The litany of headlines read like an epitaph, or a coroner’s report that wouldn’t be out of place in a morgue. Many believe that the All Blacks tour ended on a bad note, but even allowing for the fact that New Zealand test teams don’t like to lose, it was a game that answered more questions than it asked.
No All Black team, coach, player, or supporter likes to stomach a loss.
Often, when such losses are talked about, it is a mix of surprise, shock, or even glee (especially by the opposing team) that a side has managed to beat the All Blacks.
After all, if one was to average all of New Zealand’s losses over their proud history, it only equates to roughly one defeat per year.
This year, we saw the All Blacks colours lowered five times. Harsh or not, this fact alone constitutes a less than ideal year for the New Zealand test side.
The Barbarians class of the “final challenge” (the heady name given to a Barbarians team playing against a touring side for what is often the last international of the year) have now joined the illustrious side of 1973 as the only members of rugby’s most famous invitational side to have defeated the All Blacks.
It was not, in what history has dictated Barbarians sides to be, a genuine Baas-baas outfit.
Often, the Barbarians FC has been filled with home union’s players, or at the very least, players predominantly from the same Hemisphere as where the club is spiritually based, in the north.
This was not the case at Twickenham over the weekend.
It was filled with six Springboks, with two more waiting on the bench.
This was always going to ensure that the challenge was going to be immense, not so much, because the South Africans have defeated the All Blacks this year, but the fact that surely the Tri Nations champions were smarting that New Zealand had superseded them in the world pecking order.
They wanted to make a point before the year’s end.
It was filled with four Wallabies, with another two in the reserves.
This was going to again prove a challenge, as no Australian had tasted victory over an All Black team this year. They were playing alongside non-Australians that may not have been as match familiar with Robbie Dean’s men, but were man-for-man more potent than the usual Wallabies, and would have given them hope to finally taste victory over a New Zealand test team this year.
Add to this mix some Welsh, Italians, and a former All Black with a point to prove, and the Baa-Baas were always going to be hard to beat. Some might have thought that the lack of match preparation would hurt, but with the team having twin Bok and Wallaby backbones, they were a lot more familiar with each other than pre-match practice might otherwise indicate.
It was a heady mix of players with a big point to prove.
While motivation was said to be provided by meeting with some of the players from the 1973 Barbarians team, Nick Mallet would only have needed to say one simple thing.
“Do you really want the All Blacks to emphasise the point that they are the number one team in the world, or do you want to spoil their party?”
The party was in some respects spoiled, but with only two survivors from the French test, and some players having played for barely an hour in a month of rugby, the All Blacks were going to be just as rusty in overall match preparation as their counterparts.
Sure, the scoreboard doesn’t lie, but 14 of the Barbarians 25 points came from Bryan Habana scoring against the play.
But in saying this, winning is about taking opportunities, which were taken by the invitational team.
The game was close, and the positives were still there for the All Blacks.
The New Zealand test talent pool, confirmed by Graham Henry to be a bit too shallow for his liking, is certainly filling up again.
The lineout, for so long a weak position in New Zealand rugby, is filling up with contenders again. And to think that next year Ali Williams and Chris Jack will again be fighting for spots. Players such as Tom Donnelly and Anthony Boric have revitalised a faltering All Blacks set piece, and who would have thought that the latter would have pinched two throws off none other than Victor Matfield.
Luke McAlister finally had a game that showed why he is so highly rated by the All Blacks coaches, and the young players outside of him, such as Tamati Ellison and Ben Smith, showed glimpses of why they are regarded as being good enough for the international stage.
And even Rodney So’oialo, the old warhorse that may have been surpassed by Kieran Read of late, had a strong game. A starter he may not be anymore, but again many teams would be blessed to have a player of his experience and dedication in the wings.
Sure it was a loss, and they are never easy to take for the All Blacks faithful.
But it accentuated why 2009 was a much better year than a 66 percent win average might otherwise indicate.