Sport, best of the year: 4 The All Blacks

By David Leggat

There has been a tendency to belittle the All Blacks' achievements this year.

The whisper has been, "Yes, but look at the opposition."

That's not the All Blacks' fault. They can only play, and beat, those put in front of them.

The Lions, preceded by grossly overblown hype, were a massive disappointment; Australia are ailing (certainly by comparison with the past 10 years), and of the Grand Slam opponents only England came to play.

The record tells its own story. Played 12, won 11, lost one. The Tri-Nations trophy and Bledisloe Cup in the cupboard and a second Grand Slam completed.

The sole defeat came at Cape Town on August 7, the All Blacks' opening Tri-Nations match. The coaching staff have admitted they got the preparation wrong, some players had too long a break after the Lions series, and the bosses have learned. We shall see next year.

After dismissing a sub-standard Fiji, the Lions arrived as the most eagerly anticipated tourists in years.

But the All Blacks laid the foundation for the year with a superb display in just about the foulest conditions imaginable at Jade Stadium, winning 21-3.

They won just as comfortably at Wellington 48-18, with Daniel Carter producing one of the great first five-eighth displays, and rounded the series off 38-19 at Eden Park.

Australia were comfortably defeated in Sydney, after a hiccup in the opening quarter; South Africa were beaten, just, in a desperately tight, rugged battle at Carisbrook before Australia were seen off, despite a third-quarter wobble, to clinch the Tri-Nations.

Wales and Ireland were not up to the job, but England might have pinched a win at Twickenham in a good, old-fashioned dogfight.

It was not a day for Flash Harry razzle-dazzle, and the contest was the better for it. The day was won, 23-19, and the hugs of sheer relief told a vivid story.

The win over the Scots was ordinary, but the occasion might yet mark the end of the All Black captain Tana Umaga who is, as they say, mulling his options.

It was a year of talent-spotting as the selectors sifted through the candidates with their eyes on the 2007 World Cup. Some will be back next year, some probably won't.

The star turns? Carter, the indefatigable Richie McCaw, wing Rico Gear, hard man Jerry Collins, resurgent lock Ali Williams and tough props Carl Hayman and Tony Woodcock.

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