Jim Kayes has been covering rugby since the late 1990s across print/online, radio and television with The Dominion Post, Stuff.co.nz, TV3 and Newshub, Radio Live and Radio Sport. He's been to five World Cups, covered almost 200 All Blacks Tests and was on safari with the Lions when the British and Irish side last toured New Zealand, in 2005.Read more exclusive columns
World Cup squad contenders taking shape - Kayes
Jim Kayes 25 Nov 2018 Getty Images
QUICK TAP: RAMPANT ALL BLACKS FINISH SEASON ON A HIGH
But as poor as Italy were in Rome, that’s doesn’t mean it’s impossible to judge the All Blacks and nor should it detract from some decent performances.
Leading the way was Dane Coles who showed some of his old skills out wide, helping create tries, running with the ball in two hands, stepping like a second five.
Jordie Barrett will have his enjoyed his four-try man of the match performance and it should boost his confidence with the World Cup firmly on the horizon.
And in the pack, Patrick Tu’ipulotu and Vaea Fifita showed how strong and skillful they can be with the ball in hand against an opposition that allowed the All Blacks far too much time and space.
The win came in a performance that was a underwhelming, perhaps because of the opposition and coming down from the high of last week’s game against Ireland.
It was a bit stilted despite the fact the All Blacks ran in 10 tries and kept their own line in tact.
But it was a Test win, the All Blacks 12th in a year that saw them lose twice - to South Africa in Wellington and Ireland in Dublin.
Compared with almost any other international side, it’s a record to savour.
South Africa also finished their year in defeat, losing to Wales to record their seventh defeat in 14 Tests - a 50 percent record that would probably see an All Blacks coach sacked.
Of the All Blacks, none had a better year than Ardie Savea who made the most of Sam Cane’s injury by truly establishing himself as a world class openside.
He is fast, we knew that, strong - that was known too, and has a wonderful set of skills, but what he did this year was use all of that in a series of consistently high performances.
Blindside is still open though with Liam Squire the incumbent perhaps because of a lack of genuine competition.
Front rowers Karl Tu’inukuafe and Codie Taylor also had big years. Tu’inukuafe went from not having a Super Rugby contract to being a starting loose head prop in tests against South Africa, England and Ireland.
Taylor established himself as a worthy rival to Coles - rather than simply his deputy - with an all round game that perhaps only lacks Coles’ top end pace.
It’s also been a good year for Damian McKenzie who started 2018 as a spare parts player who could cover first five and fullback, and was great off the bench, to being the first choice 15.
???? Thanks for having us @Federugby. See you at #RWC2019! pic.twitter.com/Au6D5G8V4a— All Blacks (@AllBlacks) November 24, 2018His spot though, could be under the most pressure of anyone in the starting XV simply because of the array of talents Steve Hansen has to pick from in his back three.
I like Waisake Naholo on the wing with Ben Smith at fullback and Rieko Ioane on the other wing, with McKenzie coming from the bench.
But Naholo has had a patchy international season, not helped by limited starts but also by some indifferent play.
He is a superb finisher and better under the highball than many given him credit, but he needs a big Super season to stay in the frame.
It’s been a good season for Richie Mo’unga too even if he didn’t get to start in Rome as many thought he would.
He’s been very good from the bench and brings a slight shift in tactics when he comes on. His backs, though, are dreaming if they think Hansen is going to abandon Beauden Barrett as his starting 10.
TJ Perenara is another who has moved up this year and it will be fascinating to see who gets the starts in the big tests leading into the World Cup.
One area that seems as muddled now as it was 10 months ago is the midfield.
Jack Goodhue is the preferred centre but needs to remain healthy. Inside him it is anyone’s guess who will the main second five next year as Ryan Crotty, Sonny Bill Williams, Anton Lienert-Brown and Nani Laumape are all good, but different types of player.
Staying injury free will be vital, especially for Williams, who has had a wretched year, and Crotty, who needs to concussion free.
Add to that mix the return to New Zealand of Ma’a Nonu and Hansen has some big calls to make in the midfield.
Bring on 2019.
???? Guess who’s playing the All Blacks in Hamilton next year!? ????????????
READ ???? https://t.co/0rEQA1bNJg
??? Don't want to miss out? Grab your @NZ_Sevens tickets or a @ChiefsRugby season membership to ensure early access to tickets for the Test ???? https://t.co/1kTMTEZWHB pic.twitter.com/GZFjmdjyad— All Blacks (@AllBlacks) November 24, 2018