Thursday December 24, 2009
By tvnz.co.nz's rugby reporter Chris Matthews
Source: ONE Sport
Two years out from the 2011 rugby World Cup in New Zealand and the All Blacks re-emerged in familiar territory.
They once again finished on top of the IRB standings, for the fifth time in the seven years since their inception, however, as we all know, the year was far from perfect.
The All Blacks dropped four of 14 Test matches for their worst return since 1998 and it was the only the successful end of year tour to Japan and Europe, where Graham Henry's side surged to five consecutive Test wins, that kept the naysayers at bay.
Of biggest concern for a squad, that will attempt to get New Zealand's hand on the holy grail of rugby in less than 24 months time, is the emergence of the world champion Springboks as a true bogey team.
The South Africans surged to three Test wins over the All Blacks this year and in doing so reclaimed the Tri Nations title that they last held in 2004.
The world champion's exposure of the All Blacks vacillating lineout dominated headlines' throughout the Tri Nations and only a bizarre coach rotation on the end of year tour ironed out the confusion.
Henry's side was also unable to adapt to the paradigm shift in the modern game as the Springboks mastered the up-and-under chase stratagem with ruthless precision.
While the All Blacks floundered under these tactics, the common man also switched off as the IRB's reversal on some of the contentious ELVs translated into a humdrum spectacle.
But more distressing than the ever changing evolution of the game is the eternal old question: What would the All Blacks do without their two lynchpins - Richie McCaw and Daniel Carter?
In three of the four Tests losses Carter was an absentee while McCaw was also notably missing from the first Test of the All Blacks 2009 campaign as the demons of Cardiff 2007 resurfaced in Dunedin on a dark June night.
The unpredictable French arrived on these shores given little hope of repeating the unthinkable but they out-hustled an All Blacks side for a famous 27-22 victory .
Fullback Mils Muliaina became the All Blacks 64th Test captain in that Test and a week later he and his side gained a semblance of redemption with a hard-fought 14-10 win on a wet and windy Wellington night.
The Italians were then dismissed in a forgettable June Test before the All Blacks began their Tri Nations campaign.
While Henry's men continued their dominance over the Wallabies, with four Test wins to easily retain the Bledisloe Cup, the Springboks were the undisputed Southern Hemisphere force in 2009 as they dropped just one Tri Nations Test to Australia.
Before their Tri Nations glories, the South Africans also put to bed the demons of 1997 with a 2-1 series victory over the British and Irish Lions in what was arguably the most compelling rugby 2009 had to offer.
By the end of the season however the Springboks were a different beast as the tiring world champions dropped two Tests, to France and Ireland, on their end of year tour to relinquish their number one ranking.
The All Blacks though continued their dominant Northern Hemisphere form of the past two years as they swept aside all before them without conceding a try and thankfully their season finally reached perfection in their last Test of the season, a magical 39-12 demolition of the French in Marseille .
The All Blacks season ended with a largely second string side going down to a Bryan Habana inspired Baa-baas side by 25-18 but nevertheless 2009 produced many positives as numerous players climbed from the fringe Test category to being key figures.
Most notable was workhorse Canterbury loose-forward Kieran Read who played in all 13 Tests to supersede Rodney So'oialo as the All Blacks first choice number eight.
Other relatively new players to stamp their mark included Cory Jane, Zac Guildford, Adam Thomson, Tom Donnelly and Owen Franks while Conrad Smith, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Jimmy Cowan, Brad Thorn, Andrew Hore and Muliaina only enhanced their growing reputations.
On the other hand, Joe Rokocoko's dramatic fall from grace was confirmed when he was left out of the end of year tour squad.
The All Blacks third all time leading try scorer was unable to adapt to the all-round modern day demands of a wing three-quarter as fullback-cum-wingers like Jane and Otago's Ben Smith were preferred.
Stephen Donald too was found wanting as a Test quality first five-eighth as Carter recovered from an Achilles heal injury in the early part of the Test itinerary. By the end of the season, Bay of Plenty's Mike Delany had overtaken him as the All Blacks preferred second choice and now Donald's Test prospects are looking uncertain for 2010.
Donald however will be hoping he can resurrect his form that led the Chiefs all the way to the Super 14 final.
The perpetual under-achievers overcame another slow start to roar into the semi-finals where they defeated the Hurricanes, before running into a Blue brick wall in the Super 14 final in Pretoria .
The 2008 Champion Crusaders, in their first season without super coach Robbie Deans, surprised many by making the semi-finals before going down to the eventual champions while the Blues and Highlanders finished ninth and eleventh respectively.
The Canterbury machine however did defend their Air NZ Cup title despite losing the Ranfurly Shield to Southland just weeks earlier. Indeed Southland's Shield victory was the feel good rugby story of the year as the city of Invercargill embraced the Log O' Wood with true lustre.
This sentiment spread to many provincial corners throughout the country during the Air NZ Cup as the NZRU threatened to cull four teams from the 2010 edition.
But with overwhelming public backing for the retention of 14 teams and with the threat of law-suits, the NZRU made an almighty U-turn and retained the status quo for the second year in a row.
However the blueprint for a two seven team divisions for 2011 has been outlined by the NZRU and New Zealand Players Association with a firm decision expected in the New Year.
Three of the stars of the Air NZ Cup this season - Aaron Cruden, Zac Guildford and Robbie Robinson - earlier helped the New Zealand under-20 side to the world title in Japan.
The year was unfortunately bitter-sweet for Guildford however as his father tragically passed away while watching his son score two tries in the final.
The 20-year-old sensation though was deservedly named the young player of the year at the rugby awards while the irrepressible McCaw added a third Kelvin R Tremain Memorial Player of the Year award to his mounting mantelpiece.
The All Blacks captain was also named the IRB player of the year for the second time this decade but there is little doubt that he swap would all his individual accolades for a taste of World Cup glory.