Fri, Dec 17, 2004 - Page 23 News List

All Blacks lead the rugby pack

TRADITIONAL The New Zealanders again proved to be the cherry on the international rugby cake, while the Springboks made an impressive comeback

AGENCIES , LONDON

All Black players pose with the Bledisloe Cup after the Tri-Nations Test against the Australian Wallabies on July 17. New Zealand won the match 16-7.

PHOTO: AFP

New Zealand ended the year in their traditional position at the summit of world rugby, but several sides could look back on 2004 with satisfaction.

Whereas once the three southern hemisphere giants (South Africa, Australia and New Zealand) comfortably outstripped their traditional European rivals (England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and France), competition amongst the sport's oldest and still leading nations generally intensified.

Meanwhile Argentina's win over France -- in the Six Nations champions' once impregnable fortress of Marseille -- in November strengthened the Pumas' growing case for inclusion in an expanded Tri-Nations.

But the gap between the elite and the rest looked as wide as ever.

During one November weekend, Romania were thrashed 66-7 by Wales, Scotland -- struggling to beat anyone of note -- overwhelmed Japan 100-8 and world champions England disposed of Canada 70-0.

The best thing that happened to rugby in 2004 was the return of South Africa as a major force in the international game.

With so few teams up at the top level, the sport cannot afford to be without a competitive Springbok team and their revival is all the more welcome after the depths they plumbed on and off the field in previous seasons.

South Africa's triumph in the Tri-Nations, the exciting arrival of their double world player of the year Schalk Burger and the way new coach Jake White has turned round the team culture should be cause for celebration whatever one's allegiance.

However, South Africa's year was indicative of the underlying theme of 2004, summed up by Australia coach Eddie Jones's assertion that the top six teams were within one percent of each other on any given day.

The Springboks won two and lost two in the Tri-Nations but their dreams of a first grand slam since 1961 were ended by defeats against Ireland and England.

That thumping 32-16 Twickenham success was England's pinnacle after the world champions had earlier lost five out of six, including big away defeats by the All Blacks and the Wallabies.

But just when it looked as if new coach Andy Robinson had produced an instant turnaround, along came Australia to keep them humble with their own bounce-back win after defeat in France.

The French began the year with a Six Nations Grand slam but ended it by losing at home to Argentina and the All Blacks.

The Pumas followed their unprecedented Marseille success by losing in Dublin to an Ireland team who also beat South Africa and England during the year but lost twice to the Springboks in June.

WORLD RANKINGS

New Zealand recovered from finishing bottom of the Tri-Nations to end with possibly the result of the year -- their 45-6 thrashing of France in Paris.

It left them firmly on top of the world rankings and set the scene for what will be the highlight of 2005 -- the British Lions Tour.

Clive Woodward will be in charge of the Lions but he was still very much England coach when the international year began with the Six Nations.

His, and England's, world crown began to slip in March when Ireland secured a deserved 19-16 win at Twickenham.

It was England's first home defeat in 22 matches and Ireland's first there in 10 years, helping them to a first Triple Crown since 1985.

The best team in the tournament were undoubtedly France and they completed a clean sweep with a 24-21 Paris win over England.

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