The All Blacks have treated us to some scintillating displays of rugby this year, and shown beyond any reasonable level of doubt just why they are the number one ranked side in the world. Whether it was swatting aside the challenge of the French in the summer, cruising to another Rugby Championship title, or pulling off gutsy wins throughout the QBE Internationals, New Zealand have continued to deliver time after time in 2013.
Going undefeated throughout an entire calendar year is truly some achievement, and after coming excruciatingly close to that goal in 2012, they finally achieved it this year, wrapping up their season with the most dramatic of wins in Dublin. Given that a usually testing trip to Argentina to take on the Pumas was arguably their easiest game of the year (the Pumas performed much more admirably in New Zealand), just adds further gloss to this momentous task. Given that the core of this current side were responsible for ending New Zealand’s 24-year wait for a second Rugby World Cup, this season has served to further embellish their legend, and they now surely stand atop the great pantheon of All Black sides throughout history.
It’s hard to single out a disappointment in a year when New Zealand won all 14 of their tests, but a (relatively) lacklustre series of performance in the autumn internationals are probably the most fitting candidates. France were competitive with New Zealand throughout their game and should have perhaps done better, England were within reach of another famous win at Twickenham but came up short at the end, whilst the less said of Ireland allowing a 19-point lead to slip through their fingers at the Aviva, the better. The composure, determination, and self-belief of New Zealand to still win these games is impressive in itself, but there is no denying that they did not play with the same ‘joie de vivre’ and clinical nature (outside of their comeback against Ireland) that they did earlier in the year.
Player of the Year
A real no-brainer here, as Kieran Read has been the standout player in world rugby this year, not just New Zealand, and was duly rewarded with the IRB Player of the Year award. Read laid down a marker, not only as the world’s premiere number eight, a fairly remarkable achievement in its own right given that Sergio Parisse and Duane Vermeulen are also currently playing to a very high standard, but as the favourite to take over as the All Black captain, when Richie McCaw finally decides to hang up his boots. You could fill an entire highlight reel just with Read’s offloads this year, but his fantastic work at the breakdown, in defence, and as a ball carrier are all just as effective components to his game, and the man has stood head and shoulders above even his exceptional international teammates.
Emerging Player of the Year
Brodie Retallick may have made his debut for New Zealand in 2012, but in 2013 he established himself as one of the outstanding young second rows in world rugby, alongside Eben Etzebeth and Joe Launchbury. Retallick may not have the physical edge to his game of Etzebeth, or the athleticism of Launchbury, but the All Black has just as much promise, if not more, as either of those players. At 6”8 and 19 stone, Retallick is the perfect foil to the slightly more nimble Sam Whitelock in the New Zealand engine room. Retallick now has his place in the New Zealand side well and truly cemented, and he should go from strength to strength as he looks to develop into the world’s best all-round lock.
What to expect in 2014
Whilst it is true that many of New Zealand’s stars are in the twilight of their careers – think Messrs McCaw, Carter, Nonu, Mealamu, Smith, and Woodcock – coach Steve Hansen is doing a very successful job of seamlessly integrating the new generation of players, something which will continue into next year. Northern Hemisphere sides have long struggled with this ‘passing of the torch’ to the next generation, but Hansen’s handling of it with New Zealand has been almost above reproach, and the All Blacks have not allowed it to hinder their performances in the slightest. Although another undefeated season may be unlikely, with South Africa and England in particular having a number of chances next year to rectify their recent close losses to New Zealand, the All Blacks will most likely enjoy another fruitful season next year. With a host of future stars waiting in the wings for New Zealand, spearheaded by the likes of Steven Luatua, Aaron Cruden, TJ Perenara, Charles Piutau and Sam Cane, the future is certainly bright for the All Blacks.
by Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images