Man, that was a long one. The All Blacks played their 15th and last test match of 2017 over the weekend, a 33-18 win over Wales in Cardiff. It caps off a very interesting year for the world champs, who had some massive highs but also showed just a few chinks in their armour.
New Zealand sides once again dominated Super Rugby, making up three of the four semi-finalists and the eventual champion Crusaders. The initial All Black squad for a hastily arranged first test against Manu Samoa contained a couple of new names, Jordie Barrett and Vaea Fifita, both of whom would come into prominence later in the season.
That test was a predictable blowout, with the All Blacks winning 78-0 at Eden Park. That was also the same venue as the heavily favoured home side met the British & Irish Lions in June, and lived up to expectations – winning 30-15. But then the two teams played again in Wellington and that’s where things went pear-shaped.
Sonny-Bill Williams got red-carded for a shot on Anthony Watson, and the All Blacks lost their first game on NZ soil for eight years- going down 24-21. While the card certainly played a bit part, the All Blacks were still outscored two tries to none, and all of of sudden there was a World Cup feel to the last test.
The game itself played out like an epic, with the All Blacks dominating the first half and Jordie Barrett enjoying a stellar turn at fullback. The second was an armwrestle that the Lions managed to gain ascendency in, but it all eventually came down to a controversial last play penalty reversal by referee Roman Poite.
A draw, inconceivable before the series began. Unfamiliar territory for the All Blacks, who suddenly felt under pressure for the first time since they lifted the World Cup.
Going into the Rugby Championship, there were questions about the makeup of the team – but they were swept away triumphantly with a record 54-35 win over the Wallabies in Sydney. While there were grumbles about the amount of points conceded in the second half, the fact that the All Blacks had shot out to a 40-6 halftime lead was mind-boggling.
Things were very different a week later in Dunedin, where the Wallabies almost pulled the greatest turnaround in rugby history. A stunning performance saw them leading 29-28 with a minute to go, before Kieran Read and Beauden Barrett combined to score the winning try for the All Blacks.
One hiding, one great escape – but two wins. Things were looking back to normal, especially after a regulation victory over Argentina in New Plymouth. That was the night Fifita was unleashed on the rugby world, scoring a stunning solo try.
Things started to get surreal in Albany in the first test against the Springboks, who were being talked up as being in with the best chance to triumph in New Zealand since 2009. That prediction turned out to be the dud of the year as the All Blacks massacred the Boks 57-0, in a performance that left many secretly hoping that the ref would call it off early to save the South Africans further embarrassment.
Another comfortable win over the Pumas in Buenos Aires meant that the All Blacks wrapped up the Rugby Championship with a round to spare. They still had one more fixture against the Boks, this time in Cape Town – and what transpired turned out to be very, very different to the two sides’ previous match.
In what will most likely be remembered as one of the greatest games ever played, the All Blacks held off their old rivals 25-24 in front of a frenzied Newlands crowd. Bok hooker Malcolm Marx almost beat them by himself, and breathed new life into South African rugby (until that was rapidly deflated again on their recent end of year tour).
The last stage of the season looked reasonably light on paper compared to previous end of year tours. The Barbarians, which was more or less an All Black trial, followed by a weak French side, perennial whipping boys Scotland and finally an out of form Wales.
The Baabaa game did little more than showcase that the All Blacks could call on some serious depth in certain positions if they needed to – and they did by bringing the likes of Luke Whitelock, Richie Mo’unga and Mitch Drummond into the squad. Then the French match went according to plan, despite a slack second half.
However, Murrayfield ended up being a little bit tougher of an assignment than many predicted. Scottish rugby is certainly on a high right now, so the 22-17 scoreline probably says more about them than the All Blacks, as the home side put in one of their best performances in years.
The last game against Wales was a archetypal All Black end of year performance too, withstanding some early home side pressure and a passionate crowd to run out comfortable winners 33-18.
12 wins, two losses and a draw – only an All Black fan would be able to find fault with that, and that’s exactly what some are doing. Yes, there were a few shaky signs. The pressure of the Lions series was immense, and the players looked relieved it was over. Injuries were rife, with Dane Coles, Owen Franks, Israel Dagg, Ben Smith, Jordie Barrett, Nehe Milner-Skudder and Jerome Kaino all missed large sections or the entirety of the season.
But those clouds certainly have silver linings. This is the nucleus of the team that will defend the World Cup in 2019, and learning that pressure will only benefit them in the long run. The injuries blooded new players, none of whom looked out of place in the All Black jersey.
An up and down season? Yes, but there were far more highs than lows – plus if they’d won that game in Wellington against the Lions it’s doubtful too many would be complaining.
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