Rugby writer Campbell Burnes looks back over the All Blacks season to bring you his year in review.
Player of the Year - Rieko Ioane Not since Joe Rokocoko in 2003 has any 20-year-old produced such a sensational international season. Rokocoko exploded for 17 tries in just 12 Tests. Rieko Ioane, who had already worn the All Blacks’ jersey twice as a 19-year-old, returned 10 tries in 11 Tests. It was not just his finishing ability that impressed, but his high work-rate and skill to penetrate with little room to move. After rocking the Lions with a double on starting Test debut, Ioane perhaps left his best until last, two sweetly taken tries against Wales, along with two assists, his signoff. All this just days after a shoulder injury had appeared to have brought the curtain down on his season. The curtain is, in fact, just going up on this prodigious talent, World Rugby’s Breakthrough Player of the Year.
Newcomer of the Year - Jordie Barrett With apologies to Vaea Fifita, what Jordie Barrett did in the first six months of 2017 was astonishing. The Hurricanes were at first not certain about starting him, nor what his best position was, as he can slip easily into the midfield if not at the back. By the end of the campaign, he was one of their stars, a multi-skilled operator accurate off the tee and possessed of a deep bag of tricks. The All Blacks introduced him quietly off the bench against Samoa and then handed him a start in the white-hot atmosphere of the third Lions Test. He scored a try and did not disappoint. Injury then halted his season, but watch for more in 2018 from this rare talent.
QUICK TAP: BLACK FERNS CROWNED WORLD RUGBY TEAM OF THE YEAR Defining moment of the Year - climax of the Lions series They’ll talk about this controversial moment for years. At the 78th minute of the deciding third Test against the Lions at Eden Park, with the score locked at 15-all, referee Romain Poite blew his whistle for what looked an (accidental) offside by Lions hooker Ken Owens at the kickoff. Without rehashing all the details of what followed, Poite acted on intervention by assistant referee Jerome Garces to rule against a penalty, which would have been within Beauden Barrett’s range, to win the series. The upshot was that the series was drawn 1-1 for the first time. The All Blacks, who were the better side in this clash, were left to rue several missed opportunities and that fateful decision.
Best Performance - 57-0 win over South Africa in Albany Not a tough one to choose, really. This was the All Blacks’ best 80-minute output in a season where they often showed quality for 40 or 50 minutes during games. The foundation was laid by a dominant forwards effort, paving the way for the backs to cut loose. There were eight tries scored and not once did the home side let up with their intensity and accuracy. The result was a record winning margin against South Africa and had the pundits searching for superlatives.
Finest try of the Year - Brodie Retallick v South Africa, Albany It might not have showcased seven pairs of hands, like the famous and breathtaking Gareth Edwards score for the 1973 UK Barbarians against the All Blacks, but this effort, finished by a lock forward adjacent to the uprights, was still a thing of beauty. It started with Rieko Ioane, as many piercing All Blacks movements do. The tyro wing beat three Bok defenders with pace and a shimmy from 60 metres out before finding hooker Dane Coles, running a smart line down the tramlines. Easy as you please, Coles drew his man and gave a perfect inside ball to a galloping Brodie Retallick to finish with style. It looked all so simple, and yet perfectly executed. Rugby poetry.
2017 season summary The ledger shows the All Blacks won 11 of their 14 Tests, along with a draw and two losses. Throw in two further non-Test victories and 13 wins from 16 outings represents a very solid return, if short of the ethereal heights of the class of 2016. Coach Steve Hansen was able to build a strong reservoir of depth, with no less than 55 players wearing the black jersey. Those selections should bear fruit by 2018 or Rugby World Cup year in 2019.
The All Blacks again won the Investec Rugby Championship at a canter, retained the Bledisloe Cup, drew a Lions series in which they were the better team, despite Sean O’Brien’s assertions, and overcame fierce opposition on the northern tour. There were flat patches, but they often found a way to win when far from their optimum. It’s the mark of a good side.