AUCKLAND, NZ – The posts have come down, the boots have been put away and everyone’s heading to the beach down here in New Zealand. But before we all enjoy a nice cold beer on what’s hopefully a hot Christmas day, let’s take a look back at what was another successful season for the All Blacks.
The All Blacks kick off their international season with three tests back in June against a touring English side that had been written off as easy-beats by most sections of the media (including this one). While they weren’t quite as easy in the first two tests (20-15 and 28-27 victories to the All Blacks), the English capitulated faster than Danny Cipriani’s bank balance at a bar full of transgender patrons in the third test, getting thumped 36-13 in Hamilton.
What we learned from the June tests: That Julian Savea is the most dangerous winger in the game, that the All Blacks scrum was looking pretty solid and that Aaron Cruden was under more than a little bit of pressure from Beauden Barrett for the 10 jersey.
The Rugby Championship
After the Crusaders came up agonizingly short in the pulsating Super Rugby final against the Waratahs, hopes were high for an epic opening to The Rugby Championship. Sadly, the first Bledisloe Cup game between the All Blacks and Wallabies was about as fun as getting stuck sitting next to Wayne Barnes on a long-haul flight. The 12-all draw in Sydney ended the current All Blacks quest to have the longest winning streak in test matches, an 18-match record they now share with their 1965-70 counterparts and the 1997-98 Springboks. A week later, however, the All Blacks more than made up for lost time and completely flattened the Wallabies 51-20 at Eden Park in one of the most complete rugby performances in the modern era.
After taking care of Los Pumas in Napier, the All Blacks met a fired-up Springbok in Wellington in the first of two highly memorable encounters between the two sides in 2014. If the Eden Park match against the Wallabies was breathtaking in terms of it’s free flowing running, this was as well, albeit in very different way…as in having the breath taken from you by getting punched as hard possible in the stomach. For 80 minutes the two ancient enemies smashed into each other in violently beautiful spectacle, re-affirming who the two biggest dogs are in the yard that is world rugby. The All Blacks came out on top 14-10, but the stage was set for the epic return match at Ellis Park.
Again Los Pumas were dispatched, this time in Buenos Aires. Aaron Cruden slept in and missed the flight to Argentina in possibly the dumbest move by an All Black ever, meanwhile the Argentine crowd showed they haven’t learned anything about sportsmanship since last year, shining a laser pointer in the eyes of Cruden’s replacement Barrett. After that, Ellis Park, Johannesburg was the venue for possibly the most memorable test match in the rugby calendar between the All Blacks and Springboks. Francois Hougaard’s opening score for the Boks was recently voted try of the year and with good reason, it set up the Boks for a sensational 27-25 victory that broke the All Blacks unbeaten stranglehold on all-comers for the past 22 tests. After that there was one match left, a final Bledisloe Cup match against the Wallabies in Brisbane that turned out to be an awful lot closer than everyone thought. The home side, rocked by one of the stranger scandals you’ll see, almost pulled off a remarkable upset, only to be denied by a late Malakai Fekitoa try and Colin Slade conversion.
What we learned from The Rugby Championship: That the All Blacks aren’t invincible after all, that the All Black/Springbok rivalry is still the most intense in the game, that Argentine fans need to sort themselves out and that the Wallabies seem to play better when stuff isn’t going their way off the field.
End Of Year Tour
So after taking out TRC for the third consecutive year, the All Blacks headed north for a tour with a difference. It started in Chicago, where they played an historic, if one-sided test against the US Eagles. American rugby fans got a taste of All Black rugby up close in a memorable match that featured some glimpses of skill that will probably not been seen on Soldier Field again this winter, given the way the Bears are playing. From there they journeyed over the Atlantic to face England in the last true test of the year in a gritty display which featured a dazzling solo effort from wing Jonny May and an excellent piece of baiting by Dylan Hartley on his All Black opposite. Unfortunately for England, the sin-binning of Dane Coles for lashing out at Hartley stirred the All Blacks into playing one of the finest 10 minutes of possession-based rugby you’ll ever see, effectively winning the test. The tour was rounded off with a couple of gimme wins against Scotland and Wales, the only episode of note being Wales managing to hold their own until the 60-minute mark, when the All Blacks decided to be their ruthless best and round off an 18-point win.
What we learned from the End Of Year Tour: That England, Scotland and Wales need to work on their fitness as it was the back end of these tests that cost them dearly, that US rugby commentary is unintentionally hilarious to those of us in the Southern Hemisphere and there’s no clear favourite for who’s going to be playing first five for the All Blacks at the next World Cup.
All Black player of the year: Hard to argue with the decision of the NZRU and World Rugby, lock Brodie Retallick optimized the word ‘immense’ in every sense of the word this season. Fresh off carrying an injury-ravaged Chiefs team to an unlikely Super Rugby playoff berth, Retallick lit up the All Blacks with an enormous work rate around the field and in tight. It’s no surprise that the All Blacks looked shaky without him in Johannesburg and he’ll be a key man for the defense of the William Webb Ellis trophy next year.
Performance of the year: The 51-20 demolition of the Wallabies at Eden Park was a pretty special night for All Black fans, given their patchy display the week before. They completely dominated the visitors in a six try performance that brought back memories of the famous ‘perfect game’ in 1996.
Question mark of the year: Given that Dan Carter has barely played any footy this year, Beauden Barrett spurned a golden opportunity in the last two tests, Colin Slade has surprised the hell out of everyone by actually being quite good and Aaron Cruden seems more interested with sleeping in strange parts of Auckland when he should be getting on a plane, the jury is definitely still out on who will wear the all-important 10 jersey next year. Of course, we’ll all have a much better idea once Super Rugby 2015 has concluded. My money’s on Carter.
Try of the year: Julian Savea’s masterful pick-up of a difficult pass came on the end of a sweeping All Blacks move against England. That was the second of a personal hat trick as the home side sent the visitors home winless in emphatic style in the final June test.
He’s still got it award: Richie McCaw started off 2015 slowly, suffering a broken thumb in his first game of Super Rugby. His eventual comeback didn’t exactly set the world on fire, especially after he was penalized on the last play of the Crusaders grand final loss to the Waratahs and cost them the game. However, his efforts in the black jersey this season have been phenomenal, especially in the back end of the season when motivation may have been waning. Along the way he picked up a couple of memorable tries, his 100th test as captain and 136th match as an All Black (both records). Not bad for a guy who’s about to turn 34.
Time for me to sign off for the year from down here in NZ. Hope you’ve enjoyed what’s been a fascinating season of footy, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed keeping you up to date with all the Super Rugby, Rugby Championship and All Black action. I’ll be back in the new year to lead up to the all-important Rugby World Cup, but there’ll be plenty of rugby to watch before that kicks off in September. Have a safe and happy holiday!
That’s it for now. Feel free to comment below, please look for and “Like” our Facebook Rugby Wrap Up Page and follow us on Twitter@:RugbyWrapUp, Junoir Blaber, Nick Hall, James Harrington, Jamie Wall, Jaime Loyd, DJ Eberle, Cody Kuxmann, Karen Ritter, Jake Frechette and Declan Yeats, respectively.