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New Zealand dominates 2010 as World Cup looms

New Zealand dominates 2010 as World Cup looms

New Zealand at the top of the rankings. Australia's stellar back line undermined by an embarrassing scrum. The southern hemisphere giants dominating their northern counterparts.
Some things just never change in the lead-up to a Rugby World Cup, which comes around again in 2011.
As ever, the Tri-Nations teams are leading the way, and of them, the All Blacks are blazing a trail nine months before rugby's biggest event kicks off.
Sweeping to the Tri-Nations title in July thanks to six wins from six and _ almost effortlessly _ to a fourth end-of-year Grand Slam of the home unions, Graham Henry's players consolidated the No. 1 ranking they reclaimed from South Africa in November 2009. The year 2010 also belonged to New Zealand.
All Blacks captain Richie McCaw was named IRB Player of the Year for a record third time and Henry was voted Coach of the Year. The team won 13 of its 14 matches, its only loss coming against Australia in Hong Kong when the Wallabies triumphed 26-24 by scoring a converted try in injury time. The All Blacks scored 59 tries this year and 495 points at an average of 35.35 a match.
Heading into the World Cup, it seems little can stop New Zealand. The All Blacks are among the clear favorites before every showpiece tournament but their sole success came in 1987. The pressure on them next year on home soil will be immense.
Flyhalf Dan Carter _ who surpassed England's Jonny Wilkinson as international rugby's leading points scorer in November with 1,188 _ and flanker McCaw are still generally regarded as the world's two standout players. Kieran Read is arguably the best No. 8 around. Rugby league convert Sonny Bill Williams is being gradually integrated into the team and adds competition, dexterity and a stunning offload to the midfield. Winger Hosea Gear finished the year in deadly form with five tries from four games on his comeback to the side.
If there are any weak spots in the team, opponents didn't find them in 2010.
"We're in a pretty good place," Henry said after his side's final game of the year, a 37-25 win over Wales that clinched the Grand Slam following other wins over England, Scotland and Ireland.
What of their rivals, then?
It's been a dreadful year for South Africa, the current world champions who are now down to No. 3 in the rankings, behind Australia.
They were blitzed in the Tri-Nations, losing five of six matches, and lost embarrassingly 21-17 to Scotland on a European tour marred by two of their players _ Bjorn Basson and Chiliboy Ralepelle _ testing positive for a banned stimulant.
The knives have been out for coach Peter de Villiers for months, but a morale-boosting 21-11 victory at England in the Springboks' last match of 2010 saved his job and provided a boost ahead of the World Cup.
What will concern De Villiers is his team's aging pack and sterile back division. The return of scrumhalf Fourie du Preez, who missed half the year with a shoulder injury, cannot come quick enough and winger Bryan Habana, the star of the 2007 World Cup, will be desperate to rediscover his try-scoring form after dotting down just twice in 2010, both times against Italy.
South Africa could at least celebrate a Super 14 champion, the Bulls, who beat the Stormers 25-17 in the final in Soweto. Next year will see the Melbourne Rebels join an expanded 15-team competition.
Australia now has the slickest unit around behind the scrum, with fullback Kurtley Beale, winger James O'Connor and flyhalf Quade Cooper coming of age in 2010 to add to a back line that already includes the talented Matt Giteau and Will Genia. Being the only side to defeat the All Blacks this year is something to be proud of, and its 59-16 win at Six Nations champion France to end its European Tour was arguably the most eye-catching result of the year.
But how Australia manages to stay competitive given the fragility of its set piece continues to mystify. The Wallaby scrum, which was dismantled by England, Wales, Ireland and New Zealand this year, is still a big worry for coach Robbie Deans.
Overall, the three southern hemisphere powers still have a clear edge. In 19 tests against northern hemisphere countries in 2010, the south won 16. Their cutting edge and ruthlessness near the opposition tryline remains a class above anything the best of the Six Nations teams can produce. They have also adapted better to the revised refereeing interpretations at the breakdown, which were introduced in February and pushed officials to be stricter at the tackle area and not allow defending sides to illegally slow the release of the ball.
Of the European teams, England made the largest strides forward in 2010. It struggled in the Six Nations, finishing third behind France and Ireland, but has shown encouraging progress since.
Team manager Martin Johnson finally got the win he was craving against a Tri-Nations side when England defeated Australia 21-20 in Sydney in June. It repeated the dose in the autumn when the Wallabies were beaten 35-18 at Twickenham. England's display rolled back years, and was reminiscent of the glory days of 2003 when it won the World Cup under the captaincy of Johnson.
Its back division is looking sharper and its pack remains powerful, but whether it has the creativity and consistency to worry the Tri-Nations powers in the World Cup remains to be seen.
France, which had the European club champion in Toulouse (for a fourth time), won all five of its Six Nations games to complete the Grand Slam but finished the year by being routed by the Wallabies in Paris and with coach Marc Lievremont back under the pressure.
On the fast-growing sevens circuit, Samoa was the world champion for the first time following some electric performances by Mikaele Pesamino, the IRB Sevens Player of the Year.


Updated : 2021-05-18 00:21 GMT+08:00