OPINION: The All Blacks will be stewing over the season- ending loss to England but that result doesn't suddenly make 2012 a bad year.
In fact, I'd argue that as a whole, everyone in New Zealand rugby would have to be very happy with the way the year has played out.
Looking back over the season, the All Blacks managed to side-step the drop-off in performance that so often comes in the wake of World Cup victory. In many areas they actually improved their performance levels.
The year started superbly with the Chiefs' historic Super Rugby title and just got better.
The All Blacks introduced some exciting new players to their ranks and squeezed a bit more out of some of their established stars.
Financially there was some good news as well. On the back of a better than expected World Cup operating budget, the New Zealand Rugby Union secured the short to medium-term future of the game with their significant sponsorship deal with AIG.
Amidst all that, the All Blacks brand soared to greater heights through both performance and exposure.
Winning the best player, team and coach gongs at the IRB awards summed it up really.
So let's have a look at some of the key ingredients.
There was no shortage of options with 12 victories in a busy year that saw the All Blacks play 14 tests. The 60-nil blitzing of Ireland was extraordinary at times and it doesn't come much better than blanking the Wallabies as New Zealand did with their 22-nil win to secure the Bledisloe Cup at Eden Park. A 54-15 scoreline against the Pumas in Argentina to secure the inaugural Rugby Championship was pretty special, too. But I thought the 32-16 slamming of the Springboks in Soweto stood out as the best win of the year. Travel- weary and down 16-12 at the break, the All Blacks went up another gear in the second half with a sublime 40 minutes to hammer home their world champion status. I guess the only question mark over the year would be whether the All Blacks have really moved on as much as we think or have the opposition dropped back a bit? I suspect a little bit of both but let's revel in their achievements for now.
Dan Carter may have got the nod from the IRB as the world's best player this year but, for my money, Richie McCaw was the best All Black on display. There were some big question marks over McCaw in the wake of the World Cup. Having achieved everything, where was his motivation? Time appeared to be creeping up on him and the news that he was being given a lengthy sabbatical only increased that. Yet McCaw defied everything to play as well as ever. In fact, free of the foot injury that handicapped his World Cup campaign, his performance levels went up. He was an inspirational leader to the All Blacks and a player who continued to frustrate his opponents who resorted to cheap shots.
Hats off to the selectors for injecting so much new blood into a champion team and all the youngsters seem to contribute to the team's ongoing success. But halfback Aaron Smith stood out as a hugely influential addition. It's not uncommon for young players to come in and make their mark. But it is unusual for a team like the All Blacks to adjust their game to suit an unproven talent. But that's basically what they did with Smith, whose speed of service brought another dimension to the All Blacks attack. They decided the best way to try to lift their performance from the World Cup was to play a fast and furious game and they saw Smith as the man to be the hinge between the power of the forwards and the pace of the backs. He looked comfortable in his new surroundings.
There was only one loss in the year so that has to go to England with their surprising win at Twickenham to end the All Blacks' hopes of an unbeaten year. The manner of the win was commendable, with England bringing a really positive approach and then executing it with rare precision. There were some mitigating circumstances, though. They caught the All Blacks at the end of a long year and McCaw's men had also been laid low by mass illness during the week. It was a combination of the All Blacks being a bit off their game and England playing above themselves that led to a stunning upset. I don't believe England will be able to repeat the likes of this with any real consistency.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen won everyone over with the style and success of his team. But it was his personality transformation that impressed just as much, especially for a media pack who had previously perceived him to have a lack of charm. Hansen looked comfortable in the job and I liked the way he handled the loss to England. He offered no excuses, least of all the illness, and simply took it on the chin. Challenges never disappear when you are the All Blacks coach and Hansen faces a few as he tracks on towards the defence of the World Cup. Sooner or later he's going to have to make some big calls on older players who have been very close to him. He's already acknowledged that with the new wave of talent he has brought in and by anointing Kieran Read as the heir apparent to McCaw.
- Taine Randell is a former All Blacks captain
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