Sports stories that mattered in 2013 countdown

Last updated 05:00 29/12/2013
Sonny Bill Williams
CENTRE OF ATTENTION: For bad or worse, Sonny Bill Williams was the most talked about man in New Zealand sport, again.

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Reason: Man mountain Matfield still one of best Mehrtens: Beware of Boks as World Cup looms McCaw up off floor and to the fore once again Napier: A test a long time in the making Kemp: Surprise on-form Benji Marshall not in mix Wilson: Boks picked on merit, not quotas Snook: Give Barrett a chance or risk losing him Reason: Tennis is just a game: Let Nishikori live Mehrtens: Refs a blight on international game Bidwell: Warriors nothing more than average

OPINION: In year filled with excellence and controversy, Fairfax reporters countdown the sports stories that mattered most.

ALL BLACKS CHASING PERFECTION - MARC HINTON 

It was the story that kept on giving in 2013. The All Blacks and their quest for perfection was the long-running saga that illuminated the rugby year and kept us interested, intrigued and, frankly, on the edge of our seats right until the final minute, and beyond, of the season.

There's a theory that the middle of the World Cup cycle should be renamed the "Who Cares" years because it's a period largely devoid of interest as national teams re-stock, re-evaluate and rebuild for their shot at the next global crown.

But in 2013 test rugby still mattered. Warren Gatland took his British and Irish Lions to Australia and came away with not only a rare series win (albeit against a cream-puff Wallabies outfit), but his own reputation enhanced when he made the huge - and unpopular - call to drop veteran centre Brian O'Driscoll for the deciding test.

The composite outfit won in a canter, Gatland's ballsy decision was vindicated a thousand times over and the brand that is Lions rugby was given a massive boost. Bring on 2017, I say.

The All Blacks, though, played second fiddle to no one in 2013. The perfect test year had never been done since the game turned professional and schedules became entrenched, and it has been regarded as a Holy Grail ever since John Hart's men of 1997 went so close, a draw on Twickenham in their final test the only blot on their copybook.

So, perfection was the lofty target Steve Hansen and his men set for themselves when they started their 2013 season, on the back of losing just one test - their last - the year before.

The broom came out early as they swept the French 3-0 in June - even with Richie McCaw absent - and stayed out as they also swept the Rugby Championship, culminating in an epic contest at Ellis Park won 38-27 by the All Blacks. It was the test of the decade, maybe even the millennium as the All Blacks survived two sin-binnings and numerous deficits to charge to victory behind an inspired display from No 8 Kieran Read.

The Wallabies were despatched in the dangerous "dead" Bledisloe in Dunedin, and Japan were little more than a speed bump en route to Europe. But then it got decidedly tricky.

The French took the New Zealanders to the brink at Stade de France, and a week later on Twickenham England looked set to repeat their upset of a year previous when they led into the final quarter, only to be hauled in by the fast-finishing Blacks.

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That left Ireland in Dublin to complete the laydown misere. But the Irish most definitely did not lie down, storming to 19-0 early, and still clinging to the lead, 22-17, as the match ticked inside its final minute.

If history was to be made, it was going to take something special. This final chapter would be a dandy.

It was. The All Blacks forced a penalty with just 28 seconds left, then produced a miracle to follow it, conjuring a try to Ryan Crotty 60 metres downfield through a dozen phases and two minutes of near perfect rugby.

But this fairytale, of course, had a twist. Needing the sideline kick to convert a 22-22 draw into a victory, Aaron Cruden's first attempt drifted wide of the right post.

All Black heads dropped. Then lifted again when a re-take was (correctly) ordered. Second time around Cruden fearlessly slotted the kick, and the celebrations began. In a gloriously imperfect final performance, perfection had been achieved.

SBW'S WORLD CUP U-TURN - DAVID LONG

Everyone knows Sonny Bill Williams plays by his own rules. It is something that's caused frustrations among rugby and league coaches for years as they tried to sign him up to long term deals.

But the biggest SBWism of them all came this year when he changed his mind about wanting to play for the Kiwis at the World Cup.

Just hours after tweeting that he was looking forward to taking a break over the summer, Williams was on the phone to Kiwis coach Stephen Kearney telling him that he now fancied spending a couple of months in England and France.

It meant that Kearney had to make a tough call to Tohu Harris, saying something like: "Hey Tohu, you know I said you were coming with us to the World Cup, well guess what..."

While Kearney was criticised for dumping Harris, it was something he had to do.

Williams had an outstanding year back in league, with the Roosters, and could have been the vital ingredient to help the Kiwis retain the World Cup.

As it turned out, while Williams had a good tournament, particularly in the semifinal against England, he couldn't make the difference when they played Australia in the final.

Still, once again he became the man to create all of the headlines before and during a tournament.

BENJI MARSHALL SWITCHES TO THE BLUES - LIAM NAPIER

Can you hear it? The chatter is already mounting.

Super Rugby pre-season interest levels - normally greeted with passing curiosity - will soon reach fever pitch.

Masterton might not be able to cope with the mania.

Everyone in the Wairarapa will clamber to see Benji Marshall's first game of rugby union in 12 years. Imagine that statement 12 months ago. You'd be laughed out the door.

Marshall's progress will be one of the focal points of the new year, taking up column inches and fuelling talkback radio debate.

Whether you believe Marshall will be a successful convert or not, the immense intrigue cannot be denied. For now, opinion is squarely divided.

When Blues coach Sir John Kirwan made his ambitious sales pitch to Marshall's manager, Martin Tauber, in Sydney in June, few believed there would be a follow through. Just another pie-in-the-sky plot, some suggested.

Immediately, though, it was front-page news. For the next two months speculation raged about the former Kiwis captain. Would he stay with the Wests Tigers, make the bold move to the Melbourne Rebels, Japan, France or Blues?

In terms of profile, only Sonny Bill Williams comes close to grabbing the same headlines. Throughout his coveted league career Marshall was in hot demand. For many years he was the face of the NRL. No mean feat - a proud New Zealander dominating, and being fully embraced by, an Australian-based competition.

Fans will flock to Eden Park when the Blues host the Crusaders in their first home game in round three. Not for Richie McCaw, Kieran Read, Israel Dagg, Steven Luatua or Ma'a Nonu, but for a close up inspection of Marshall's ability.

This is a story that will keep on giving. From his pay cut in excess of $300,000 to Marshall's desire to play for the All Blacks and possibly chase an Olympic Games sevens gold medal, the expectations on Marshall's homecoming are intense.

HAWKE'S BAY END THEIR SHIELD DROUGHT - BEN STANLEY

Sure, it didn't have consequences on a socio-political scale. Nor did it come close to the year's truest definition of sporting courage, or theatre.

But if the Hawke's Bay Magpies were your favourite sporting team, as they are mine, that dramatic encounter with Otago at Dunedin's indoor stadium on September 1 was your first, last and forever enduring sporting story of 2013. For 44 years, we had waited to get our mitts on the Ranfurly Shield; a trophy that harked back to the glory days of the union, and names like Kel Tremain, Blair Furlong, Hepa Paewai and Neil Thimbleby.

Finally, the drought broke in Dunedin, in one of the year's most thrilling games of rugby. Winger Telusa Veainu scored an early try for Hawke's Bay, before Ihaia West's stunning 60-metre individual effort after half-time proved the true anchor for the win.

Otago made it close at the end, and should have claimed late victory but for a missed Hayden Parker conversion attempt. The final seconds were dramatic, but when Magpies No 8 Mark Abbott charged down a Parker drop goal attempt, that was it.

The ghosts of men in black and white hoops on top of New Zealand rugby were put to bed, and a new generation claimed the throne.

Sure, we lost it to Counties six days later, but memories of Magpies holding the beloved Log will last this proud fan a lifetime.

AUSSIE CRACKDOWN ON DRUGS AND CRIME - SIMON PLUMB

"The Blackest day in Australian sport" heralded the news headlines. February plunged one of the world's proudest sporting nations into a sweeping integrity crisis - the aftermath of which is still ongoing 10 months later.

A year-long Australian Crime Commission investigation concluded doping was widespread across the Tasman, and that those taking banned substances had links to organised crime and may even have led to match-fixing.

Speculation over the identities of guilty parties spread like wildfire, with one of the main strands the probe of a nutritional supplements programme run at Essendon Football Club.

Former Essendon sport scientist Stephen Dank refused to be interviewed by Asada after he was linked to the wider drugs in sport probe - but insisted he had done nothing wrong.

Dank had also worked with NRL club the Cronulla Sharks - who two weeks ago were hit with massive penalties in the latest instalment of the saga.

The NRL issued the Sharks with a $1 million fine, a year ban for coach Shane Flanagan and an indefinite ban for trainer Trent Elkin.

Elkin, a former strength and conditioning coach, said he personally injected Sharks players with supplements despite being unqualified. Flanagan was declared to have "failed to ensure a safe and healthy work environment" and "failed to properly supervise the head of strength and conditioning". Both men have until January 15 to respond to the provisional findings.

- Sunday Star Times

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