Black year for rugby

By Mitch Phillips of Reuters reviews the international rugby year

LONDON - New Zealand stood astride 2005 like a black-clad rugby colossus, sweeping all before them in unprecedented dominance of the global game.

In winning 11 of their 12 test matches, the All Blacks completed a series whitewash of the British and Irish Lions, reclaimed the Tri-nations title, retained the Bledisloe Cup and finished off with a grand slam European tour.

First five-eighths Dan Carter was rightly acclaimed the sport's best player by both the International Rugby Board (IRB) and the players' union while Graham Henry was unsurprisingly named coach of the year.

It was all fitting reward for a team playing a brand of high-speed, high-intensity, high-skill rugby at which the rest of the world could only marvel.

However, New Zealand's other notable victory this year, securing hosting rights for the 2011 rugby World Cup, was the wrong sort of black mark for the game.

After years of lip-service about the need to expand rugby's horizons, the people representing the traditional powers chose to ignore the claims of Japan and the chance to move the event to Asia for the first time.

The decision, made by an IRB council weighted ridiculously in favour of the main European and southern hemisphere nations, was widely criticised.

On the pitch New Zealand deserved everything they got.

They began their year with a 91-0 destruction of Fiji, a warm-up for the Lions series that obviously did the job.

The Lions, with England's World Cup-winning coach Clive Woodward, arrived in New Zealand seeking only their second series win. Despite travelling with their biggest-ever squad and an army of coaching and back-up staff they never looked remotely capable of matching the heroics of 1971.

Some of Woodward's selections were baffling but there was bad luck too when captain Brian O'Driscoll was dumped out of the series in the first minute of the first test by a controversial spear tackle that dogged All Black captain Tana Umaga for the rest of the year.

New Zealand won the first test 21-3 and then really reached the heights in the second as Carter produced a consummate all-round display to score 33 points in a 48-18 victory.

The clean sweep was duly completed but the All Black procession was jolted in their opening Tri-nations match when South Africa inflicted a 22-16 defeat in Cape Town, their only loss of the year.

Three more wins, however, secured the Tri-nations title.

The All Blacks arrived in Europe to mark the centenary of their first tour with Henry claiming a grand slam was secondary to developing a squad for the 2007 World Cup.

True to his word he used 30 different starters in opening wins over Wales and Ireland. Only against England, in a titanic Twickenham battle, did he feel the need to field his best team.

After all the excitement generated by their quicksilver backs, it was defensive obduracy that won the day against the world champions as, down to 14 men for the last 23 minutes, they held out for a 23-19 win.

Their second slam, 27 years after the first, was completed against Scotland but for the modern All Black fan the achievement will become a mere footnote if the team fail to follow up by winning the 2007 World Cup.

Wales regain pride

It was also a memorable year for Wales, whose fans regained their pride and whose team rediscovered their ability to play the sort of exciting rugby that was the hallmark of their glory days of the early 1970s.

Wales won the Six Nations for the first time since 1994 and the grand slam for the first time in 27 years but it was the effervescent, exciting nature of their play that gladdened the heart.

Their astonishing 24-18 victory over France in Paris featured one of the sport's great comebacks and the grand slam decider against an Ireland team who had also won their first three games produced an atmosphere that will live long in the hearts of the 72,000 at the Millennium Stadium.

England struggled as new coach Andy Robinson battled to overcome the loss of many of his World Cup stalwarts.

Defeats by Wales, Ireland and France left them an unaccustomed fourth in the Six Nations, though the green shoots of recovery were evident in November with victories over Australia and Samoa.

Australia signed off with a defeat in Cardiff that represented their eighth in nine games, led to the sacking of coach Eddie Jones and left a cloud over the future of captain George Gregan, who overhauled former England prop Jason Leonard to become the game's most capped player with 118 appearances.

France was the dominant force in European club rugby, providing three semi-finalists in the Heineken Cup as Toulouse completed an unprecedented hat-trick of victories with a dour extra-time victory over Stade Francais in the Edinburgh final.

The Crusaders won the last Super 12 title -- it expands to Super 14 next year -- beating the Waratahs in Christchurch to take the honours for the fifth time.

- REUTERS

Stats provided by

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a4 at 18 Sep 2014 07:00:38 Processing Time: 683ms