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NZ's worst rugby week hard to stomach

Last week, towards the end of my piece, I mentioned that I was mildly envious of the Springboks going home a week ahead of the other teams.

Much as I love my job, I was well over the cold wet weather, the ridiculous travel delays, and having already seen the All Blacks play 13 tests this year, so I wasn’t exactly doing cartwheels over the prospect of another week away from home, even if it was in London, and for a match against England.

I suspect the All Blacks, with glorious hindsight, would have been happy too if the tour had ended in the gloom of Cardiff. Had it, they would have been spared their worst week of the rugby year.

In between the time their bus left Wales, and when most of them flew out of London seven days later, they had lost their unbeaten record, and most of them had lost the contents of their stomachs several times over

No, Suzy the mythical waitress was not to blame, although she got a few mentions! There is a nasty stomach bug going around Britain right now…Norovirus, they call it, it spreads like wildfire and it has the effect of opening up both ends in fairly spectacular fashion, although in this case for just a 24 hour period.

By Wednesday it had been through all but two of the team. They look pretty awful at training on Thursday, but by Friday they were saying they were over it and feeling a lot better. If it had struck later in the week they would have been battling to field a team.

They refused to use it as an excuse for their loss at Twickenham, and gave credit to their vanquishers for one of the best performances seen from an England team in living memory, if not ever.

But frankly, I think they were stuffed already. By the end of the game in Cardiff they were like a car with the fuel warning light starting to blink. The tummy bug wouldn’t have helped, but this was mental fatigue as much as physical…..I mean when was the last time you saw Conrad Smith fly so aimlessly out of the defensive line?

After not firing a shot in the first half they sparked up in the second to score two quick tries and close it up….in any other game this year that would have been the catalyst for another win, but England responded with two quick tries of their own, one from Smith's lapse, then the second from and intercept, and it was game over. There was nothing left.

It was not like they weren’t trying to win….Kiwis hate losing at Twickenham, and to England more than anywhere and to anyone else, and the gloating that went on afterwards was an ample reminder as to why. New Zealanders tend to crow a bit when we win for sure, which is something I dislike intensely….but the English are the world champions of that particular art.

But I just think it showed the dangers of chasing money from extra revenue sharing tests….that game was worth at least R20 million to the NZRU coffers, while they also played an extra match against Australia in October for a shared gate…..but those were the two games they didn’t win.

So hats off to Saru for putting their players first, and calling it a day after 12 tests.

It gives South Africa’s players a week head start on their summer break, and they finished the year on a winning note.

The All Blacks might feel a few rocks under their beach towel, by comparison.

The test came too late to influence the IRB awards, although some of the judging panel might think it somehow provided some justification of their nomination of England's Owen Farrell for Player of the Year.

That was of course arrant nonsense, and further proof that putting former players, no matter how illustrious their careers, in charge of such decision making, is like putting inmates in charge of an asylum.

I would even disagree with the choice of Dan Carter as Player of the Year.

At his best, there is no player quite like him, and we did see that in several tests this year, but he also missed chunks of the season with injury, whereas Richie McCaw was right back to his best after struggling through the World Cup on a broken foot. He has been the epitome of bravery and consistency, and quite inspirational in every match in which he lead his team.

Two great players, but they got the wrong guy.

New Zealand were definitely team of the year, but there were promising signs for others looking to chase them down over the next three seasons.

Obviously the Boks finished on a positive note. They have maintained their number two ranking, but more importantly have introduced some young players to test rugby who are going to be very influential in the coming years.

Top of that list is Eben Etzebeth….it’s incredible the way he and Juandre Kruger have taken ownership of the jerseys held for so long by two such legends of the game as Vic Matfield and Bakkies Botha. Francois Louw and Adriaan Strauss were two others who took over from illustrious players and did themselves proud.

I can’t see Heyneke Meyer straying too far from South Africa's traditional strengths, but I can see Johan Goosen bringing a vital touch of attacking flair when he comes back next year.

Australia are still walking a bit of a tightrope. They had a lot of players out, but it could go either way next year. They have plenty of talent, but some of their younger guys need to grow up. We should acknowledge the end of Nathan Sharpe's test career, the guy is a credit to the game.

And “up north” France look menacing….they are the team to beat in the Six Nations, and could become a great side now they have a decent, relatively level headed coach in Philippe St Andre.

England could turn into something good too, if they can build on their win over the All Blacks, but it is one thing to throw everything into attack in a game few expect you to win, and another to play with that adventure and confidence every time.

Wales are in trouble, which is typical of a country which produces so much talent and can play with so much passion, and yet always have a crisis lurking just around the corner.

I managed to catch a fair bit of the Dubai Sevens, which was notable for the performances of some of the smaller nations.

To see the likes of Spain and Portugal knocking off established powers will fuel the growing enthusiasm for the code in those countries, and underlines the value of sevens in helping rugby become a truly global sporting code.

But as much as that, there are signs that even some of the big guns are struggling now to fill the gaps left by players being promoted to the full time professionalism of fifteens….Australia are ridiculously young, while England are the opposite, and starting to look a bit old. Fiji are just plain erratic.

South Africa’s problems are of course more to do with injury, and you had to feel for Paul Treu as he lost another key man, this time Kyle Brown, and he will be hoping like mad that Cecil Afrika will be fit for the PE tournament.

I also think the points system for the series is in need of an overhaul. They’ve tried to encourage the little guys with the points on offer for the lower tiers of the tournament, but it’s providing cheap returns for the big guys who fall out of the Cup section.

Case in point, the Kiwis finished runners-up while Fiji were beaten semifinallists in the plate, and yet New Zealand ended up with just nine points more from the tournament.

Finally this is my last column for the year. I am looking forward to some time with my family after being an absentee father and husband so often this year.

I would just like to thank SuperSport for having me, and you for your feedback and comments. I thoroughly enjoy the interaction, and the exchange of views.

Have a safe and happy festive season, and roll on 2013.

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