After ending their World Cup pain last year, New Zealand stamped their authority all over 2012, only for their triumphant run to be cut short spectacularly in the final game of the year.
When the All Blacks ran out at Twickenham on Dec. 1 within three games of matching their record 23-match unbeaten sequence and, with only an 18-18 draw with Australia blotting their copybook, they were being touted as the best team of all time.
However, in an afternoon that encapsulated the tantalizing unpredictability and eternal appeal of international sport, they fell to their second-worst defeat, 38-21, against England.
A sweep of the International Rugby Board’s awards — Steve Hansen was named best coach, Dan Carter best player and the All Blacks best team — will have been scant consolation for a team who bucked the trend of recent World Cup winners by kicking on and improving in the year after their success.
Hansen made sure his squad kept developing with the introduction of players who brought an extra dimension to an already superb side.
He blooded nine new players as he started the reconstruction of a side that would otherwise be dominated by players in their mid-30s by the time they defended their title in England in 2015.
Changes in the first-choice side saw Aaron Smith inject verve at scrumhalf, while fearsome winger Julian Savea’s tally of 12 tries in nine Tests in his debut season tells its own story.
Their brand of rugby was a step up even from that which they displayed in last year’s triumph on home soil, mixing all the physicality expected of the All Blacks with a ruthless exploitation of turnover ball and an explosiveness out wide that few teams were able to stop.
“This year they have shown they are one of the great sides,” former captain Sean Fitzpatrick said. “They are trying to play the perfect game. They want to take it to a new level.”
Hansen was not drawn into the debate about where his side might stand in the all-time rankings.
“It’s for other people to judge whether we are the greatest team or not — or if we are a great team,” Hansen said after his team’s 25th successive win over Wales.
Australia were unable to match their neighbors on a regular basis, but they bow to nobody when it comes to resilience.
Ravaged by injuries and humiliated 33-6 by France, the Wallabies climbed off the canvas to end their season with a hat-trick of wins over England, Italy and Wales. Stopping the New Zealand juggernaut via their June draw was also an impressive display a month after they had been whacked 31-8 by South Africa.
Heyneke Meyer’s first year in charge of the Springboks produced a home series win over England and last month’s three-game European clean sweep in which they won every one of their lineout throws.
However, they managed only two wins in the Championship and were held to a draw by Argentina amid criticism, hardly original, that their physical approach was one-dimensional.
After crying out for years for more meaningful competition, Argentina got their wish and performed creditably in their first year in the Championship, and they played twice as many matches this year as they had in any previous non-World Cup year. They grew into the competition, developing expansive rugby and losing only narrowly away to Australia.
Coach Santiago Phelan and his squad, always increasing in depth and quality, will have learned a lot to take into their second year, though they looked exhausted in their final match last month in Dublin when they were thrashed 46-24.