As another year draws to a close, with the flow of the sands of time as unremitting as ever, it’s time to introspect.
Soon, we look forward to another year of hard hits, great tries, reset scrums, the Southern Kings, a spurt of trans-Tasman ‘love’ around mid-August, and Dean Mumm.
So let’s look back at the year that was for SANZAAR.
And what a year it was! Just when you thought that the high of successfully defending the Rugby World Cup could not be topped, New Zealand go ahead and have an even more record-breaking year in 2016.
Despite the very publicised departure of six of New Zealand rugby’s grand old men in Tony Woodcock, Keven Mealamu, Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu, New Zealand in general, and the All Blacks in particular, moved on as if they had lost nothing at all.
It all started with the domination of the Super Rugby franchises. New Zealand have dominated Super Rugby ever since the competition began, but with this year’s new format set to favour the South African sides, the Kiwi franchises stepped things up a notch, with four of them being a cut above all other sides in the competition, barring the Lions.
Things all began well with a humdinger of a match between the Blues and the defending champions, the Highlanders, that the Auckland franchise won 33-31. From there on, the Highlanders, Hurricanes, Chiefs, and Crusaders set about destroying all their opposition, with matches between the four of them being nearly Test-level bouts.
Ultimately, the format weeded them out, with the Crusaders and Highlanders beaten by the Lions in the finals, while the Hurricanes got the better of the Chiefs in the semifinals to set up a second consecutive home grand final, avoiding a second successive heartbreak by beating the Lions 20-3, to win their first Super Rugby title.
Each of New Zealand’s franchises have now won a Super Rugby crown, underlining their dominance over Southern Hemisphere rugby.
The All Blacks’ Test season began with a three-match series against the Welsh. While the All Blacks were never in any real danger of having their winning streak (that seemingly goes back to the dawn of time) against the Welsh snapped, it was still going to be interesting to see how the All Blacks adapted to life post Sir Richie, DC et al.
Wales gave a good account of themselves in the first two Tests, well if only for the first 60 minutes of both, but were ultimately beaten by the brilliance of Beauden Barrett, who made the difference off the bench in the first two Tests.
Barrett would then start the third Test outright, and run rings around the Welsh, scoring two tries in a 26-point haul as the All Blacks completed the whitewash with a 46-6 win.
This would be the start of a special season for Barrett, who would lead the Hurricanes to their Super Rugby triumph the next month, and then play a starring role in the All Blacks’ Rugby Championship campaign.
The All Blacks have won three out of the four tournaments since the tournament expanded to include Argentina, but this season they took things to a new level, getting the maximum points possible in a six match tournament.
The tournament began with the annual Bledisloe Cup double-header, with this being a rematch of the World Cup final.
The Wallabies were wounded and low on confidence after a 3-0 reverse to England in June, and the All Blacks were not one to show mercy.
A 42-8 walloping, leading 32-3 at half time gave the Wallabies one of their worst home defeats in recent memory, with Beauden Barrett once again prominent. What followed in the reverse fixture was another easy victory for the All Blacks, winning 29-9 and wrapping up the Bledisloe Cup for yet another year.
This match also saw the debut of Anton Lienert-Brown in the centres, and he along with Ryan Crotty would prove to be worthy of filling the big shoes of Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith.
Their next pair of matches came against the Pumas and the Springboks, and the first of these gave the All Blacks a good scare. Although the All Blacks had trailed at half time previously this season, neither of those matches had them challenged in the same way they were by the Pumas, who took an early lead through Santiago Cordero, and made a severe impact through the middle of the ruck and at the breakdown.
The All Blacks still managed to score three tries before half time though, and then turned on the style in the second half, as the Pumas tired and were pinned back in their half. The match ended 57-22.
They then proceeded to dispatch another wounded rival, South Africa, to reclaim the Rugby Championship crown in merely four matches.
A 41-13 victory would have sent shockwaves across the rugby world earlier, but this was something completely unsurprising given the Springboks’ performances so far.
Another win over the Springboks was preceded by a comfortable victory in Buenos Aires, but the victory in the Republic was the exclamation point on an incredible campaign.
South Africa tried to ground New Zealand into submission with an effort at ten man rugby like they had the previous week to good effect against the Wallabies, but the All Blacks were too good to not find a way around the Boks’ limited tactics.
Once the shackles were broken, the All Blacks piled on the misery, scoring an incredible nine tries to none, with four of them coming in the final ten minutes. The All Blacks had sealed a winning bonus point in all six of their victories.
That win also enabled them to equal the record for most Test wins in a row at 17 – and they would get the chance to break that record against their neighbours from across the ditch, as the third Bledisloe Test match transformed from a dead rubber to a match that would create history.
The Wallabies had somewhat recovered from their earlier run of defeats at the start of the season, and although they were underdogs, there were still people clinging on to hope rather than optimism that the All Blacks would not be able to break the record.
That would not happen. Despite playing far better than in their meetings in August, and even having a try wrongly disallowed that would have given them the lead, the All Blacks pulled away in the final quarter as they had in nearly each of their previous Tests of 2016, winning 37-10 and setting the record for most consecutive test wins by a Tier One side. Nothing could go wrong, could it?
Well it doesn’t take long for fortunes to change in rugby. The All Blacks would have a double header against Ireland in their November series, sandwiching a Test in Italy, and the first of these Tests would take place in Chicago. The All Blacks were in a jubilant mood ahead of the Chicago Test, even taking part in the Chicago Cubs’ World Series parade.
But unfortunately for them, the Cubs’ World Series streak would not be the only streak to break this year, as a chopped and changed All Black line-up got ambushed by the Irish, executing a smart gameplan based on an accurate kick-chase and courageous defence to staggering accuracy.
Ireland scored a whopping 40 points against the All Blacks, beating them for the first time ever. It was a seismic upset, all the more surprising that it came on the back of some of the All Blacks’ most dominant performances ever.
This made the return fixture in Dublin one of the most mouth-watering clashes in a long time. After an almost entirely different line-up thrashed the Azzurri in Rome, the All Blacks fronted up for their rematch at the Aviva Stadium. And the match lived up to all the expectations.
The All Blacks started off the blocks in rampaging fashion, winning the kickoff and not relinquishing the ball until Malakai Fekitoa went over in the corner to give them the early advantage.
However, unlike other matches this season, Ireland almost entirely dominated possession and continually attacked the All Black line, but phenomenally resolute defence coupled with Beauden Barrett and TJ Perenara’s brilliance resulted in a three tries to none, 21-9 victory.
The All Blacks’ hopes of an unbeaten season were dashed, but they had gained a modicum of revenge. They followed this up with a lazy performance against the French in Paris, but Guy Novès’ side did not have enough composure to get over the line, losing 19-24. The All Blacks ended one of their most successful seasons ever with a win.
However, a ‘what if?’ remains over the All Blacks’ season and it’s through no fault of the All Blacks – they did not play the other in-form side of the year in England.
It is a great shame that the two teams who beat every side they faced did not get the chance to face each other. But after all, you can only play what’s in front of you, and considering that the All Blacks could not pull off the unbeaten season anyway, this debate can rest until their next meeting in 2018.
The Māori All Blacks also played a three match tour in November, with one match against the United States on the same weekend as the All Blacks played Ireland, that they won with ease by 54-7.
However they then travelled to Ireland to play Munster, and the trend of Irish sides beating Kiwi ones continued as Munster won an emotionally-charged match by 27-14. That match also saw an incredible tribute by the Māori to recently deceased Munster coach Anthony Foley.
Their tour ended with an easy victory over Harlequins at Twickenham Stoop.
The All Blacks picked up from where they left off after the Rugby World Cup, swatting aside all opposition with minimal fuss, until they were brought crashing down to earth in Chicago with a loss to Ireland.
The two defining stories of this year for New Zealand are the Tier One record for consecutive victories, and the subsequent first ever defeat to Ireland.
Their record speaks for itself – 80 tries in 14 Tests, 13 wins, winning every trophy they played for. It’s not too hard to find positives.
What’s most impressive about the All Blacks’ season is the way they seamlessly moved on from losing a wealth of experience after last year’s World Cup. They did not go through any transition period as the replacements were already there waiting in the wings.
And it’s this succession plan that is so noteworthy – Dan Carter gone?
Up steps Beauden Barrett (and if he wouldn’t, Lima Sopoaga and Aaron Cruden are no slouches either). One of the best flankers of all time and your longest serving captain Richie McCaw retires?
Up steps Sam Cane to fill in the flanker’s role, and Kieran Read takes to the captaincy like a duck to water.
The centres were a little harder to settle on, but by the end of the year, the All Blacks had found their preferred centre combination in Ryan Crotty and Anton Lienert-Brown or Malakai Fekitoa.
The best part about these successors is that, with the exception of Lienert-Brown, none of these players are newcomers, all of them have been a part of the All Black setup for years now and this planning for the future is what has set the All Blacks a cut above the rest.
The next big boots that will be vacated and won’t be too easily filled will be the second row combination of Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock, but even they have understudies that are being blooded in already in the form of Scott Barrett and Patrick Tuipulotu.
Another marker of how New Zealand players are maintaining levels of excellence is their dominance at Super Rugby level.
Each of the five franchises make the other four strive to higher levels, and if the format was a little different, we could have had an all-New Zealand semifinal line-up this year.
Another positive on the field for the All Blacks is the potency of their attack. While New Zealand have always been a team that tends to score many tries, scoring at nearly six tries per game is quite unheard of.
Their dismantling of each of their SANZAAR rivals was something to behold, and those games saw them score all types of tries – gritty forwards scoring off a maul, slick counter-attacks from inside their own 22, rugby league-style cross field kicks, you name it and the All Blacks probably scored it.
And a big reason behind scoring as much as they did was due to their superior mental fortitude and ability to keep their focus towards the back-end of matches.
In nearly each of their first seven or eight games, the All Blacks were challenged, if not bested, in the first half or 50 minutes or so, but as the opposition tired, the All Blacks thrived, be it due to the impact of their substitutes, or simply due to higher fitness levels. Ireland literally needed a three try buffer, and even that was under threat at one point, to see off the All Blacks.
And the final positive that Steve Hansen and his coaching staff can take from the year is the way New Zealand responded to the shock defeat by Ireland.
Nobody wants to be part of the All Black team that loses for the first time ever to Ireland, and the 40-29 defeat must have rankled. But luckily for them they did not become the first All Black team to lose twice to Ireland, as they used the humiliation of the Chicago defeat to put up one of the best defensive performances of the past few years in Dublin.
I have no doubt that the All Blacks will use this same motivation when they face many of those Irishmen during the Lions tour next June.
Well there really is only one main negative for this season, but it’s a bloody big one. Every All Black defeat is a shock, but when they lose for the first time to a team in more than a hundred years, it’s a disaster.
For all the courage and skill that the Irish showed, the fact remains that the All Blacks were caught off-guard, and Steve Hansen’s tinkering of the line-up for the match, playing Jerome Kaino in the second row along with Patrick Tuipulotu, backfired spectacularly.
The team selection and overall sluggishness suggests a bit of completely uncharacteristic complacency, which Steve Hansen will be hoping does not rear its ugly head again.
Maybe the All Blacks thought that the breaking the record for the most number of consecutive wins was the be all and end all, and in a way it was good to see them get a wake-up call. But the blemish will remain on their 2016 season.
Another ugly part of the end of their season was the loss of form of Aaron Smith. After the much-publicised drama in his personal life with the bathroom incident, Smith was given time off by the New Zealand Rugby Union until he sorted his life out. He missed the last three Tests of their record-breaking run, but was brought back by Steve Hansen for the Chicago Test match.
Now there was nothing wrong with the way the All Blacks handled the Aaron Smith saga (they had nothing to do with the media coverage) but Smith was clearly not playing the best rugby he was capable of. However, Hansen persisted with him in both Tests against Ireland, despite the indications being clear that Smith was not up to the task in Chicago and TJ Perenara was a better choice to start.
A final negative I could think of was the staggering amount of penalties conceded by the All Blacks in the later Tests of their 2016 season, especially the ones against Ireland. To add to that, there were quite a few yellow cards for All Blacks too, and one ugly eye gouging incident involving Owen Franks.
The All Blacks, along with rugby players in general, will have to be careful next year as World Rugby gets more stringent with its laws regarding the height of tackles and contact with the head.
Player of the year
This is as clear a choice as any could be. Beauden Barrett has been the most exciting and devastating rugby player on the planet this year, thrilling fans and neutrals alike with his pace and poise, scoring nine Test tries this season, which is astonishing for a fly half.
With one of the greatest turns of pace of any player you will ever see, Barrett has taken his game to a whole new level this season, and he rightfully scooped up the accolade of World Rugby Player of the Year.
If one question mark remains about his game then it’s his kicking from tee, but boy does he make up for that one deficiency in the other areas of the game.
Try of the year
Where to start? They’ve scored 80 tries, it’s almost impossible to choose one. So considering that, I’ll simply give in to bias and choose one scored off a typical All Black counter-attack, a solo effort by Ben Smith, one of my favourites in this team.
An honourable mention would be any of TJ Perenara’s tries against South Africa, Argentina or Ireland – that guy knows how to be on the end of some sweeping moves.
Performance of the year
Once more, it’s extremely difficult to choose just one, but considering how symbolic it was, and just how devastating the result was, I’ll have to pick the Durban Test. Look away now, Springbok fans.
I think it was Kieran Read who spoke about the fact that since the All Blacks win every trophy they compete for anyway, they have to look for new challenges from within to set for themselves. This was before they beat the Wallabies to break the record for most consecutive Test wins.
Now that they met that challenge, one could be left wondering, what’s next? Luckily for the All Blacks, their next significant challenge is their first of the new year (well it’s in June but, oh well) as the British and Irish Lions will tour New Zealand.
The Lions have only won one series in New Zealand and that was way back in 1974, so the All Blacks will be motivated to keep that record as it is. Plus they will be facing a team made up mostly of the side that beat them and the side that nobody beat in 2016.
Will players like Ben Smith be lured away to pastures new by then? We can’t be sure, but we can be sure of one thing – the All Blacks will be ready to face anything in their way.
I’m sure most supporters of most teams will take a season in which their team wins all but one Test, scoring 80 tries in the process and breaking a record for most wins. The All Blacks, and their fans, aren’t like most teams, however.
So was it a successful season? Depends on whether you view the glass as half full (18 wins) or half empty (29-40). I prefer the glass half full.
In the next part, I’ll look at the year from hell suffered by South Africa – and try not to shed a tear in the process.