Ulster Kiwi Andy Ward says All Blacks best team on the planet
Andy Ward, Ulster's adopted Kiwi son who won 28 caps for Ireland, is loathe to bestow the 'best-ever New Zealand side' title on the current All Blacks.
But he has no reservations in declaring the Steve Hansen-coached, Richie McCaw-captained world champions to be the best team on the planet.
And for that reason, he believes Ireland cannot stop tomorrow's opponents' march to another record, namely a 100 per cent return from 14 Tests in a calendar year. Since the game went fully professional in 1995, no side has achieved that.
"There are many legendary players who have played the game of rugby down through the years and a good proportion of those have been All Blacks," said 43-year-old Ward.
"They're a very special side at the minute, but I don't think you can make fair comparisons with teams gone by.
That's a very difficult thing to do. If you look back to the 1950s and 60s, All Blacks teams went on six-month tours and hardly ever got beaten, so you'd be making a very big statement to say that this side is better than they were.
"But what you can say is that the current crop of players are pretty special in that they understand how to play the game right to the limit. They give you so much pressure for 80 minutes, it's just relentless and I think that's the part that the teams find hardest to handle.
"Normally you have peaks and troughs in rugby, but the All Blacks just don't seem to have any troughs – it's just all peaks with them and if you make a mistake these capitalise on it.
"They explode into a situation, it doesn't just happen. If you drop the ball, all of a sudden there's six or seven All Blacks running down that channel and it's very, very difficult to combat that."
Underlining the fact that there is much more to these ABs than ruthless efficiency, Ward said: "I think their skill set, man for man, is better than any other team in the world.
"Watching them against England last weekend, the difference between the two sides at the end of the day was the front five. At one point (Brodie) Reallick was in the centre, so you'd a prop running that beautiful line like a centre should and he burst through the gap.
"These guys are in the middle of the back line, handling the ball like three quarters. That's the difference between this side and others; one through to 30 can throw a 20-metre pass, off both hands, fluently. That's something most teams would die for.
"I think at the minute they're so good that they could field two Test sides and both would be very, very competitive. They play total rugby with backs playing as forwards and forwards playing like backs.
"Those guys understand each position on the park, what it represents and what is required to play in that position. That, to me, is the difference between this team and any other team on the planet at the minute."
With another record pending, Ward (pictured), like every proud Kiwi, is mindful of what it means to be an All Black and the responsibility that goes it.
"It's about national pride. You're pulling on the jersey not just for yourself. There's no, 'Happy days, I've got the shirt and I'm putting it on my back'. There's a weight of expectation goes with that.
"An All Black looks at that shirt and he thinks, 'I've got a couple of million people who are also getting into their shirt, so I'm not only putting this on for me – I'm putting it on for the whole nation.
"It's the number one sport in New Zealand. Everybody eats, drinks and sleeps rugby there. You could sit round your granny's dinner table and she could run through all of the current All Blacks and have an opinion on every single one of them. That's the difference."
With a fresh page of history ready to be scripted tomorrow, Ward acknowledged the scale of that pending achievement.
"Fourteen straight wins in international rugby these days is pretty spectacular. They won the (Four Nations) Championship in South Africa – who are very strong and very physical – at Ellis Park which is a phenomenal rugby stadium. To pull off a win over there, with the pressure they were under, was spectacular. The way they went about that business was something special. To come away from Ellis Park having won a winner-takes-all match like that was special."
For all of those reasons, Ward cannot see Joe Schmidt's side creating history of their own by becoming the first Ireland side to win in 28 attempts against the All Blacks.
"I can't see Ireland playing as badly as they did last weekend (against Australia) and that will probably knee-jerk them into something a bit better," he said. "But I still don't think that's going to be enough to beat the All Blacks."