All Blacks loom larger than ever
December 24, 2010
An eventful year has seen the passing of Bill McLaren, more records for Richie McCaw, a Test bow for Sonny Bill Williams and a running battle with authority for Brendan Venter © Getty Images
The global advertising campaign crafted to lure you to the 'land of the long white cloud' for next year's Rugby World Cup reads '100% Pure New Zealand' and it is perhaps a fitting postscript for a year largely dominated by the All Blacks.
The history books will record another Tri-Nations triumph and a Grand Slam tour but those achievements were just the icing on the cake. It was the manner in which they played and underlined their No.1 status that sent shockwaves throughout the rugby world and as a result they enter 2011 as hot favourites to reclaim the World Cup crown for he first time since 1987. Of course, the All Blacks have been here before only to see their dreams shattered so you will not see them getting carried away until they have reclaimed the Webb Ellis Cup. But their quest for that prize is next year's story - what about 2010?
The year began on a sad note for rugby fans around the world with the death of legendary commentator Bill McLaren. For many he was and will always be the 'voice of rugby', a trademark honed during 50 years behind the microphone bringing the sport to the masses. His contribution to the sport was marked throughout this year's Six Nations battle that served up its usual mix of heady drama. And nowhere was that more evident than at the Millennium Stadium when Wales played host to Scotland in surely the most thrilling Championship match in recent memory.
Shane Williams' last-gasp try ensured an amazing end to an unbelievable clash that contained more twists and turns than your average mystery novel. The hosts were seemingly out of the contest, trailing by 10 points with only four minutes remaining, but a try from winger Leigh Halfpenny and the boot of fly-half Stephen Jones brought them level. In one final gut-wrenching act Williams struck to rob Scotland, reduced to 13-men in the closing stages due to yellow cards for Scott Lawson and Phil Godman, of game that appeared to have been won just a few minutes before.
The bruising battle sidelined Scotland fullback Chris Paterson for the rest of the season with kidney damage but his team-mate Thom Evans saw his career eventually ended by a neck injury that could have cost him his life. And while they licked their wounds, Wales' Andy Powell celebrated by taking a drunken ride in a golf buggy - an ill-advised trip that cost him his place in the squad.
The Six Nations glory went to France, whose enthralling blend of physicality and adventure brought them their ninth Grand Slam, which was sealed with victory over England. In typical Gallic style the French lurched from the sublime to the ridiculous by year's end. The defeat in Paris was to be a springboard to greater things for England, who were at the centre of another player release row and who ultimately had to settle for third place in the Championship behind Les Bleus and Ireland, due reward for the part they played in a dour draw with Scotland. Scotland also finished with a flourish against Ireland that hinted at brighter days and as Wales struggled for consistency, Italy were once again left to pick up the Wooden Spoon.
The edge-of-your-seat thrill rides were not the exclusive reserve of the international stage although it did require the intervention of league officials to free up the breakdown and stop the Premiership from stagnating. The battle for supremacy in England also built to a thrilling finale at Twickenham where Leicester edged out Saracens. A try from replacement centre Dan Hipkiss three minutes from the end of a thrilling encounter propelled the Tigers to their seventh Premiership success and an unprecedented ninth English League title. It was a cruel blow for Sarries who had been stripped of the services of director of rugby Brendan Venter after the outspoken South Africa had tested the patience of the authorities in 'Biscuitgate' and as a result landed himself with a 14-week touchline ban. Venter's willingness to speak his mind ensured he hit the headlines time and time again throughout 2010 but he never shied away from controversy and even became a YouTube sensation with his now infamous non-interview later in the year.
Elsewhere in Europe, Clermont Auvergne finally clinched the Top 14 crown in France with victory over Perpignan. The long-awaited win ended a 74-year wait for the Bouclier de Brennus and went some way to healing the pain of their ten previous finale defeats. And there would be another historic victory at the Stade de France before the end of the season with the undoubted kings of Europe, Toulouse, capturing their fourth Heineken Cup title with victory over Biarritz in a final that failed to live up to standard set in the quarter-final clashes in San Sebastian and Dublin.
The Magners League crown went to the Ospreys who upset hosts Leinster to capture a record third Celtic crown while there was also success for Cardiff Blues in the Amlin Challenge Cup and Northampton in the Anglo-Welsh Cup.
On the other side of the world the Bulls made it three Super 14 titles in four years with victory over the Stormers in the unfamiliar but welcome surroundings of the Orlando Stadium in Soweto although the same could not be said for the drone stemming from the vuvuzelas that would later plague the FIFA World Cup. This year's battle for southern hemisphere supremacy had threatened to become a farce as officials and teams came to terms with directives from the International Rugby Board regarding how certain aspects of the game - scrum engagement, offside from a kick and at the maul, and also the tackle law - were to be refereed. Thankfully the Chiefs' 72-65 victory over the Lions - a game that produced more tries than tackles - proved to be an anomaly although the conflict between how the game was being played and refereed in the north and south was a cause for concern for all those on the game's frontline.
The mid-year tours brought limited joy for the leading European nations with England's victory against Australia - their first in the southern hemisphere since their 2003 World Cup triumph - and Scotland's historic series triumph over Argentina the clear highs but those significant steps forward were no match for the giant strides taken by their southern hemisphere giants in the Tri-Nations.
South Africa's dominance of the Super 14 - the competition expands to 15 in 2011 to incorporate the Melbourne Rebels and high-profile signing Danny Cipriani - would not be reflected in the Tri-Nations where New Zealand raised the bar to a new level. The All Blacks completed an unprecedented six-game clean sweep of their rivals and ran in an impressive 22 tries on the back of an all-action, high-octane brand of running rugby that only the Wallabies could live with - but not for 80 minutes.
Spearheading their challenge was their granite-like captain Richie McCaw who not only became his country's most-capped skipper of all-time - eclipsing the mark of Sean Fitzpatrick - but also broke the All Blacks record for Test appearances, an honour he shares with team-mate Mils Muliaina. Before the year was out there would be yet another IRB Player of the Year honour for McCaw who continues to stand over the game like a colossus, matched only in terms of influence by fly-half Dan Carter whose own path to greatness took him past England's Jonny Wilkinson at the top of the all-time Test points standings. And we also witnessed the emergence of another major talent onto the international stage - Sonny Bill Williams. Having made a not-so-smooth transition to union from league SBW did enough during his stint with French club Toulon to persuade the New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) to dig deep. His subsequent ascent to the ranks of the All Blacks via Canterbury adds a formidable and game-breaking weapon to an already outstanding arsenal.
The All Blacks may not have hit those same heights during their end of year tour of the UK and Ireland but still had too much class for the Home Nations and in what could be an alarming sign of things to come, both Australia and South Africa finished the year on impressive highs. But of more concern may have been the empty seats at Test venues around the world during the course of the year and the knock on effect in terms of revenue.
The global economy continues to labour and the rugby world is no exception with the NZRU reporting record losses and even the RFU reporting a deficit for the last financial year. The outlook for the NZRU accounts is not great either, with reports suggesting hosting the World Cup will cost them NZ$30-50m, but victory in the sport's showpiece event would surely soften the blow in more ways than one.
Ten more highlights of 2010:
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.
It's time for those running Welsh rugby to stop trying to prevent its players heading to France and to start planning a future without them, writes Martin Williamson
Paul Eddison explains how the French sold English clubs down the river and why their domestic game will go from strength to strength
'Nothing can prepare you for the noise of the Millennium Stadium though, you just can't hear anything." Tom Hamilton talks to Cory Allen
Following a weekend where Wales suffered more heartbreak against Australia and the Aviva Premiership showed its class, the Monday Maul looks back at some of the key talking points