In review: 2023 Rugby Almanack

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After three seasons of turmoil caused by Covid-19, there were elements of rugby getting back into complete action, the only areas suffering as a result of the Covid hangover being the start of Super Rugby and Super Rugby Aupiki.

But by season's end, there was vigour in the Bunnings NPC and Farah Palmer Cup; the Heartland Championship was competitive, and, finally, there was the season's triumph, the belated but welcome starting of the women's Rugby World Cup, 12 months later than intended.

The Black Ferns' triumph over England, 34-31, was rated the 'most unexpected' of New Zealand's six World Cup wins. Played out in front of a world record crowd of 42,579, the final was joyous, the editors said.

"It was a perfect storm of free-to-air live TV coverage (on Three) allied with the way the Black Ferns were playing on the field and conducting themselves off it."

Typically, the editors dug deeper to say that while the Cup success, and the Farah Palmer Cup, had been of a good standard, the challenge was to realise the work needed at women's club and girls' school levels.

Changing times for the All Blacks were reflected in the choice of the All Blacks XV. Some significant changes in the editors' preferences, especially in the front row, while ongoing injury concern for All Blacks captain Sam Cane was seen with Dalton Papali'i preferred as openside flanker in the named side.

All Blacks XV of the Year: Ethan de Groot, Samisoni Taukei'aho, Tyrel Lomax, Samuel Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Scott Barrett, Dalton Papali'i, Ardie Savea, Aaron Smith, Richie Mo'unga, Caleb Clarke, Jordie Barrett, Rieko Ioane, Will Jordan, Beauden Barrett.

Substitutes: Codie Taylor, George Bower, Fletcher Newell, Shannon Frizell, Sam Cane, TJ Perenara, David Havili, Shaun Stevenson.

The five players of the year were: Scott Barrett, Tyrel Lomax, Ardie Savea, Shaun Stevenson and Samisoni Taukei'aho, while the promising players were George Bell, Fabian Holland, Noah Hotham, Peter Lakai and Jed Melvin.

In further evaluating the Women's Rugby World Cup final, the editors said of the end of the last game against England, "Eden Park has hosted many memorable and dramatic Tests involving the All Blacks, but, surely, none could have had closer finishes than the two Black Ferns Tests playing within seven days."

The editors raised a valid point about the accessibility of the Black Ferns outside of northern New Zealand.

"Of the 11 Black Ferns Tests played in New Zealand in 2022, only one, at Christchurch, was played outside the North Island. It is rare for the Black Ferns to play Tests in the lower North Island and South Island.

"Of the 38 home Tests the team has played, there have been three in Christchurch, two in Wellington and Palmerston North and one in Wanganui and Dunedin. The other 29 Tests all played in the north.'

"New Zealand Rugby endeavours to share All Blacks' Tests around the country. To do likewise with the Black Ferns would go a long way in helping to promote women's rugby."

Black Ferns captain Ruahei Demant was named women's player of the year. The editors commented that the World Cup success may not have happened without Demant's leadership qualities.

"The tense final moments of the playoff Tests against France and England were as much credit to the calmness of captaincy as it was instructions from the coaches' box."

Bay of Plenty 19-year-old Santo Taumata was the women's promising player of the year.

The editors said: "Although the youngest and least experienced of the six props in the World Cup squad, Taumata's strong performances when coming off the bench confirmed here as a player of outstanding strength, speed and vision. Her efforts in the latter stages of the semifinal and final assisted the Black Ferns in maintaining momentum through to the end of the close contests. We see a bright future for this teenager."

Black Ferns XV of the Year: Phillipa Love, Georgia Ponsonby, Amy Ru, Maia Roos, Chelsea Bremner, Alana Bremner, Sarah Hirini, Liana Mikaele-Tu'u, Kendra Cocksedge, Ruahei Demant (captain), Portia Woodman, Theresa Fitzpatrick, Stacey Fluhler, Ruby Tui, Renee Holmes.

Substitutes: Luka Connor, Krystal Murray, Santo Taumata, Joana Ngan-Woo, Kennedy Simon, Ariana Bayler, Hazel Tubic, Ayesha Leti-I'iga.

The 2023 Rugby Almanack, Edited by Clive Akers, Adrian Hill and Campbell Burnes. Published by Upstart Press Ltd, Auckland. Price $55.


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