The rugby season is just about over. Our rugby experts Gregor Paul, Patrick McKendry, Wynne Gray and Nigel Yalden nominate their highlights, disappointments and biggest surprises, and look forward to next season.

1 How would you rate the All Blacks' season?

Gregor Paul

: Probably a nine out 10. If they defeat France this morning, then 13 wins out of 14 is a fantastic season. They found an inspirational No 10, their captain emerged strongly as a leader, they scored tries at will, showed in Ireland they have character and defensive edge, and collected a world record. It wasn't just that they won so many tests - they played well in most of them.

Patrick McKendry: Eight - Very good, apart from an off day against Ireland in Chicago. They accounted for Wales in June without too much difficulty before going to a new level against Australia, Argentina and South Africa in the Rugby Championship and Australia again in the final Bledisloe Cup test. The rematch performance against Ireland in Dublin was good. In hindsight, the recent dreadful state of the Springboks means those big wins in Christchurch and Durban need to be put into context.

Wynne Gray: It would be in the range of an eight. They had their moments against Wales first up and, although the scoreline does not show it, the Wallabies in the third test, then obviously Ireland. They still stand out, though, with the rest chasing hard and wondering when they will get a breakthrough.


Nigel Yalden: Seven - as a base to build a Rugby World Cup cycle on, the All Blacks have laid a very solid foundation in 2016, yet still have more than enough imperfections to keep themselves internally motivated to improve over the next three seasons.

2 Were you surprised at the level of success and way they played, given the number of experienced players who left after the last World Cup?


: By the end of Super Rugby, it was apparent the skill level of the New Zealand players across the board had climbed and that a number of key All Blacks were in great form, confident and fit. So their ability to play supremely good attacking rugby was not a huge surprise, but the way they held themselves together and

did it for so long was.

PM: Yes, I thought they would struggle a little more at times and, talking to skipper Kieran Read before he left for the Northern tour, so did he. The form of linch-pin Beauden Barrett has been especially helpful for the All Blacks in the wake of Dan Carter's retirement, and Read has taken over seamlessly from Richie McCaw.

WG: Not at all. Some of those experienced players were past their use-by date when you consider the talent pushing up from below. That next layer has continued to add to the style they have shown in the past few seasons using their skills and athleticism to counter-attack and get past teams of greater size.

NY: It wasn't the level of success that surprised, but the level of dominance, especially in the Rugby Championship. Steve Hansen and associates had clear plans in place to manage the 're-establishing' of the All Blacks but to record a maximum 30 points in a home-and-away tournament against the other three World Cup semifinalists spoke volumes to the succession planning as much as the talent at their disposal.

3 What was the biggest disappointment?


: Spygate. What the hell was that all about and are we ever going to get an answer? The feeling that something bad and sinister happened hasn't gone away.

PM: Aaron Smith's poor decision at Christchurch airport and his subsequent form slump. Putting the incident aside, the drop-off in performance for a player of such quality was very steep.

WG: Probably the injury absence of Nehe Milner-Skudder, who had delivered such a skilled opening year in the All Blacks and brought a different dimension to the huge wings playing for most sides.

NY: People getting bored with dominant All Blacks victories. I'm not sure how that's possible given their high octane style of play but to hear a minority of supposed All Black fans hoping for an opposition win was beyond perplexing.

Dane Coles was one of the standout All Blacks in 2016. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Dane Coles was one of the standout All Blacks in 2016. Photo / Brett Phibbs

4 Who was your player of the year?


: It's a toss up between Israel Dagg and TJ Perenara but probably the former. They both battled back to make their mark. Perenara was dropped from the June squad and ended the season ahead of Aaron Smith. But Dagg came from further back. He was the man who couldn't get in the team last year and ended the year as the man they couldn't keep out. He found his pace, converted to the wing, trusted his instincts, scored tries, caught high balls, made tackles and even kicked a goal - a stunning return to form.

PM: Beauden Barrett - the way he stepped up following Aaron Cruden's injury against the Pumas in Hamilton was superb. His goalkicking remains a work in progress but otherwise he has brilliant (Chicago apart). Hooker Dane
Coles comes a close second.

WG: It's a toss up between Beauden Barrett, Ben Smith, Brodie Retallick and Dane Coles but I'm going for the All Blacks hooker, the man who suffered painful rib cartilage problems, yet captained the Canes to their first title, then produced performances which shone against the rest of the world. Scrums and lineouts were generally first-class, his defence was exuberant, if on the edge sometimes, and his attacking play was unrivalled.

NY: Dane Coles - the maturity with which he led the Canes to their first Super Rugby title flowed into a more senior role with the All Blacks. And while we will fondly remember the skilful moments and the 77 minutes off the bench that he was never meant to play in Sydney, it's his world class ability in the core roles of a hooker which make him the best in the world in his position.

5 There has been plenty of gnashing of teeth over whether the All Blacks are a dirty side. Is discipline an issue?


: There is nothing to suggest discipline is a problem generally but it was specifically in the end of year tour. And the real problem was the needless giving away of avoidable penalties rather than indulging in filth. A little bit of impatience and anxiety crept into their game in the closing weeks.

PM: No. They play close to the line - literally, as far as the offside line is concerned, but they are not dirty. Have another look at the Ireland test in Chicago and see how often the Irish were offside at the breakdown, yet weren't penalised for it. Why wasn't Johnny Sexton sanctioned for his high tackle on Beauden Barrett over the tryline in Dublin? I can't help but think the noisy Northern Hemisphere crowds play a big part in the All Blacks being given extra attention by referees.

WG: I've never had that impression. They will play right to the limit of the laws and sometimes a touch over, as they should, but Hansen does not want 'dirty' players. Nor did Richie McCaw, and I think Kieran Read has the same philosophy.

NY: They are conceding an average of 10 penalties test in 2016, an unacceptable statistic. Receiving eight yellow cards is even more concerning. Are they dirty? No. Do they need to be smarter and more aware at key times? Yes.

Anton Lienert-Brown emerged from seemingly nowhere to impress for the All Blacks. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Anton Lienert-Brown emerged from seemingly nowhere to impress for the All Blacks. Photo / Brett Phibbs

6 How has this season set up the All Blacks for next year's Lions tour? Did Ireland's performances show they are vulnerable?


: Not vulnerable, but beatable. But that in itself didn't really show the Lions anything new - coach Warren Gatland knows all teams are beatable. Ireland's performance confirmed that if teams can put the All Blacks under pressure for 80 minutes, take all their opportunities, play smartly and defend with everything they have . . . they can win. But, hello . . . when has that never been the case?

PM: Ireland showed the
All Blacks are beatable if opposition teams get their game plans right and execute them to the letter. The Irish played with fire and passion at Soldier Field, but they also played with ambition. They kept attacking until the final minutes for their famous victory - the Lions have to do the same.

WG: The All Blacks have restated their case and every Northern Hemisphere side has upped their work. England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland should be in for a great Six Nations, with Gatland spoiled for choice in his Lions selections.

NY: It's set up the All Blacks nicely by further strengthening some already solid playing depth and building the competition for spots that the selectors crave. Ireland's victory in Chicago showed the All Blacks are fallible, though the response in Dublin showed that beating them twice in a short timeframe, as the Lions will have to do to win the series, is easier said than done.

The win in Dublin was among the season's highlights. Photo / Brett Phibbs
The win in Dublin was among the season's highlights. Photo / Brett Phibbs

7 What was the biggest surprise?


: Rieko Ioane beating his brother Akira to the test arena. When Akira first played for the Blues in 2015, he looked an All Black in waiting - the natural successor to Jerome Kaino and even an outside bet to make the World Cup squad. But he hasn't taken his game on, still goes missing for periods and can't convince the All Blacks he has a work ethic. But his younger brother Rieko, who hadn't even played Super Rugby in 2015, has won two caps and looks destined to win many more.

He has the character, attitude and ability the All Blacks are looking for.

PM: Ireland's famous win. I didn't see that coming.

WG: The arrival of Anton Lienert-Brown. He had been a strong player for the Chiefs but was not in the All Blacks frame around June. He got his chance through injury and by year end was arguably the best second-five and centre in the land.

NY: That Ireland provided the sternest tests including (to this point) the only defeat of the year for the All Blacks and I don't mean that in a derogatory way to the Irish. I simply expected Australia and Argentina to provide greater challenges but to see Joe Schmidt's men get up into the grill of the All Blacks falls into the 'pleasant' surprise category.

8 What is the biggest area of concern about the All Blacks?


: We still don't know how good they are at dealing with genuine and sustained pressure. When the Irish squeezed them in Chicago, they took a good 50 minutes to respond, having to fight from 30-8 down. They fought back but lost their way again in the final 10. That ability to stay calm and clear was rock solid between 2012 and 2015 but with so many experienced players having left, it may take a bit of time for the All Blacks to reach the same level.

PM: Their vulnerability around the ruck on defence - exposed by the Pumas in the first half in Hamilton - and their failure to execute routine skills under pressure. The All Blacks had a chance to finish over the top of the Irish in Chicago, yet made handling errors not seen before this year.

WG: Only a few things: how the All Blacks combat a slow track, pedantic referee and a team who know how to dominate at set-piece and also recycle endlessly under pressure.

NY: The number of yellow cards (eight in 13 tests so far) is too high, and while it's improved significantly on the end of year tour, goalkicking consistency needs to remain a high priority for Beauden Barrett.

9 What was your individual or team performance of the year?


: Brodie Retallick in Dublin. What a machine. He is the Colin Meads of the 21st century.

PM: The All Blacks' record- breaking victory over the Wallabies in Sydney in game one of the Rugby Championship; an extraordinary performance in what was a replay of last year's World Cup final.

WG: Beauden Barrett in Dunedin when he stepped into the No 10 jersey ahead of home town hero Lima Sopoaga after Aaron Cruden was injured. Barrett ran Wales ragged, scored two tries, kicked a truckload of points and the world gasped once more at the All Blacks' talent pool.

NY: It's impossible to go past the test in Dublin. Having been smacked in the mouth by Ireland and challenged for a response, the All Blacks delivered a muscular effort that reeked of bloody-mindedness; hallmarks of a champion side.

Wanganui would have been worthy Team of the Year winners. Photo / Stuart Munro
Wanganui would have been worthy Team of the Year winners. Photo / Stuart Munro

10 What is going to be the big talking point next year?


: Some unfortunate ref is going to make a huge stuff-up in the Lions series. It's bound to happen. The tests will be intense, fast and brutal, and something questionable will occur leaving a referee to make the biggest decision of his career.

PM: There will be drama of some sort after the Lions arrive mid-year, along with the UK's press pack. No doubt there will be some foul play controversy or similar in what is shaping up to be the most difficult tour the famous old team have undertaken.

WG: The only topic will be the Lions. We will hear about them during the Six Nations and then in the latter stages of Super Rugby as the All Blacks squad is honed before the Crimson Army descends on these shores for the first time in 12 years.

NY: The ongoing discussion around how unbeaten Wanganui were overlooked in favour of the All Blacks for Team of the Year at the 2016 New Zealand Rugby Awards - how do you not reward perfection?