their Rugby Championship clash in Dunedin.
The victory ensured the All Blacks retained the Bledisloe Cup for the 15th successive season.
The world champions, however, had to dig deep after they had conceded an early 17-0 deficit and then had to overcome Kurtley Beale’s 76th-minute try that had given the Wallabies a 29-28 lead.
“Really, really proud of the boys,” Hansen said. “To give a side like Australia 17 points at the start and to keep their composure and just be three behind at halftime, then hit the front and then lose it again near the end. Really proud of them.”
Hansen had special reason to savour the win after pundits, fans and the media in rugby-mad New Zealand had started to question the team’s mental toughness following a drawn series against the British and Irish Lions earlier this year.
Previous All Blacks sides under Hansen had a knack of overcoming big deficits and somehow winning games they should have lost.
However the international retirements of six stalwarts after the last World Cup deprived the side of valuable experience and they were pushed to breaking point by Warren Gatland’s Lions earlier this year.
The Lions finished the series stronger, dominating the last quarters of the final two tests – a period in matches the All Blacks had been able to control and finish over the top of their opposition.
Last week in Sydney against the Wallabies they raced to a 54-6 lead after 48 minutes then took their foot off the gas and Michael Cheika’s side scored four unanswered tries.
On Saturday, the Wallabies almost snatched the scintillating game at the death only for the All Blacks to regroup and finish it off with Barrett’s second try of the final quarter.
“We were just hoping to build some pressure and maybe getting a penalty,” Barrett said of the discussions the team had as they waited for Beale’s try to be converted by Bernard Foley.
“Lima (Sopoaga) suggested a droppy (dropgoal) and we went through that situation during the week so it was up the sleeve, but fortunately we didn’t need to go for that.
“That’s the thing with this team, we have faith in each other to deliver right at the last minute.
“We could have easily gone into our shells but we spoke about coming out there and playing.”