It's been a year of ups and downs for the All Blacks as the curtain fell on an era of dominance with the departure of head coach Steve Hansen and a handful of test stalwarts in the aftermath of the failed attempt at a historic World Cup three-peat. There were surprises, too, at other levels - most notably the Super Rugby breakthrough of the Jaguares. But what were the most unforgettable moments of 2019 and what should we expect at the dawn of the next chapter in New Zealand rugby? The Herald's Christopher Reive, Liam Napier and Patrick McKendry have the answers.
What will the All Blacks' 2019 campaign be remembered for?
Reive: The year the rest of the world caught up. OK, by 'the rest of the world' I mean four or five other nations, but nevertheless. After years and years of domination, 2019 saw the likes of England and South Africa crack the code to beating the All Blacks, and execute it to perfection.
Napier: Losing a World Cup semifinal, but also the humility they portrayed afterwards. There's no getting away from the fact the All Blacks failed to achieve their stated goal in Japan but the way they fronted after that crushing defeat offered lessons to all about how to accept ultimate disappointment.
McKendry: The World Cup semifinal defeat to England at Yokohama during which they hardly fired an attacking shot – and this from a team determined to attack (smartly) at nearly every opportunity as seen during the previous week's quarter-final win over Ireland. That, and the dignified and open way the All Blacks dealt with their huge disappointment.
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To beat England in the World Cup semifinal, the All Blacks should have…
Reive: A lot can be said for starting well. England played with a high intensity from the opening whistle and exploited a slow-starting All Blacks outfit. Within three minutes, England were up 7-0. The All Blacks didn't manage to get on the board until the final 25 minutes of the game which, in a World Cup semifinal, simply isn't good enough.
Napier: Started Sam Cane, one of the best defenders in world rugby. Varied their attack to create deception and get on the outside of the midfield rush. Amend the lineout malfunctions. But above all else, front with much more physicality in the collisions. Even then, though, it may not have been enough. England really were that good on the night.
McKendry: Fronted up physically – or at least matched England in that department, and shown more variety in their attacking structures. Too often the ball was shovelled backwards from an attacking pod in the midfield when a strong carry from Brodie Retallick or someone with a similar role may have exercised the defence a little more.
Who was the big winner for the All Blacks in 2019?
Reive: Ardie Savea has the rugby world at his feet… well, at least in New Zealand. Savea emerged as one of the most dominant loose forwards on the planet over the last year and was rewarded with opportunities at test level. Now, with Kieran Read gone, Savea's ability to play any position in the loose trio means he's the ultimate asset for 2020.
Napier: Ardie Savea, in his first full season as a starting All Black, was among the world's best this year. He played seven 80-minute tests in all three loose forward roles, all while battling vision problems in one eye. His range of skill for any player is phenomenal.
McKendry: Fullback Beauden Barrett. Overall, he was the All Blacks' best at the World Cup and he wasn't at 100 per cent fitness early on at least. Barrett was a one-man highlights reel every time he played apart from the semifinal when he was under pressure the whole time. Before that, he was consistently good in the Rugby Championship. Midfielder Anton Lienert-Brown pushes Barrett close, though. Lienert-Brown had a stunning World Cup and was the big mover for the All Blacks this year.
And biggest loser...?
Reive: That unfortunate title has to fall to two-time World Rugby player of the year nominee Rieko Ioane. Not helped by a Blues team with non-existent attacking potential, Ioane's form dwindled to the point where he struggled to get as much of a glimpse at starting for the All Blacks in a meaningful game as George Bridge and Sevu Reece ascended the ranks.
Napier: Ngani Laumape or Owen Franks, the two major World Cup casualties. Franks' test career was abruptly cut short in brutal circumstances on the eve of the World Cup and the All Blacks centurion is now plying his trade at Northampton. Laumape at least gets another crack at the black jersey after feeling the harsh midfield squeeze.
McKendry: Wing Rieko Ioane. The 22-year-old was overtaken by George Bridge and while he was clearly doing everything to re-discover his form in Japan, Ioane couldn't quite get back to his best. He's still young, though, obviously. Ben Smith went backwards too, but at least enjoyed the consolation of a sparkling final performance against Wales before collecting a World Cup bronze.
Biggest overreaction of 2019?
Reive: How good was the reaction to the Wallabies' 47-26 win over the All Blacks in Perth in August? One report went as far as to say: "In the space of 80 inspirational minutes, Australia have transformed themselves from World Cup no-hopers to contenders." They didn't quite live up to that tag…
Napier: Scotland's whinge of all whinges when their final pool game against Japan was threatened by Typhoon Hagibis. The performance of their chief executive Mark Dodson was embarrassing, especially in light of the host nation working overtime to get that fixture played in Yokohama. In the end, Scotland failed to progress after two pool defeats and the union had to pay a £70,000 fine for Dodson's legal threats.
McKendry: A toss-up between the New Zealand media's coverage of Spark's World Cup streaming "woes", the England media's coverage of their team's World Cup semifinal victory over the All Blacks – they suddenly became "world-beaters" and the Cup was as good as theirs – and the double overreaction of Steve Hansen offering to educate a reporter after the semifinal loss via a one-on-one chat and the subsequent coverage of it. I'll go for the Hansen flashpoint; in defending an upset Kieran Read he overstepped the mark, but there was no hint of violence in his offer as suggested in some parts of the media.
Your favourite rugby moment of 2019?
Reive: Everyone loves the underdog, right? 2019 served up a few. While the Jaguares' run to the Super Rugby final and Japan's World Cup win over Ireland are contenders, give my vote to Uruguay's 30-27 victory over Fiji for just their third ever win at a World Cup. Not only did Los Teros get the better of a fairly strong Fijian side, at no point did they look like the lesser team.
Napier: Foxton claiming the Horowhenua-Kapiti championship for the first time since 1988, defeating Waikanae 31-25 in the final. Witnessing the joy of the Japanese after their side beat Scotland to reach their first World Cup quarter-final is another special moment. So, too, the emotive reaction from South Africans during their week-long victory celebrations.
McKendry: Japan's performance at the World Cup, culminating in their first victories over Ireland and Scotland. The joy in that amazing country emanating from those with even the slightest interest in rugby was palpable. The Herald's World Cup representatives watched the victory over Ireland in an Irish bar in Beppu, on the southern island of Kyushu, and the barman promptly popped a bottle of champagne on the final whistle.
Which All Black was the biggest surprise of 2019?
Reive: From the start of the 2019 Super Rugby season, Anton Lienert-Brown exceeded every possible expectation. Devastating with ball in hand and consistently dependable on defence, I don't know what he did in the offseason but whatever it was, it worked.
Napier: What is it with outside backs in World Cup year? Four years ago Nehe Milner-Skudder burst through the ranks. This year Sevu Reece timed his run to perfection. Reece's story of having his Connacht contract torn up to being granted second chances by Waikato and the Crusaders is well told. He sure came from the back of the pack to state his starting claims.
McKendry: Wing Sevu Reece. A standout for the Crusaders during their march to the title, Reece was amazingly composed during his first big test (and only his second) – a start in the No 14 jersey in the crunch Bledisloe Cup test at Eden Park. He showed similar characteristics in Japan, along with pace, anticipation and toughness. He's a special talent.
And who was the biggest disappointment?
Reive: The hope that the emergence of the likes of Bridge and Reece would push Rieko Ioane didn't come to fruition. Not long ago, he was one of the most important and devastating attacking options the All Blacks had. This year, he couldn't reach the same heights and was displaced as the incumbent on the wing. He's set up nicely for a 2020 resurgence.
Napier: Rieko Ioane. Played 11 tests last year, scoring the same number of tries. Played five tests this year, scoring two tries. Numbers don't always paint an accurate reflection but, in this case, they do tell the story of Ioane's rapid slide down the pecking order.
McKendry: The All Blacks probably didn't get as much out of Sam Whitelock as they would have liked. The lock's workload may have contributed to that; he again captained the Crusaders to another title and he carried the brunt of the All Black load while Brodie Retallick was sidelined by a dislocated shoulder. Whitelock clearly needs a rest in order to re-discover his spark.
Your biggest rugby gripe of 2019?
Reive: The World Rugby rankings are fun aren't they? In the weeks leading up to the World Cup, New Zealand, Ireland, England and Wales all spent time at the top. Wales took over from the All Blacks at the top, despite having lost 30 consecutive matches against the Kiwi outfit, while Ireland were able to take over a week after being embarrassed by England. If we learnt one thing in 2019, it's that you can't read into world rankings.
Napier: There's a few – the overzealous influence of television match officials, the lack of common sense around the officiating of the tackle height, particularly when the ball carrier is ducking significantly. The self-absorbed ruling class of the Six Nations who are determined to protect their patch rather than embrace initiatives benefiting the global game, and their refusal to support the issue of eligibility for Pacific Island players wanting to represent their home nations.
McKendry: Officials not policing the offside line – a problem which became embarrassingly bad during the World Cup. For whatever reason, the officials appeared to want a running free-for-all in Japan and were therefore unwilling to blow the whistle too often (high tackles apart), but allowing defences to creep every closer had the opposite effect. It turned some matches into a crash and bash bore-fest with kicking the ball away the only sensible option.
Who should replace Steve Hansen as All Blacks coach?
Reive: Scott Robertson gets my vote. There's more to the Crusaders coach than his jovial, wild exterior suggests. From the moment he took the reins at the Crusaders, he appeared to have complete buy-in from his squad and has three Super Rugby titles in as many years to show for it. Robertson would be a dependable, and refreshing, appointment.
Napier: Difficult to say just yet without knowing the exact complexion of the respective coaching teams. If Ian Foster can get Joe Schmidt, Greg Feek and Vern Cotter on board, that could prove a compelling team. If not, Scott Robertson's credentials and charisma, his fresh face for change, may be hard to dismiss especially if he delivers another interview like the one that landed him the Crusaders job.
McKendry: Scott Robertson. It's time for a fresh start. Robertson couldn't have gone any better at the Crusaders – he's three from three after inheriting a talented but under-performing squad from Todd Blackadder. Don't be fooled by the quirks. Or the suggestions he hasn't endured adversity, because he did this year in particular via the mosque shootings not far from Crusaders HQ. He's earned his shot at the next level.