As always we start the New Year looking back over the past twelve months and handing out our verdict on the top ten teams. We also look at Canada, and a first for this year the USA and Georgia. We try to figure out what they got out of the year on a score out of ten. We start off in the Americas looking at our own backyard, then move South of the Equator to the “Big Three”. We then journey back North in July to look at the Six Nations Competitors as the Northern Hemisphere season ends.
We’ll be the first to admit it’s completely subjective based on what we saw and where in our humble opinions it leaves the teams heading into 2018. We highlight the match we most enjoyed from each of the teams and we try to pick the player who made the greatest contribution to their national cause in 2017. We also choose a player that we feel is most likely to catch the eye in 2018. So take from it what you will but without any further ado let’s get into it in part 7 where we once more head South of the Equator and take a look at how New Zealand fared.
New Zealand – 8/10
It was not the New Zealand we have been accustomed to seeing over the last few years, and as a result some may be surprised at us marking them so high. Nevertheless, the results still speak for themselves – 15 Tests, one loss, one draw and 13 wins. While they may have looked shaky at times and far from their ruthless best, they still ended the year as the team everyone still wants to and needs to beat. Although some of those wins may have been close, there is no getting away from the fact that the All Blacks are still the best in the world at closing out big games. They remain the ultimate 80 minute team and as a result it is going to take a very special team to beat them with any degree of consistency. New Zealand also managed, more than any other team in International Rugby in 2017, to determine what kind of depth they had in their talent pools to the point where they can consistently field two world-class match day 23 man squads. Something most Coaches can only dream of!
New Zealand got their year off to a flying start with a warmup match against Samoa prior to the much-anticipated Lions Tour in June. Samoa had no answers to a completely clinical performance from New Zealand that saw them pick up from where they left off in 2016.
The Lions Tour was eagerly anticipated by rugby fans around the globe, ourselves included. While some may question the validity of Lions Tours in an increasingly professional age, there is no doubt that they remain a huge draw as one of the sports most intense spectacles. With French rugby very much in disarray these days, Lions Tours are very much a case of the best in the Northern Hemisphere versus the Southern Hemisphere’s big 3.
New Zealand started the series well with an emphatic win in the opening Test. In the second Test a red card against Sonny Bill Williams for some reckless and dangerous play, saw the All Blacks have to play with 14 men for the last hour of an intensely physical battle. The Lions played their man advantage well and despite some superb play by New Zealand, the All Blacks would record their first loss on home soil since 2009. As a result it was all to play for in the third and final Test. We’ll probably be still debating the result of the last Test which for many ended in an unsatisfying draw, which also meant the series was drawn between the two sides. However, what a Test match it was! New Zealand would be the only side to get across the whitewash, but some heroic defence by New Zealand would be just enough to keep a Lions side away from the try line despite some intense pressure from the Northern Hemisphere tourists. It was a thrilling contest but one which also showed that as good as New Zealand are the rest of the world is starting to catch up fast.
The Rugby Championship saw New Zealand really experiment with new players and combinations. Consequently, while they may not have looked as polished as we are accustomed they still managed to finish the Championship unbeaten. In the opening match against Australia, they blew the Wallabies away 40-6 by half time. However, they appeared to take their foot off the gas in the second half which allowed the Wallabies to come blazing back into contention. The next Test in Dunedin, saw the Wallabies come charging out of the blocks and catch New Zealand completely off guard. The All Blacks were clearly rattled and struggling to find their rhythm against a Wallaby team growing in confidence. Once more though it was those final twenty minutes where New Zealand once more showed how good they are at turning the tide in their favor. With Australia leading by one point and two minutes to go, New Zealand struck the killer blow and stole a win that had looked far from certain.
Their next two matches at home to Argentina and South Africa, saw them get a comfortable win against the Pumas and a record victory against their greatest traditional rivals the Springboks. Their initial difficulties in asserting any kind of control over proceedings as seen in the second Test against the Wallabies were repeated in the game against the Pumas. Argentina got the better of the All Blacks in the first half and found themselves 16-15 ahead at half time. New Zealand looked out of sorts in the opening exchanges and made a host of uncharacteristic errors. Again though they settled into their groove in the second half, and once they hit their stride left the Pumas behind as mere spectators in the match for the final twenty minutes. In doing so, they put some spectacular new talent on show that served to demonstrate how much depth there really is in New Zealand as they start to look towards the World Cup in Japan in 2019.
It was the match against South Africa, where the New Zealand we are all used to seeing showed itself once more. The All Blacks destroyed the Springboks in a clinical display for a full eighty minutes. While it was a poor performance from South Africa, the ruthlessness with which New Zealand took the Springboks apart was breathtaking. South Africa were simply allowed no purchase whatsoever on the game, and as the final whistle blew the Springboks found themselves on the wrong end of a 57-0 scoreline.
New Zealand then headed out on a road trip that would see them away from home for almost two months. They travelled first to Australia to finish the last of the three annual Bledisloe Cup matches. Although they had won the Cup, they seemed unprepared for the ferocity of the Australian challenge in Brisbane. Australia were the more aggressive of the two sides and their defence was outstanding. Despite a concerted onslaught by New Zealand, as we have come to expect from them in the final twenty minutes, the All Blacks just couldn’t get the extra points needed to snatch victory at the death.
They arrived in Europe and at times looked weary. In their first proper Test against France there were moments where they looked less than polished despite ultimately recording a comfortable win by 38-18. Once again though the French caught them napping in the first twenty minutes of the second half, and it was only some stellar defence from the Men in Black that put the brakes on a rampant French challenge. It was the Test against Scotland where they perhaps got their biggest scare of the year. In short, Scotland were the better side especially in the second half and it was some last gasp defence in the dying minute of the match that saw New Zealand deny Scotland a historic win. New Zealand’s last effort of the year against Wales, saw them looking tired but not overly troubled by a courageous Welsh challenge. In the end it was a comfortable win for the All Blacks to end a year in which they had tested the depth of their resources. Coach Steve Hansen and Kiwi supporters were clearly pleased with the results of their research.
It had been a roller coaster ride for New Zealand in 2017 with some very close shaves at times, but overall they came out of the whole process looking in fine mettle despite the disappointing result of the Lions series. There is depth across the park in most positions and their individual skill levels remain off the charts. Add to that some outstanding new talent that seems to have bedded nicely into the side in 2017, and it has clearly been a productive year for the All Blacks.
However, structurally New Zealand are clearly not as tight as they have been in seasons gone by. Furthermore, opposition sides are catching up to them at a rate of knots as we draw closer to the World Cup in Japan in 2019. Questions also remain about depth in the fly half position. There seems to be no clearly defined understudy to the current holder of the number ten jersey Beauden Barrett for New Zealand. This has been compounded recently by the most likely candidate Lima Sopoaga leaving New Zealand to play in England and thus making him ineligible for the World Cup. With Aaron Cruden also departed to France and faced with the same restrictions, Coach Steve Hansen’s conundrum over this position is no clearer. Given that this is such a key position in New Zealand’s overall game plan the lack of clarity here must be a concern. Even if there is a plan brewing, there is alarmingly little time to finesse it with just over 18 months to the World Cup.
In conclusion, they are still the side who everyone else will measure themselves against, but there are some vulnerabilities that will need to be addressed during the course of 2018 as New Zealand fine tune their player base for the World Cup.
Match of the year – New Zealand vs South Africa – September 17th – Albany – New Zealand 57/South Africa.
South Africa may have been poor, but they were still riding the wave of confidence that five wins on the trot will give a Test side. New Zealand’s brutal dismantling of that confidence was incredible to watch. It was a complete performance that left Springbok rugby as a whole in tatters. It is this kind of clinical ruthlessness that still makes New Zealand so difficult to beat especially if they build up a healthy lead in the first quarter. Playing catchup rugby against the All Blacks is never going to work. When, as in this match, New Zealand completely deny the opposition any kind of traction in the game whatsoever then it is breathtaking to watch. If New Zealand address some of the concerns they exposed during the course of 2017 expect more scorelines like this in 2018!
Player of the year – Beauden Barrett
His goal kicking may have been erratic on occasion this year, and at times he didn’t quite have the polish of his 2016 season, but there is no denying that Barrett had an enormous say in New Zealand’s impressive win rate in 2017. On more than one occasion it was his vision and skill set that would dig the All Blacks out of a tight corner. Even with some of his mistakes this year, he is still arguably the best fly half in Test rugby. His ability to remain calm under pressure and create something out of nothing is second to none. Expect more of the same in 2018.
Player to watch in 2018 – Rieko Ioane
New Zealand’s find of the year in 2017! From his debut in the first Lions Test, the winger lit up the pitch and continued to do so for the rest of the year. As a result he made the once phenomenal Julian Savea fade into relative obscurity. Blessed with some dazzling feet and deceptively strong and difficult to bring down, Ioane is going to be causing opposition defences nightmares in 2018!
We end this report card with highlights from New Zealand’s epic 57-0 drubbing of the Springboks during the Rugby Championship. South Africa may have been poor but New Zealand’s sheer technical competence and skill level was a sight to behold. We expect to see more rather than less of this kind of performance in 2018, as the experimentation New Zealand underwent in 2018 translates into a more finished product. The rest of the world has been warned!
To be continued in July – up next Italy!