Sportsperson of the Year Finalist: All Blacks

By David Leggat

Every day this week we feature the finalists for the Herald Sportsperson of the Year. The top sportsperson will be revealed in the Weekend Herald on Saturday.

Photo / Getty Images
Photo / Getty Images

The following comes with a warning: we've been here before.

The All Blacks sailed through their year, winning 13 of 14 tests to position themselves as out and out favourites for next year's World Cup.

Does that last bit sound familiar? Yes indeed. But only one of six cup tournaments have finished with "New Zealand" engraved on the Webb Ellis Cup, and that was 23 years ago.

Still, better by far to be going into the World Cup in good shape than not.

This year the All Blacks played in places as diverse as New Plymouth, Melbourne and Hong Kong, far from their traditional test environs. They played with pace, style, verve and an athleticism beyond their opponents. Their one defeat, to a late converted try by Australia's young hope James O'Connor, came in Hong Kong in October, 26-24.

Otherwise it was a campaign characterised by a relentless marching forward. Wales (twice) and Ireland were seen off before the Tri-Nations, which began on a resounding note, with the 32-12 beating of South Africa at Eden Park.

It was four tries plus kicks against four penalties and it was the most emphatic performance of the year.

It set the template for what followed. The Tri-Nations was won with a couple of games up their sleeve, special moments including a dazzling solo try by fast-riser Israel Dagg against South Africa in Wellington; taking Australia apart in the first half at Melbourne, at a point where there was a bit of "watch out for the Wallabies" talk going around; the Richie McCaw-Dagg two tries in three minutes to win in Soweto; and fighting back from 22-9 down in Sydney with a dozen minutes left.

Australia's victory came after time off for the country's best players, who looked rusty for much of the match, not that that should detract from the worth of the win.

Then it was off to the Old Dart, and four more wins over the Home Nations. There's no surprise in that, such is the gulf between the All Blacks and the Northern Hemisphere. Every now and then, you'll hear insistent talk that the gap is closing.

Maybe so, but while Australia and South Africa fumbled along, the All Blacks rattled up 150 points in four tests, conceding 62. Ireland and Wales gave it a decent lash; England at least tried to play the right way, but that was about it.

A standout? The year threw up a clear successor to the peerless McCaw in No 8 Kieran Read, who had a barnstorming quality about much of his play.

McCaw was unbending and outstanding and had able lieutenants around him.

Another World Cup awaits. At home. Enormous expectations. Can't wait.

- NZ Herald

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