PARIS (AFP) – New Zealand head into World Cup year as stand-out favourites to defend their title after dominating 2014 to become the yardstick team of the global game.
The All Blacks, yet to win a World Cup on foreign soil, wrapped up a third successive Rugby Championship, suffering their sole loss of the year, 27-25, to South Africa in a dead rubber after they’d already wrapped up that tournament.
They went on to sweep their European tour in November, although were pushed for some time by both England (24-21) and Wales (34-16), while a virtual second-choice side preserved their unbeaten record against Scotland.
Straight-talking All Blacks coach Steve Hansen made no bones about his expectations going into 2015.
“No one’s won back-to-back World Cups so we shouldn’t even be the favourites, but we will be because we’re the number one side in the world,” Hansen said.
“If you’re a betting man you wouldn’t punt on us because it’s not happened. But it’s a great challenge because it has to happen one day so why not us? So that’s our challenge, and that’s massive because no one else’s done it.”
Hansen has at his disposal unparalled strength in depth, with returning star Dan Carter even dropped as he struggled to regain match fitness.
Indefatigable skipper Richie McCaw remains at the heart of a team that can match raw aggression with sublime skill and, importantly, game-playing composure: a heady mix that wins matches.
“We’ve had to earn the right to win some games,” added Hansen in a warning to potential rivals. “What we’ve found is ways to win ugly.”
Two legends of the game, respected household names in both southern and northern hemispheres, hung up their boots: Jonny Wilkinson of England and Brian O’Driscoll of Ireland.
The European Cup final was a fitting continental send-off for Wilkinson, who guided his Toulon team to a 23-6 victory over Saracens in defending their European title.
Toulon captain Wilkinson kicked 13 points in a victory that meant the Top 14 side became only the third team after England’s Leicester and Irish province Leinster to retain the European Cup.
Wilkinson then landed Toulon’s first 15 points, including a trademark drop goal, in Toulon’s 18-10 victory over Castres in the Top 14 final for the club’s first Bouclier du Brennus since 1992.
And the French did not miss the opportunity to pay tribute to the England legend, playing God Save the Queen over the tannoy after the final whistle.
O’Driscoll’s career also came to an end on a winning note as Leinster beat Glasgow Warriors 34-12 to take the Celtic League trophy, a couple of months after Ireland had won the Six Nations after edging France 22-20 in a dramatic final-day decider.
Elsewhere Northampton came from behind to beat English rivals Bath 30-16 in the European Challenge Cup final, Saints’ fly-half Stephen Myler scoring 20 points as they recovered from 13-6 down at half-time.
And Northampton made it a double by edging European Cup finalists Saracens 24-20 to win the English Premiership final thanks to a last minute try by Alex Waller in extra-time.
There was new ground broken in the Super 15 tournament as the New South Wales Waratahs beat the Canterbury Crusaders 33-32 to win their first final.
Fly-half Bernard Foley kicked a long-range penalty in the final minute to clinch victory over the seven-time champion Crusaders.
Australian rugby, however, came under the spotlight for many of the wrong reasons during the season.
A crude text message sent to the team’s then-business manager by Kurtley Beale ended up with the player being fined and banned, and then coach Ewen McKenzie resigning with Michael Cheika taking over.
Flawless goal-kicking by fly-half Demetri Catrakilis proved decisive as Western Province edged Golden Lions 19-16 to win the South African Currie Cup.
The 2014-15 season is an important one for the world of rugby sevens, with qualification for the Rio Olympics in 2016 up for grabs.
New Zealand claimed their 12th overall title on the World Sevens circuit, but will be under pressure from Commonwealth Games champions South Africa and perennial favourites Fiji.
But the 15-a-side game in 2015 will all be about the Rugby World Cup in England, with the hosts and Ireland tipped to be closest northern hemisphere challengers to the All Blacks.
Under the shrewd guidance of Kiwi coach Joe Schmidt, the Irish enjoyed wins over South Africa (29-15) and Australia (26-23) in November, but England face a tricky task of just qualifying from their pool which also includes the Wallabies, Wales and Fiji.