Rugby

All Blacks reach new heights

2013-12-17 07:46
Richie McCaw (Getty)

Wellington - New Zealand's "perfect year" will forever be associated with their breathtaking comeback win in Dublin but the true measure of their quality was cemented six weeks earlier by their stunning triumph at the heart of South African rugby.

The remarkable last-move-of-the-season try and subsequent conversion to beat Ireland made it 14 wins out of 14 - the first time a clean sweep has been achieved since the game turned professional in 1995.

Ridiculed after a journalist spotted a team room notice declaring "we are the most dominant team in the history of the world" ahead of their Twickenham match, dissenting voices are proving harder to find now.

Sean Fitzpatrick, whose team of the mid-1990s is often revered as his country's best, considers the current crop to be deserving of the "best-ever" plaudits.

"They are better than 2012 and 2011 - they are becoming the pretty complete team," he said.

The world champions beat France four times, Australia three and South Africa and Argentina twice, before completing the sweep with away wins over Japan, England and Ireland.

The pick of the bunch was their astonishing performance in Johannesburg in October, when they won a wonderful match 38-27 to win the rugby championship yet again.

Ellis Park had never been a happy hunting ground for the All Blacks, who had lost eight of the 11 games there, and they were facing a fired-up Springbok team who knew that a four-try victory could give them the title.

The hosts got their four tries, and were leading midway through the second half, when the effects of altitude were supposed to start working against the All Blacks.

Instead it was the visitors who found an extra gear to force their way back to rack up five tries, win the match, the championship and maintain their amazing streak.

They kept on winning and with only Ireland to face, a team they had never lost to in 108 years, the sweep looked certain to be achieved.

Yey even after fighting back from 17-0 and 22-7 down they still trailed by five as the clock clicked into the red zone.

Richie McCaw's team refused to concede it was over, though, and launched one last attack, a sweeping movement across the field in both directions involving forwards and backs, full of attacking intent and self-belief that somehow got Ryan Crotty over in the corner.

The scores were level, the perfect year still tantalisingly out of reach, but even when Aaron Cruden sent his conversion wide the All Blacks found a way to win - Ireland had charged too early and Cruden made sure with his second chance.

"It comes down to belief," said McCaw. "I've always been proud of All Blacks teams, you never give up and never stop believing there's a chance. We had 15 guys out there still believing right to the last minute and it's amazing what can happen."

Steve Hansen, who took over from Graham Henry after the 2011 rugby World Cup, has won 26, lost one and drawn one of his 28 games in charge.

Another New Zealand coach will also look back on 2012 with huge pride but Warren Gatland's glory came viaWales and the British and Irish Lions.

The Lions triumphed 2-1 in Australia for their first series win since beating South Africa 16 years ago and, as ever, the three contests held the rugby world spellbound.

After two nervy, scruffy tests left the teams level at 1-1 the Lions, controversially without dropped former captainBrian O'Driscoll, produced a magnificent performance to triumph 41-16 in the decider.

It was a hugely important win, not just for the players and supporters but for the whole Lions concept, as another series defeat would have again raised questions over its place in the modern game.

There were 10 Welshman in the third test starting XV, a fair reflection of their form months earlier when they won their second successive Six Nations title.

On that memorable Millennium Stadium night Wales handed grand-slam chasing England a record 30-3 humiliation.

Eight months later, as they slumped to a ninth successive defeat by Australia and 22nd from 23 against the southern hemisphere big three, things were a touch quieter in the pubs and clubs of Cardiff.

There was precious little November joy in any of the Six Nations cities as their teams lost 10 of 11 home fixtures against the southern hemisphere's big three.

The exception was England's deserved victory over Australia as Stuart Lancaster's side bounced back well from that chastening Six Nations setback.

They chalked up a series victory in Argentina with an experimental team and had wins over Australia and the Pumas before ending their season with a narrow loss to the All Blacks.

England and New Zealand will meet again four more times next year, when England, hosts of the 2015 World Cup, will really be able to get an idea of how much progress they are making.

South Africa remain the clear second-ranked team and are adding real verve to their traditional power but it wasAustralia who ended a troubled 2013 on the most positive note.

Their Lions defeat led to the resignation of coach Robbie Deans while a series of disciplinary issues dogged the squad all year.

However, coach Ewen McKenzie's decision to recall maverick flyhalf Quade Cooper has already borne fruit with some mesmerising back play on their autumn tour and they again look capable of beating anyone on their day.

In club rugby Toulon won the Heineken Cup, beating Clermont Auvergne 16-15 in an all-French Dublin final, but the future of Europe's premier competition remains cloudy.

English and French plans for a breakaway competition seemed to have gained ground when the Welsh regions elected to join them but a French U-turn - possibly for one year only - looks as if the 2014-15 season, what should be the 20th of the Heineken Cup, will go ahead without any English clubs.

The Chiefs retained the Super Rugby title, beating Australia's Brumbies in the final to give New Zealand the honours for the 12th time in 18 competitions.

The last word of the year went to the All Blacks as they swept the board at the IRB awards. Team of the year, coach of the year and, in the form of irrepressible No 8 Keiran Read, player of the year.

The perfect end to, officially, the perfect year.

Read more on:    new zealand  |  richie mccaw  |  rugby
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