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2018 in review: All Blacks show they're human ahead of colossal 2019

After a mixed year by their own standards, the All Blacks head into 2019 with a certain degree of uncertainty in the quest for a third straight World Cup.

OVERVIEW

Beginning the year having lost just one Test in 2017, Steve Hansen's men started with a bang, overcoming a sluggish first half against France at Eden Park, putting Les Bleus away 52-11 to start their season off in style.

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    The All Blacks coach says tough ref calls are all part of rugby. Source: 1 NEWS

    A scrappy win in Wellington (aided by some questionable refereeing calls) was backed up by a stunning 49-14 series ender in Dunedin, giving All Blacks fans the first true taste of Damian McKenzie at first-five at Test level, a challenge the livewire playmaker was more than up to, while Richie Mo'unga's long awaited Test debut once again showed off the incredible player depth we're lucky enough to witness.

    The Rugby Championship arrived, with home and away victories over both Australia and Argentina a formality, with Beauden Barrett responding to calls he should be axed in favour of Richie Mo'unga emphatically silenced by a four-try showing against the Wallabies at Eden Park, locking the Bledisloe Cup away for another year.

    However, a 36-34 shock defeat to the Springboks in Wellington showed that the southern hemisphere may not be as one-sided as we all thought it was. Rassie Erasmus' side coming up with a backs-to-the-wall display will go down as one of the Springboks' best ever victories.

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      After the 36-34 defeat in Wellington, the All Blacks are out for revenge this weekend. Source: 1 NEWS

      While that result might have shown a chink in the All Blacks' armour, Steve Hansen's side returned fire with an incredible fightback win in Pretoria to end the Championship. Down and not at the races for over an hour, the All Blacks rallied in the final moments, with Ardie Savea scoring after the siren, before Richie Mo'unga showed his nerve to land the conversion and seal a 32-30 nailbiter.

      The third Bledisloe Test saw the All Blacks and Wallabies travel to Japan, where Yokohama was witness to Steve Hansen's newest tactical masterstroke, with Beauden Barrett at first-five accompanied by McKenzie at fullback, allowing for two playmakers to share the field at the same time, doubling the attacking options at any given point. That dual-playmaker switch ended in a 37-20 victory to Hansen's side.

      As the bulk of the All Blacks then headed to Europe early to prepare to face the likes of England and Ireland, the All Blacks weren't finished in the land of the rising sun, taking on their hosts in a bid to showcase rugby's best year out from the World Cup.

      No fewer than eight debutants got their first taste of the black jersey, with Crusaders' wing George Bridge shining the brightest, grabbing two tries in a 69-31 win that saw the fans go home with value for money. That match also saw the return of Dane Coles, having spent nearly a year on the sidelines with a knee injury.

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        McKenzie scored the All Blacks' only try in their 16-15 win. Source: 1 NEWS

        For the most part untested by their foes in the south, the All Blacks' next assignment saw them head to the northern hemisphere, where the long awaited clash with England (albeit around a year too late) was finally staged. With England running out to an early lead, the All Blacks showed incredible determination for a 16-15 win, Beauden Barrett putting criticism of his goal-kicking to bed in the process.

        Then it was on to Dublin, where the All Blacks squared off against arguably their biggest competition for next year's World Cup - Ireland.

        Having only beaten the All Blacks once in their history (and never in front of their own fans), Lansdowne Road became a sea of green as Kiwi coach Joe Schmidt added the scalp that saw him named World Rugby's coach of the year.

        Ireland outplayed the All Blacks in every department, a timely reminder that Steve Hansen's men are in no way the finished product, and that Japan 2019 might not be the walkover World Cup many predicted it to be.

        The final match of the year took the All Blacks to Rome, where Italy provided little challenge. Highlights included Jordie Barrett coming away with a four-try haul playing on the right wing, showing his versatility once again.

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          The All Blacks captain has been a target following his side's northern tour. Source: 1 NEWS

          Finally, 2018 ended with what we knew was coming, but weren't sure when - the news that Steve Hansen will leave his post after the World Cup. 

          While at times they looked invincible, 2018 will mostly be a year with more questions than answers. But one gets the feeling that this current All Blacks side are yet to truly hit top gear. And with the biggest stage looming in the next 12 months, don't write off a fairytale finish for the Steve Hansen era.

          NEW FACES

          While he officially made his debut in 2017, centre Jack Goodhue gave All Blacks fans a taste of what's to come, with the 23-year old showing maturity beyond his years in midfield, aided by the likes of Ryan Crotty and Sonny Bill Williams alongside him.

          Prop Karl Tu'inukuafe completed a fairytale story, beginning the year without a Super Rugby contract and finishing as a nominee for World Rugby's Breakthrough Player of the Year award. The 25-year-old had previously worked as a bouncer, before being selected to face France and winning a scrum penalty as his first act in the black jersey.

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            The halfback made his first appearance in the black jersey against Argentina last night. Source: 1 NEWS

            Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi (affectionately known as Triple T) appeared to cement himself as the third choice halfback behind Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara, while Auckland and Blues flanker Dalton Papali'i put himself in the "ones to watch" category going into the future.

            The Highlanders duo of Shannon Frizell and Jackson Hemopo were also thrust into Test rugby, both likely contenders to be in the mix for years to come.

            DEPARTURES

            Sadly, we said goodbye to several fan favourites in 2018, with a number of high-profile players heading offshore for the financially secure lifestyle of European club rugby.

            Jerome Kaino joined Toulouse, while Liam Messam opted to join former teammate Malakai Fekitoa in Toulon.

            Lima Sopoaga moved to English Premiership side Wasps, alongside former Hurricanes flanker Brad Shields, who has chosen to play for England.

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              The All Blacks coach said he is trying to implement ways of keeping top Kiwi talent in NZ. Source: 1 NEWS

              It speaks volumes of the quality of New Zealand Rugby that players with some of the best tries-to-games ratios in history, Julian Savea and Nehe Milner-Skudder, can leave without being first choice for the All Blacks, as the pair both joined Toulon as well.

              Even in the last few weeks, we've had the news of Ben Smith joining French side Pau after the World Cup, with a similar deal expected for Kieran Read expected to be finalised in the near future.

              The worst may be yet to come though, with 2019 expected to bring the familiar post-World Cup player drain expected by those at New Zealand Rugby.

              STAND OUTS

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                Brodie Retallick is an alien, according to Steve Hansen, who anointed Retallick and Sam Whitelock as probably the greatest locking combination in All Blacks’ history. Source: 1 NEWS

                Without a doubt, Brodie Retallick proved he's worth his weight in gold for Steve Hansen and co this year, robbed of being named World Player of the Year. His efforts both on attack and defence have gone to another level in 2018, and with another huge 12 months in the offing, expect a lot from the All Blacks gargantuan lock.

                Praise also needs to be given to Ardie Savea, who after an uncertain period appeared to be on the verge of joining his brother in French club rugby. But he made the most of an injury to Sam Cane to make the legendary number seven jersey his own.

                LESSONS

                If there's one thing to take away from the All Blacks' 2018, it's that the rest of the world has slowly but surely caught up.

                Years of a lack of competition in the Rugby Championship has added a tinge of complacency, which the European sides in particular will be confident of exploiting heading into the World Cup.

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                  Less than 12 months from Japan 2019, the All Blacks coach says all is good. Source: 1 NEWS

                  However, 2014 was hardly a vintage year for the men in black, before emerging as World Champions a year later, and despite the supposed struggles at the end of this year, don't be too shocked if the Webb Ellis Cup returns to Kiwi shores once again in 2019.

                  Coach Eddie Jones said that the haka was as important as the Spice Girls.
                  Source: Photosport


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