All Blacks had good - but not great - season
OPINION: This was a very good year for the All Blacks - just not the great one it promised to be at the end of the inaugural Rugby Championship.
After the All Blacks followed up their sweep of the Irish with a 6-0 run through the first edition of the expanded Sanzar competition, it all looked so promising. The perfect year was on - since rugby turned professional, no one had won every game in a calendar year - and the world-record winning streak of 17 (or 18 if you count the mark set by Lithuania) was within touching distance.
When Steve Hansen's side rolled through La Plata and Johannesburg to complete the clean sweep of the Rugby Championship, their streak stood at 16.
But instead of ending with the flourish many predicted, the first season of the Hansen era limped across the finishing line. First there was a tired looking 18-18 draw with the Wallabies in Brisbane, with All Blacks tryless for the first time in eight years.
Then, at the end of a northern tour dogged by controversy over ill-discipline on the field, Richie McCaw and his men found a struggling England side at Twickenham a bridge too far. They were played off the park as the English secured another of those famous victories over the All Blacks they manage around once a decade.
That reinforced a much-needed message for the rest of world rugby - these New Zealanders are not the indomitable force their publicity sometimes paints them as.
In the end that was the inescapable conclusion from a year that was good, at times very good, but not quite great.
Hansen's All Blacks are a fine side, possibly even better than the 2011 edition that won the World Cup. But they are still searching for the all-round game that will elevate them to true greatness.
That should not detract from a mostly meritorious year. There was no World Cup hangover, as there has been for a good many previous champions, and McCaw held true to his word that a dropoff would not occur on his watch.
To sweep the four-nation Championship was a huge achievement, and though the All Blacks continued to deliver performances that were frustratingly imperfect, they continued to win.
They were good enough to find their way through difficult nights against the Pumas in Wellington and Springboks in Dunedin, following back-to-back victories over the Wallabies.
They then produced their best rugby of the competition on the road, thrashing Argentina in La Plata with a breakout attacking display, and outlasting the Springboks in a high-quality encounter in Soweto via 20 unanswered second-half points. Earlier, the home series against the Irish had been predictably swept. There had been some anxious moments in Christchurch where a late Dan Carter dropped goal salvaged a scarcely deserved victory, before a breathtaking nine-try display in Hamilton provided the punctuation mark.
So, what of the 2012 All Blacks? How to grade them? Eight-and-a-half out of 10 seems fair.
They were very good defensively, and their strength in this area meant they were almost always in control of games, even when struggling for fluency on attack.
Hansen introduced nine new All Blacks - Aaron Smith, Brodie Retallick, Julian Savea, Sam Cane, Beauden Barrett, Luke Romano, Charlie Faumuina, Dane Coles and Tawera Kerr-Barlow - and while he still has plenty of experience in his squad, the process of regeneration has at least started.
Savea was the find of the season, though Aaron Smith's crisp passing at halfback was also a delight.
Liam Messam was the comeback king, and Romano wins the late-bloomer award.
Carter was judged the IRB's international player of the year, but true watchers of the All Blacks understand that was a poor decision.
McCaw had some inspirational tests and was a fabulous leader, while Cory Jane never wavered from his unerring high standard on the right wing.
Conrad Smith and Tony Woodcock were also key figures in most matches, though you could not go past Kieran Read for the most influential figure of the year.
Like the All Blacks in general, the big No 8 let himself down by taking his eye off the ball at Twickenham. It was that sort of year. Not quite as good as we thought it might be, but pretty damn satisfying nonetheless.
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