Read leads all-conquering All Blacks

RUGBY GENIUS::New Zealand’s All Blacks won all their matches this year — a first in the professional era — led by the IRB’s player of the year, prolific No. 8 Kieran Read

AFP, PARIS

Sun, Dec 29, 2013 - Page 19

The past year in world rugby was dominated by one team that towered above all the rest: the All Blacks.

The Steve Hansen-coached side went through the year unbeaten in their 14 matches, the first international team to have done so in the professional era.

With a core of players who starred in their 2011 World Cup-winning squad, New Zealand mixed raw aggression with silky skills and a smart kicking game, led magnificently by outstanding No. 8 Kieran Read.

Read, the most prolific No. 8 in the history of the game with 15 tries in 61 internationals, was justifiably picked as the International Rugby Board’s (IRB) player of the year.

His honor capped a hat-trick of awards for New Zealand, who picked up the team of the year gong, while Steve Hansen was named coach of the year.

“[New Zealand] seem to reach new levels of excellence every year and although some managed to push them very close, they were clearly the stand-out team of the year,” IRB chairman Bernard Lapasset said.

The All Blacks also won the Rugby Championship, while Hansen’s record in two years as All Blacks coach is a remarkable 25 wins, one draw and one defeat, which was against England.

The final match of the Championship was dubbed one of the greatest games ever played, a thrilling 38-27 victory over South Africa, whose two defeats in the season came at All Black hands.

It was Ireland who pushed New Zealand the closest, in their 14th and final Test, a last-gasp try and tricky conversion sealing an enthralling 22-20 victory.

Otherwise, the internationals last month made for some sorry reading.

England, the hosts of the 2015 World Cup, were the only European side to beat one of the southern big three of New Zealand, South Africa and Australia when they defeated the Wallabies at Twickenham.

An action-packed year saw Wales earlier win the Six Nations for the fourth time in eight years, overcoming a dreadful opening half against the Irish to bounce back through to a final 30-3 trouncing of England.

As the tournament enjoyed a frenetic finale, Italy handed Ireland a 22-15 defeat in Rome, while France recorded their first win with a 23-16 victory over Scotland in Paris.

However, that triumph was not enough to prevent the rock-bottom French from landing the dreaded wooden spoon.

Welsh players made up the bulk of the British and Irish Lions squad that toured Australia, full-back Leigh Halfpenny kicking 21 points in the Lions’ thumping 41-16 victory over Australia in the series decider. The 2-1 win was the Lions’ first in 16 years.

It was also a personal triumph for coach Warren Gatland, who caused an uproar by dropping Irish legend Brian O’Driscoll and fielding a record-equaling 10 Welshmen in the starting XV.

Gatland, who had been loaned out to the Lions by Wales, made himself a firm favorite to take the British and Irish Lions to his native New Zealand in 2017 by refusing to rule out leading the squad next time round.

New Zealand also dominated the sevens circuit, the Kiwis firstly winning the Sevens World Series ahead of South Africa and Fiji, before going on to victory in the Sevens World Cup in Moscow.

While the Series climax in London set a new two-day world record for a rugby sevens attendance, with 113,023 fans attending Twickenham over the weekend, there was a dearth of spectators at the Russian capital as the IRB looks to expand its global reach.

Away from the international calendar, former England flyhalf Jonny Wilkinson showed trademark nerves of steel to kick Toulon to glory over Clermont in a tense European Cup final.

Storm clouds over the northern hemisphere’s premier club competition were brewing, however, with discontent among English and French clubs over its financing and structure, and a realigned tournament likely to be introduced next season.

It came as no great surprise that a Kiwi team won the Super 15 title, the Waikato Chiefs coming from behind to beat the ACT Brumbies 27-22 and retain the SANZAR crown, reinforcing their standing as the southern hemisphere rugby powerhouse.

Leicester defeated Northampton 37-17 to claim the English Premiership title, European Challenge Cup winners Leinster triumphed over Ulster to win the Celtic League, and Castres held on to win the Top 14’s Brennus Shield.