The 57-15 record thrashing of South Africa was a sizeable cherry on the All Blacks’ Rugby Championship winning cake. The 2016 team has destroyed all before it and led to commentators like former captain Sean Fitzpatrick to label it as the best ever.
So which players finished top of the class and who falls into the ‘needs improvement’ category?
Beauden Barrett: A lot of armchair warriors are still bleating on about Barrett’s slightly wonky place kicking radar but he ran a game high 124 metres, beat seven defenders, scored two tries and had two more try assists. Enjoy the ride, fans – this is as good as it gets in attacking rugby. Barrett’s evolution this year has been nothing short of remarkable, his pace off the mark must be the best in the world and there is now daylight between him and his rivals at fly half, both in the All Blacks and on the international stage. The difference is confidence and intent. Barrett runs onto the ball far more than he used to and his electric pace and passing skills are chiefly responsible for the periods in the games when the All Blacks run hot and score tries at will. When Barrett is on, there’s no player like him.
Ben Smith: Smith has been his usual immaculate self – exceptional in the air, intelligent, and perfectly timed incisions into the backline. He also seems to have developed a telepathic connection to the other best player in the world in Beauden Barrett. Joint top try scorer, second in metres gained and defenders beaten (behind you know who) and the most clean breaks. Don’t underestimate his importance to this team.
Anton Lienert-Brown: Who would have predicted at the start of the season that 21-year-old ALB (yeah, you know me) would lock down the centre position? His mature debut at home against Australia impressed, but it was his next man of the match performance against Argentina that really caught the eye. Surprisingly pacy and powerful with some subtle, jinking footwork as well as an instinctual offloading game which rivals the other famous All Black acronym, SBW. Another storming game in Durban, with 90 metres run, six defenders beaten and three offloads.
Kieran Read: Read’s link play in the lead up to TJ Perenara’s try was a good representation of the renaissance in form of the 2013 World Player of the Year. In the years following that stellar year, in which the All Blacks went through a season unbeaten, Read battled concussion issues, and, while being solid, didn’t reach the same mountain tops in performance. This year as captain, Read has played tighter, with the second highest number of tackles behind Sam Whitelock for the All Blacks and the highest number of lineouts in the RC. When he has roamed wider, in Argentina and against the Boks on Saturday, he showed the pace and skills are still very much in place.
Israel Dagg: Dagg’s comeback to the All Black squad was more about recapturing his mental desire for the game than any physical issues. After a short-lived battle for the no.15 jersey with Ben Smith, injuries and form issues with other wingers saw Dagg posted out to the right wing, where he performed with distinction, scoring five tries and featuring prominently in try assists and clean breaks. Other commentators think Dagg may be keeping his spot warm for Nehe Milner-Skudder’s return but this pundit is not sure. Dagg’s all-round skills, pace and strategy are very much fitting the 2016 All Black style of play.
Brodie Retallick: Is it too soon to talk about forwards like Retallick and Dane Coles being All Black greats? Retallick, almost unbelievably, is only 25 and has been monstrous this year, particularly in the closing stanzas of the Rugby Championship campaign. When he combines his fearsome strength with his dextrous ball skills, and doesn’t overplay either aspect, he’s a true one of a kind at lock.
Dane Coles: Another outstanding campaign from a player whose hard work polishing the abrasive edges has really paid off. His core duties of hooking and line out throwing were almost always accurate and his fizzing, skilful running and passing has elevated expectations for players in his position. Finished an astounding sixth in clean breaks and seventh in offloads out of all players in the championship. When forwards like Coles, Read and Retallick can transform into backs on attack, the effect is overwhelming for opposition defences.
TJ Perenara: Perenara’s rise has been on the same trajectory as that of his Hurricane’s team-mate, Barrett. The elevation in his standing from missing out on selection for the 2015 World Cup squad, to being the starting half back in the last two tests is a credit to his unquenchable competitiveness and ambition. While his pass is not as crisp as Aaron Smith’s, his stamina is, and his support play is probably better. Two tries and 83 metres against South Africa means Smith now has a war on his hands.
Jerome Kaino: A huge physical presence throughout the series but his deft skills should not be undersold as he showed in his scoop off the laces try assist to Dagg in the All Blacks’ first try on Saturday. Still has a lot of pace in a body which must surely be creaking a little from his history of (legal) violence.
Owen Franks: Franks underwent a quiet revolution this year, transforming from a head down scrummager and ruck-clearer to a genuine ball carrier, showing some nicely timed runs and passing along the backline. Rumoured to be trialling a goose-step for next year.
Sam Whitelock: Whitelock joined Read as the defensive rocks in the All Black tight. The highest tackler over the championship, he often squashed any thoughts of front foot ball for the opposition, and also made some telling covering tackles on backs seeking to sneak through the line.
Aaron Smith: Off-field issues aside, Smith was generally his exemplary self on the field with his usual bullet passes and accurate kicks and a few penetrating runs (on the field!). TJ Perenara now represents a significant challenge to his hold on the no.9 starting jersey though.
Ryan Crotty: Crotty had some huge shoes to fill in the midfield this year and seemed to be viewed as a stop-gap option until SBW made room in his schedule and Rieko Ioane lost his training wheels. However, the consistency of Crotty’s performances and a burgeoning partnership with Anton Lienert-Brown means that it is challengers who now have work to do to usurp Crotty.
Ardie Savea: Ardie has simply had a huge season, and rose to the starting flanker position against Argentina. While he acquitted himself well in that test, it was interesting to see Steve Hansen bring Matt Todd in out of the wilderness to start against South Africa. Either the effects of a long season in which Savea has given the proverbial 120% have begun to take effect or Hansen still has slight doubts over Savea’s strategic nous for the first half chess play.
Sam Cane: Cane had fine games against Australia and then got injured just as he was beginning to cement his position in the run on fifteen. Almost certain to retain his spot when he returns.
Waisake Naholo: Like Ardie Savea, Naholo has shown flashes of his brilliance without really finding a home in test rugby and the All Black team as yet. A little prone to picking up injuries, he will have to put together a strong run of form to keep his place as other contenders return. The Northern tour looms as a key test for his temperament and stamina.
Liam Squire: Not often sighted in his debut against Argentina, but certainly stood out off the bench against South Africa. Squire has outstanding pace for a loose forward, and his two clean breaks and try were just reward for an eye-catching performance.
Julian Savea: From a sulky start, Savea grew into the Rugby Championship and finished it almost back to the flying ball of destruction he has been of old. Another who will be battling in the logjam of talent out wide next year.
Patrick Tuipulotu: Had a big, powerful game against Argentina and may have overtaken Luke Romano as the back up to Retallick and Whitelock.
Joe Moody: Rock solid in scrums and clear-outs but we wait for his Franks-like Pokemon egg evolvement into a higher species of prop.
Aaron Cruden: Cruden was tidy enough off the bench throughout the championship but his influence amounted to a few creative sparks compared to Barrett’s fizzing fire.
Malakai Fekitoa: Fekitoa played solidly in the early rounds but after the spectacular success of Hansen’s hunch with Anton Lienert-Brown, he’ll struggle to fight off contenders for even a bench position when Sonny Bill Williams and Rieko Ioane come into selection contention once again.
Lima Sopoaga: Limited opportunities, but looked like he was having fun driving this Rolls Royce of a team in the second half last Saturday. Should get more opportunities on the Northern tour and will be aiming to put clear air between him and Cruden in the selectors’ minds.
Cody Taylor: Strong performances off the bench as he grows into his number two position.
Charlie Faumuina: Another who featured strongly off the bench without really challenging the frontline front row.
Matt Todd: Useful enough in the first half against South Africa. Whether it will be enough for a plane ticket for the November tour is questionable.
Luke Romano: Solid performances bringing good go-forward and strong defence.
Damian McKenzie: Causes no matter of heart flutters when he plays, but looked a little lost in his debut although it was in a frustrating game context. His possible move to half back could be a masterstroke for the little genius’ future.
Seta Tamanivalu: Had a couple of games in the early rounds but didn’t really grasp the opportunity.
Elliot Dixon: The ‘Where’s Wally?’ of the All Blacks team. Had a couple of quiet-ish games in the early rounds and then went AWOL as Hansen opted for his Highlanders team-mate Liam Squire as his bench option.
Kaal Kaczmarek, Pundit Arena