New Zealand buried 24 years of pain by not, for once, choking and deservedly going on to scoop rugby union’s ultimate prize — the Rugby World Cup.
That’s not to say the All Blacks’ campaign, led magnificently by captain Richie McCaw and coach Graham Henry, was all smooth sailing.
Star playmaker Dan Carter was ruled out early on, quickly followed by second-choice flyhalf Colin Slade. When the third flyhalf, Aaron Cruden departed the final against France with a knee injury, up stepped much-maligned Stephen Donald to hit a crucial penalty that saw the hosts win 8-7.
It was the All Blacks’ second global title since they beat France, also at Eden Park, in 1987 in the inaugural World Cup.
The French got through to the showpiece match despite twice being beaten in pool play, by New Zealand and Tonga and only qualified for the knockout phase courtesy of a losing bonus point in the latter match.
Sketchy form on the field was matched by vociferous criticism of the players by outspoken France coach Marc Lievremont, as rumours of a rift between the squad and management quickly spread.
The All Blacks’ success on the pitch was more than matched by the spirit in which local people embraced the tournament.
Organisers had promised “a stadium of four million”, in reference to the population of New Zealand, and the people delivered.
The quarterfinal line-up was all too predictable and made many wonder why the need for 48 matches. Many of the emerging nations performed well in their opening pool fixtures but, significantly, none of them actually won.
And the general trend was for ever heavier defeats as the grossly unfair fixture schedule, which saw many “minnows” facing four-day turnarounds while big teams usually had a week between games, took its toll.
However, the major teams did indicate they’d be prepared to play mid-week matches in 2015 when the World Cup will be held in England.
The World Cup was a notable disaster for England, who were downed by France in the quarters but made more headlines for drunken off-pitch cavorting. The fall-out has seen Martin Johnson step down as coach, Stuart Lancaster taking over for the Six Nations.
One legend of international rugby part of Johnson’s squad in New Zealand was Jonny Wilkinson, who has also announced his retirement from Tests, although he will continue to play for French club Toulon.
Earlier in the year, England had wrapped up the Six Nations ahead of France, Ireland and Wales, while Australia downed the All Blacks 25-20 in their final match to claim their first Tri-Nations crown in 10 years.
To further boost Australian pre-World Cup hopes, it was the Queensland Reds who won the Super 15 tournament, beating the Cantebury-based Crusaders 18-13 in the final.
European club competition saw Irish province Leinster win another fantastic European Cup, Ireland fly-half Jonathan Sexton inspiring his team to a 33-22 win over Northampton.
And Harlequins wrapped up the second-tier Challenge Cup with a last-gasp 19-18 victory over Stade Francais.
In South Africa, Elton Jantjies kicked 24 points to help the Golden Lions win a South African Currie Cup final at their Ellis Park home for the first time in 61 years.
Jantjies did not miss a shot at the posts as he slotted five penalties, three conversions and a drop goal in a 42-16 triumph over defending champions the Sharks.
Saracens won the English Premiership with a 22-18 victory over Leicester, who had finished the season atop the table. Munster claimed the Celtic League crown after beating Leinster 19-9 in the final.
Toulouse scrapped their way to an 18th French Top 14 crown with a hard-fought 15-10 victory over Montpellier.
Toulouse flanker Thierry Dusautoir was named the International Rugby Board (IRB) player of the year for 2011.
Dusautoir received his award the day after captaining France in their nail-biting World Cup final defeat by New Zealand, when he scored his side’s only try and was named man-of-the-match despite being on the losing side.
New Zealand were named team of the year, with Henry, who has now left the All Blacks hot-seat, the coach of the year.
The IRB’s World Sevens Series was claimed by New Zealand for the ninth time in 12 seasons, South African Cecil Afrika taking the player of the year award. — AFP