Review: All Blacks find redemption after successful 2008

By Daniel Gilhooly

World Cup? What World Cup.

Such sentiment would have been unimaginable a year ago but the shocking failure of 2007 seemed forgotten by most All Blacks followers as this rugby year wound up.

The nation's flagship sporting team won 13 of a record 15 tests, extended their long ownership of both the Bledisloe Cup and Tri-Nations Trophy, swept aside allcomers on their season-ending tour and reclaimed the world No 1 ranking.

Redemption had replaced rotation and reconditioning as the buzzword by the end of 2008.

Certainly, the only way was up for coach Graham Henry and captain Richie McCaw, who were both painted as villains in an independent review into the World Cup campaign which wasn't unveiled until April.

For the negative stewing to end, Henry had to turn a new-look team - a chunk of his best players had been lured overseas - into instant winners. And he had to come to grips with a phalanx of new laws that had sped the game up several notches.

The usual June wins came and went, out-hustling Ireland 21-11 at a freezing Wellington before thumping a poor English side 37-20 at Auckland and 44-12 in Christchurch.

England's tour will be remembered more for the allegations of sexual assault surrounding four of the tourists at their Auckland hotel.

As usual the intensity ramped up noticeably for the Tri-Nations where the All Blacks opened with a 19-8 defeat of South Africa in Wellington before cracks began to appear in Henry's raw-looking squad.

No more so than on the openside flank where an injured McCaw was missed in consecutive losses to the Springboks and Wallabies.

McCaw's playing influence is enormous - he won 26 of the 28 games he played at all levels in 2008 - but his leadership has also grown.

Both elements were missing in the last-minute 28-30 loss to the Springboks at Carisbrook, ending New Zealand's world record 30-test winning run on home soil.

Two weeks later the Wallabies enjoyed a thumping 34-19 win in Sydney, an emphatic result that prompted a rousing "told you so" from Robbie Deans' supporters.

Crusaders legend and new Australian coach Deans, they said, should never have been passed over for Henry's job.

A stung All Blacks delivered the perfect response a week later in Auckland, with McCaw's return and a renewed emphasis on kicking dealing a 39-10 reversal on the Wallabies.

New Zealand's most impressive win was the 19-0 whitewash of world champions South Africa in Cape Town, keeping the Springboks scoreless on home soil for the first time in 105 years.

A meaningless 101-14 massacre of Samoa in New Plymouth was followed by a thrilling 28-24 defeat of Australia in Brisbane, the comeback performance securing the Bledisloe Cup with a test remaining.

That "fourth" test was a contrived fixture in Hong Kong, sold as a chance to spread the rugby gospel in Asia but in all reality a cash cow for the New Zealand and Australian unions.

A 19-14 win dovetailed into the All Blacks' successful Grand Slam tour of Great Britain and Ireland - an expedition where only an historic midweek fixture against Munster threatened to derail Henry's men.

A last-minute Joe Rokocoko try took the second-string New Zealand side to an 18-16 win, broke local hearts and meant no repeat of the famous boilover 30 years earlier.

The Home Union tests were a doddle in comparison, with the pattern the same in wins over Scotland (32-6), Ireland (22-3), Wales (29-9) and England (32-6).

European muscle kept the games close through the first 40 minutes before wilting in the face of New Zealand's greater speed of thought and actions.

The All Blacks won the second half of their six tour games by a combined score of 87-3.

Henry was rewarded for fielding his strongest team in most tests - a departure on recent years - although there remains the impression that his team never fully hit their straps this year.

And the annual question remains unanswered: "What would happen if McCaw or Daniel Carter weren't there?"

Carter's value is such that the New Zealand Rugby Union allowed him to embark on a six-month "sabbatical" at French club Perpignan, a lucrative deal which allows him an instant All Blacks return in June.

Numerous players climbed from the fringe test category to being key figures.

Most notable were centre Conrad Smith, second five-eighth Ma'a Nonu, halfback Piri Weepu, flanker Jerome Kaino and hooker Andrew Hore, the Taranaki hooker later honoured as New Zealand player of the year.

Perhaps the best story was that of Southland halfback Jimmy Cowan, who was on the verge of being cut from the All Blacks altogether following a string of alcohol-fuelled incidents that resulted in police charges.

Cowan gave up the booze and by year's end the first choice No 9 jersey was his.

Fullback Mils Muliaina, No 8 Rodney So'oialo, lock Ali Williams and prop Tony Woodcock all cemented their world class status while lock Brad Thorn's second rugby union coming was a rampaging success.

He was in the engine room of a seventh Super rugby title for the Crusaders, farewelling Deans in fitting style with a 20-12 final defeat of the New South Wales Waratahs in Christchurch.

The Hurricanes were well beaten by the Crusaders in the semifinals while the Blues, Chiefs and Highlanders were sixth, seventh and 11th respectively.

The Air NZ Cup was also decorated red and black after Canterbury tackled their way to 7-6 final win over pacesetters Wellington.

Led by emerging star Kieran Read, the Cantabrians held out a Wellington side who had swept through their season with just one loss while playing an expansive brand which helped winger Hosea Gear sprint to 14 tries.

They snatched the Ranfurly Shield off Auckland in the process.

However, the competition has its problems.

The biggest issue facing the NZRU is the financial health of its provinces, with the economic downturn set to test many unions already struggling to stay financially afloat.

Below the All Blacks, there was also international success for New Zealand at the junior world championships in Wales, thrashing all their rivals, including England 38-3 in the final.

The national women's team won their only two tests of the year against Australia.

Veteran coach Gordon Tietjens tasted an eighth IRB world series title, with his team winning the first five tournaments while compiling a world record 47 matches unbeaten.

The year ended on a sad note with the sudden death at 49 of former All Blacks prop John Drake, who had become a leading media analyst of the game and commentator.

- NZPA

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