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All Blacks on brink of history

AP

The All Blacks always talk of striving for perfection. They mean in performance. But they can achieve it another way on Sunday by becoming the first side in rugby’s professional era to win all their matches in a calendar year.

New Zealand couldn’t have picked a more compliant 14th opponent to finish off the job.

In 27 matches with New Zealand, Ireland’s best result was a draw in Dublin in 1973. Since 1905, the All Blacks have lost only eight of 80 tests in the United Kingdom against the home nations.

“We know what a great opportunity we have in front of us,” Ireland winger Tommy Bowe said. “When you get that, it’s a great chance to make history.”

History is exactly what New Zealand is looking to create, too, at Lansdowne Road.

South Africa went through 1995 with 10 straight wins but the feat hasn’t been achieved since the sport turned professional in August that year. Many have come close — including the All Blacks’ class of 1997, which had 11 wins and one draw — but none have gone all the way.

“We’re a team that loves to play well and win playing well, and we’ll hopefully do that this weekend,” said No. 8 Kieran Read, who was shortlisted on Friday for world player of the year with teammate Ben Smith.

Having won the World Cup on home soil in 2011 as well as countless Tri-Nations and Rugby Championships, the so-called “perfect year” is one of the few things this generation of New Zealand stars — led by Richie McCaw and Dan Carter — haven’t ticked off their list.

Carter has been ruled out by an Achilles tendon injury in his 100th test against England last weekend, and was replaced by Aaron Cruden, one of seven changes following the 30-22 victory at Twickenham.

“In the last nine weeks, we’ve gone round the world twice, and this will be our seventh test,” New Zealand coach Steve Hansen said. “We’ve had a big, physical game against Argentina, another physical performance in Johannesburg, a lot of running and chasing in Dunedin, then France was physical and England was physical.

“It’s just the accumulation of a lot of travel and game time. We need fresh legs and we’ve got ability sitting there fresh, so why not use them?”

Brian O’Driscoll will equal Ronan O’Gara’s Ireland record of 128 caps after being passed fit to play New Zealand for the 14th and final time before retiring at the end of the season.

O’Driscoll has managed a two-month-old calf problem and will partner the recalled Gordon D’Arcy for a record 52nd time in midfield.

The Irish side, however, is hoping to pull off a shocker.

“If we play to the top of our game, we certainly can win,” said Ireland captain Paul O’Connell, set to meet the All Blacks for a ninth time. “That’s the question we have been asking ourselves all week.”