All eyes already on Rugby World Cup

Once again New Zealand have been the all-conquering, supremely dominant force in world rugby yet even a Tri-Nations clean sweep and a European grand slam are viewed as a mere warm-up for the ultimate validation in 2011.

Such is rugby’s obsession with the World Cup that virtually every All Black victory is examined minutely to see how it relates to their hopes of ending the pain, frustration and embarrassment of five successive World Cup failures.

In recent years, All Black coaches have tried every imaginable approach to try to build towards the World Cup but Graham Henry finally decided this time that he might as well pick his best team every week and try to win every match.

He very nearly achieved it in a year that produced 13 wins from 14 matches — the only blip being the thrilling injury-time loss to Australia in Hong Kong in October.

That ensured Lithuania would retain their unlikely record as the team with the longest winning run of 18 Tests, set this year, but still there is no doubt which team are number one.

As ever, New Zealand seemed to adapt quicker and more fully to the latest tweaks to the interpretations of the game’s laws. This season, these have centred on the breakdown, where the advantage has swung back to the attacking team and so encouraged and rewarded ball-in-hand, quick-recycling, multi-phased attacks.

Having swept to a clean sweep of wins in a Tri-Nations competition that averaged 55 points per game, the All Blacks cruised to their third grand slam in five years while at times barely breaking sweat against the four home unions.

They were named International Rugby Board (IRB) team of the year, Henry was coach of the year for the fourth time and peerless flanker Richie McCaw was player of the year for the third time.

Mixed season
Flyhalf Dan Carter overtook Jonny Wilkinson as the game’s leading scorer and will now need to match the Englishman’s famed stoicism to deal with the potentially crippling load of World Cup expectation weighing on his shoulders.

Australia ended their 10-match winless streak against their neighbours with that Hong Kong win but had a mixed season. Their scrum continues to look horribly underpowered but the uncanny ability of their backs to find holes always makes them a dangerous team as they proved spectacularly when they finished the year by thrashing France by a record 59-16 in Paris.

South Africa have fallen back from their wonderful 2009, struggling to make the leap from their defence-dominated approach to the demands of the new, more open game.

After a poor Tri-Nations, despite the excitement of playing the All Blacks in front of 95 000 fans in Soweto, their injury-hit squad were beaten by resurgent Scotland to end their hopes of a grand slam.

However, just when everyone was writing them off and preparing coach Peter de Villiers’s obituary, they found a way to again harness their unrivalled power and aggression to beat England for the seventh time in a row, at Twickenham.

Despite that setback England are also gaining confidence as their new, young side finally seem to be gelling under Martin Johnson. A benchmark defeat of Australia, achieved with the sort of running rugby Twickenham has previously witnessed only from visiting teams, was the year’s highlight.

Home defeats by the All Blacks and Springboks were a timely reminder that there is still much to do but England are unrecognisable from where they were a year ago.

France were celebrating a Six Nations grand slam in March but by November coach Marc Lievremont pronounced his side’s record loss to Australia “inexplicable”. Though he has vowed not to quit, the national team remains in some turmoil.

Italians struggle
After the high of the 2009 grand slam, Ireland slipped back this year, losing two Six Nations games and going down at home to South Africa and New Zealand as a shortage of new talent to push the long-established key men began to tell.

Wales’s season peaked in February with the astonishing comeback win over Scotland in the Six Nations but though they were beaten regularly by the Tri-Nations sides they are still capable of pulling off the odd headline win.

Scotland have probably made the most progress out of the leading nations, with a series victory in Argentina and a home win over South Africa helping to eclipse the memory of a painful Six Nations that featured another defeat by Italy.

The Italians continue to struggle, with a home win over Fiji a rare bright spot amid a welter of defeats.

For Argentina the biggest steps forward took place in the committee room. Not only will they now join an expanded Tri-Nations in 2012 but the IRB’s adjustment of “regulation nine” means that they will be finally able to draw on their best overseas-based players on a regular basis.

Away from the international scene the Heineken Cup continued to provide excellence. Toulouse won their fourth title by beating Biarritz and though the all-French final was not a classic, the knockout rounds and pool stage provided consistently compelling contests.

It was a one-country affair in the Super-14 too as the Bulls triumphed for the third time in four seasons by beating the Stormers in Soweto.

Hosting the Soccer World Cup was undoubtedly the high point for South African sport in 2010 but having packed Soweto crowds of black and white supporters watching rugby, a sport once reviled in the townships as the manifestation of apartheid, could ultimately be seen as an even greater achievement. – Reuters

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