The All Blacks have completed their Grand Slam by overcoming a spirited Welsh challenge to win 37-25 in Cardiff. The win marked their fourth Grand Slam, a fantastic achievement that shouldn't be underestimated. It was an All Black side who had all the pressure on them, having been so dominant during 2010 but were able to deliver and answer any critics by winning what has become one of the most prestigious feats in New Zealand and world rugby.
It was evident as the match wore on that it was the end of a long season, and it was beginning to take its toll on many of the players as they seemed to drop like flies with different injuries in the first half. To their credit though, they fought on and were able to play for 80 minutes to end 2010 with a 13-1 win-loss record, with the only loss coming in Hong Kong where Australia robbed them in the final play of the game.
And it was the template they had used for this dominance all year that they once again used last night, playing an extremely fast-paced, open game, looking to run the ball from anywhere and everywhere.
After conceding an early three points, they immediately put the foot on the throttle, with some fancy footwork and a superb offload from Isaia Toeava, allowing Hosea Gear to stroll over in the corner.
Next came a historical moment, as Daniel Carter kicked the penalty goal that made him the top point scorer in test match rugby history, surpassing Jonny Wilkinson's record of 1178.
What followed was 15 minutes of the fastest, most open, free-flowing rugby you'll ever wish to see as the All Blacks came with wave after wave of attack, and the Welsh simply kept kicking the ball back to them whenever they got the chance to clear, putting themselves under all sorts of pressure and sure enough, Mils Muliaina broke through after being put into a gap by Carter, to touch down for the All Blacks second try.
Strong Welsh defence followed and saw that the All Blacks didn't score again in the half, while Wales were able to kick two penalties to take the score to 13-9 at the break, with Wales still very much in the game.
The second half started with the Welsh looking encouraged once again, holding onto the ball well and were rewarded with another three points, bring them back to within one point.
But then the All Blacks class showed through by staying calm and taking the first opportunity presented to them in the second half, touching down in the corner through Hosea Gear, who grabbed his second try of the match. Carter converted and took the score to 20-12.
The game began to swing towards the All Blacks from this point on as their high fitness levels became prevalent, and they finished well, just as they have done all year.
Tries to Isaia Toeava and John Afoa saw the All Blacks break away and gave them what was in the end a reasonably comfortable 37-25 win.
Undoubtedly the best player on the field was All Black blind side flanker, Jerome Kaino, who was simply devastating on defence, putting in some huge tackles including one that would have to be classed as the hit of the season on Welsh lock, Bradley Davies. He carried the ball well, making good metres and was simply a colossus the whole game.
He was backed up however, by his other two loose-forwards who were once again outstanding with Richie McCaw being his usual brilliant self and Kieran Read, who seemed to be playing a blinder until he was forced off the field with injury towards the end of the first half.
The locks all stood out, but Brad Thorn was particularly good, as he showed his high level of commitment once again in what was his 50th test in the All Black jersey.
The front row was solid, with special mention going to John Afoa, who was able to run 30m to score an outstanding try after receiving an offload from Muliaina.
The halfback-first five combination of Jimmy Cowan and Daniel Carter didn't fire, both having unusually poor games, with Cowan being too slow clearing the ball, while Carter's kicking and decision making let him down. It looked at times as if his ankle injury may be more serious than it was made out to be as something seemed to be definitely troubling him to make so many uncharacteristic errors.
The new boy, Sonny Bill Williams was anonymous in the midfield, creating next to nothing and seemed to offer very little. Ma'a Nonu made an immediate impact when brought on for Williams, reminding everyone just why he has come to be seen as the world's top second five.
Conrad Smith just gets better and better, making some outstanding tackles and saving more than one try single-handedly.
The back three of Mils Muliaina, Hosea Gear and Isaia Toeava were all dangerous, with Gear in particular justifying his place in the team and will surely pair up with Cory Jane on the wing at next year's World Cup.
And that is now what will be playing on this team's mind. The Rugby World Cup. Knowing that is now less than a year away, the All Blacks will want to carry over their form from 2010 to 2011 and grab hold of the cup that has eluded their grasp since 1987. Nothing short of a win will be seen as acceptable, and the focus will now be firmly on making sure that a win is what the All Blacks will get.
But no matter what the outcome of next year's World Cup, no one can take away from the rugby that the All Blacks have played this year. What they have achieved is phenomenal, particularly after a horror 2009. Never had there been so much pressure on an All Black team to win and to win well, but they did answered all the critics and then some. Many players have come of age over the past six months and the way they have played has re-invented the way teams are playing the game.
The players can now enjoy a few weeks off, where they will be able to sort out their injuries and replenish their energy systems to be ready to go and at the peak of their game come September next year.
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