As much as we might celebrate the beginning of a New Year, some of the applause should be cast on great achievements from the year about to pass. What a year it transpired to be, at home and certainly abroad and I have to conclude that “it has been a fine Vintage”.
Some superb achievements have occurred this season, for Championship winning teams, individuals and for Clubs and Provinces across the entire country.
RugbyNZ_ 2015 Overview “It Has Been a Fine Vintage”
We can’t possibly examine every team, each competition or even list by date all the New Zealand winning/champion sides. As much as I would want to, sorry this is not an almanac. It is a reflection on a full year that rewarded many players position at the apex of their chosen sport and we salute this vintage as one ‘out of the box’.
This last twelve months brought prizes to teams unheralded in pre-season talk, some upsets and failures as normal and great rugby-stories that round off the year in retrospect. Enjoy with me, an honor roll of achievements in 2015.
This year opened with Rugby Sevens action that fans enjoy so much. A solid New Zealand (NZ) men’s side contested the finals and would go on to win their Wellington Sevens leg of the Men’s World Sevens Series. While that was a great start, we found a new star in Reiko Iaone who charmed his way with blinding pace and a ‘Shaun Johnson like’ sidestep and by midyear the Sir Gordon Tietjens side had confirmed their qualification for Rio 2016 (while finishing third overall to a dominant Fiji team)
The sevens calendar saw good and some bad, with the Women excelling to win a third straight World Series crown, so credit goes squarely to Sarah Goss and the Sean Horan coached Sevensisters.
We still have Super Rugby to enjoy.
It seemed like the year began with many focusing early on the October Rugby World Cup, but in February Super Rugby was the perfect warm-up fans needed to sustain a real taste for Rugby all year round. That competition began frantically and soon we acknowledged the best start ever by a Hurricanes team [picked by this reporter early] Impressing all, they had great service from the dynamic-duo of Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu who were ‘Rugbyunited’ once again.
They paired with fellow All Blacks Beauden Barrit and TJ Perenara to consistently outshine their opposition, a clean sheet away to the republic, some of their tries were outstanding team efforts and fans hoped it did not end but for a few, the ultimate performer of the year could have been the Highlanders side. 13th last season, this team were over-achievers and when they overpowered a Conference topping Waratah’s side in Sydney, this Ben Smith inspired side gained their position in thier first Super Final for 15 years.
We were not disappointed when the two Kiwi sides battled hard. It was a ‘test like’ atmosphere with the away team winning 14-21, won at the death with a drop-kick. NZ sides never usually win in this fashion–was it a new trend?
Even though it was a season from hell for The Blues, the other two NZ sides had moderate seasons with highlights such as Sam Whitelock running 70 metres like a three-quarter for The Crusaders. Brilliant effort from a Lock! We had lows too like Aaron Cruden’s season ending injury. We saw the emergence of new talent like Waisake Naholo and Lima Sopoaga that gave fans confidence there would be a bright future ahead for our game.
A bright point was the Under 20 Men regaining their World Championship title, after defeating England 16-21. It ensured that in both forms of the game [at least] New Zealand continued to sit near to top of World Rugby leading up to the top 16 sides participation at their own World Cup.
By July the rugby public could finally see our All Blacks wider training squad assembled and it contained familiar faces, reinforcing our strengths and named some new stars also who would begin an International season with a historic first match against Samoa. That occasion held so many key values that the All Blacks are built on: integrity, family, Pacifica rugby development and confirmed the strong bond our communities have while overcoming hostile local conditions in Apia.
A courageous Manu Samoa were able to cross the visitors line but fell 16-25 and fans hope this was not a once off’ event, as World Rugby and the Pacific Nations recognize they must look around the neighborhood to advance the game in the Pacific. While a fairly arduous hit-out, it only set-up the All Blacks for bigger challenges ahead.
Reduced 2015 Rugby Championship
Just three matches played due to an impending World Cup, it meant every game mattered more. Opening with Argentina, the win came at a high price when the in-form Naholo was struck down with a broken leg. That said, the coaches had reserves to call on and a sensational Nehe Milner-Skudder gladly took his opportunity when scoring a brace on debut. In that game, a Battle for Supremecy in the Southern Hemisphere occurred during the Rugby Championship decider in Sydney.
The All Blacks ran into a staunch Australian side who stood proud and true. Stopped 27-19, the wind was knocked out of the national side who had to really perform in Auckland to retain the Bledisloe Cup the next weekend. That said, the reply was stronger than Australia had produced, and a 41-13 bashing restored confidence. One man to leave Eden Park with his head held high was Dan Carter. The pressure was applied, and the Prince of World Rugby was found with all the qualities that legends are able to deliver. Welcome back DC.
Having to wait until September until they played once again, some stars were thrust back into ITM Cup to stay fresh and push for the 31 man squad–some excelled, while others like Israel Dagg suffered injuries that ended their chances. Traditional rivalries restored the pride fans hold in the regions–North versus South, City plays Country, some great Heartland Rugby bolstered the good will that fans had toward the domestic and International game.
Scenes in Greymouth, Thames and Te Kuiti showed the support and enjoyment the sport brings to small towns. And even bigger centres like Napier and Nelson had great crowds as Hawkes Bay and Tasman respectively challenged for titles. By the time the Meads Cup, Lochore Cup and ITM Cup Premiership and Championship titles were decided, we had witnessed some sensational tries; like the one Wanganui produced in the Meads Cup semifinal (click here) Well done Wanganui, King Country, Canterbury and Hawkes Bay in winning their divisions.
The main prize of 2015
That left us with the main goal for the rugby public, retaining the crown of World Champion but Pool C games were full of rust, mistakes and errant play that questioned the credentials of the 2015 vintage. When they arrived at a monumental Quarter final match against France, in Cardiff, heart rates were raised in New Zealand and for traveling fans. How quickly the on-field action renewed support for the Black jersey, as not only did the All Black perform, but they annihilated Les Bleus 62-13 to seal ‘old ghosts’ in the closet for this tournament.
In shining at the crunch-end of the competition, the players peaked at the perfect time and not only could South Africa not better the Kiwis–losing 20-18 in the Semi final, it set up the perfect final with the Wallabies being the only side to beat/draw with the All Blacks in the last four years. The climax had fans clenching fists, as Carter was targeted early, Kieran Read an ankle sprain but both men had much to prove and together they played magnificently. The team fought well, held tight when reduced to 14 men and then mounted a sterling charge for glory.
The above image is reminiscent of feelings many fans still enjoy recalling. Barrett sealing the win with an All Black ‘special’ generated elation that will bolster peoples New Year memories of 2015. The jubilation of victories on foreign soil (including Under20 Rugby World Cup) are what stick out for me. I would say the game is in good health and we learned new respect for the value of a pinpoint dropkick.
New Zealand rugby fans worldwide will smile the widest when thinking back on the good times of 2015, not only locals but ex-patriots and people who enjoy running rugby. And that feel-good factor will be a motivator for boys and girls to strive to reach those moments. The next Richie’s or Dan’s are out there now, practicing, studying match highlights and imagining winning kicks and trophies raised above heads.
Yes”it has been a fine Vintage” and we should toast the current crop of players for helping make 2015 one of the very best.
Special mention must go to Richie McCaw on becoming the most capped player in International rugby. His 148 caps is now a testament to the character and resilience of the three-time World Rugby Player of the Year. The only man to raise the Webb Ellis Cup twice, his retirement will underline his place in the legacy of the jersey. He left it in a better place than when he first wore it in 2002 and along with only retiring servants of the game (Carter, Mealamu, Nonu, Smith and Woodcock) are a fine vintage of sports men and examples to follow.