James McOnie: Ten things rugby has given New Zealanders this year
After a confronting Northern Tour, James McOnie takes the alternative route and remembers what’s going well for New Zealand Rugby.
The stark realisation that the All Blacks are mortal was tough for some to take last week.
After congratulating Ireland for their first-ever win at home against the men in black, many New Zealanders immediately went to their sheds to get their pitchforks and formed an angry mob in the town square of social and mainstream media, baying for blood.
So maybe it’s time to Eric Idle the situation and look on the bright side. And since we never celebrate Thanksgiving in New Zealand, late November seems the perfect time to appreciate certain people and some of the things that rugby has given us this year. Here’s 10 anyway…
The All Blacks have a foe who we respect and who are teaching us lessons (sorry, “learnings”). They beat us without three or four of their best players last weekend and let’s be honest: New Zealand needed a new nemesis. Ireland have arrived just at the right time, to give us a solid kick in the pants a year out from the Rugby World Cup in Japan.
I love Jordie Barrett. Jordie Barrett can play anywhere. He’s a 6-foot-6 Swiss army knife. He just scored four tries against Italy, playing on the right wing for the first time in a test. Jordie made one mistake (a quick throw-in) against the Springboks in Wellington and all hell broke loose – on the night and with his stocks, which dropped sharply. So what?! It’s unbelievable what he can do with the ball. He has the skills of that kid who can do the Rubik’s cube with his feet, upside down or while juggling them.
Akira played the house down in 2018 and was arguably the second best number eight in the country (usually grounds for All Blacks selection), but instead he was left out of a… wait for it…. 51-man squad! What’s more, he responded by playing even better. It’s obvious he’s crucial to the All Blacks in the future. And if he stays on this trajectory, that future begins the next time Steve Hansen selects a team.
- Ben Smith
Ben From Accounts doesn’t whinge. Ben just goes about his business. He is business-like. He’s the world’s best fullback (registered trademark) but hardly ever got to play there for his country this year. He just slots in on the right wing, and NEVER packs a sad. He’s just so dependable. Ben is the kind of guy who’d be best man at five or six weddings. We all need to be more like Ben Smith.
- Karl Tu’inukuafe
Let’s not forget that a few years ago, big Karl was 170kg and working as a nightclub bouncer. He’s a Jenny Craig success story but his Jenny was rugby. Apparently the 25-year-old is so unaccustomed to his new, trim 130kg frame that he forgets he can still move around with ease. He’s been plunged into test rugby without much of a warm-up and, despite a lesson from Ireland’s outstanding Tadhg Furlong, we can only say he’s been a revelation.
- The Rush Defence
It’s our Kryptonite but we’ve seen enough of it now (from the Lions, Springboks, England and Ireland) that like Superman, we can retreat to our Fortress of Solitude (The Coromandel Peninsula) and figure out ways to combat the suffocating defensive system. There are gaps to be exploited.
- Professional Women’s Rugby
They set the bar so high as amateurs, imagine what the Black Ferns will do as professionals? It’s been an overdue year of progress for the world champions. Meanwhile, the Black Ferns Sevens won Commonwealth Games gold and World Cup gold (the All Blacks Sevens did the double too), meaning 2020 Olympic gold in Tokyo is even more likely. The women’s game is on the rise.
- Kieran Read
Kieran dropped the ball against Ireland and everyone lost their shit. Then most people recovered their shit and realised he’s the G.O.A.T number eight and we should just give him space. Read is an incredible rugby player – on a par with Richie McCaw in many respects – but he may not get that kind of recognition unless he wins a third World Cup. Other nations covet Kieran – what they would give for a number eight of his ilk. And when he retires we will miss him like crazy. Also, I really hope his book is called A Great Read.
- Free Rugby
They threw open the gates to Eden Park, confident that (insert Kevin Costner voice over here) “they will come”.
And they did – more than 20,000 of them. The Auckland Rugby Union’s decision to allow free entry to the Mitre 10 Cup premiership final was inspired. The atmosphere initially spooked some of the players, who were more accustomed to hearing their own voices echoing off empty seats, but it helped create one of the greatest finals in NPC history. Auckland got the W after extra-time and the fish-heads got it right.
- The Number 10s
Have we ever had three first-fives as exciting as this All Blacks trio? Answer – no. Beauden Barrett, Richie Mo’unga and Damian McKenzie can all set a game alight. Their diverse talents have created all sorts of debates. But just be happy we have these three charging around in the black jersey – because after the World Cup, who knows what price they’ll fetch on the European market. And who can blame them for leaving? Enjoy them while you can.
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