Looking back at 2020, a year like no other

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Above all else, at a time of an unprecedented pandemic, New Zealanders still managed to have the benefits of a competitive rugby season as a result of sticking closely to the requirements put in place by the Government.

 

Not only were games able to take place, but they occurred in front of packed stadiums, something few other countries in the world could even contemplate.

 

At the core of the season that emerged in the wake of the country's autumn lockdown was the implementation of Investec Super Rugby Aotearoa in which the country's five clubs played a two-round tournament of immense quality.

 

It provided a necessary diversion for the country, and just how necessary that was, became evident when stadiums opened to the public. They flocked to games in a way not seen for many years.

 

As Foster has said, "Investec Super Rugby Aotearoa was really timely for our country. They did a fantastic job, the franchises," he said.

 

 

From a pure rugby sense, Super Rugby Aotearoa also impacted in two other ways.

 

In the time-honoured post-Rugby World Cup tradition, it brought new players to light, with seven new All Blacks making their debuts in 2020: prop Alex Hodgman, lock Tupou Vaa’i, loose forwards Hoskins Sotutu and Cullen Grace, midfielder Peter Umaga-Jensen and outside backs Caleb Clarke and Will Jordan.

 

And, as was the case after the 1999, 2003 and 2007 World Cups, the All Blacks of 2020 suffered losses along the way.

 

Yet, despite those frustrations, they achieved the two major trophies they were able to play for in this Covid-affected season: they retained the Bledisloe Cup and won another Investec Tri Nations title.

 

As Foster told Sky’s The Breakdown show: “I’d have to say I’m pretty satisfied with the campaign. I thought we showed how good we can be. We won two trophies.”

 

The second impact of Investec Super Rugby Aotearoa, which has not been so obvious, was the demand of that competition itself.

 

 

This was not only measured by what occurred on the field - the play was at another level itself given the week-in, week-out demands made of players - but of what was going on around them.

 

Job losses in the community at large, uncertainty about the future of their contracts, immediate concerns for the well-being of friends and families all affected by the Covid-19 reality, and the constant moving ground about what might, or might not happen, created an environment that affected everyone in the country.

 

Rugby players were not immune from those concerns and time may reveal just what a toll it took of them. There may be a question, that the demands of Investec Super Rugby Aotearoa had a physical toll that consciously, or otherwise, impacted later in their year.

 

For the moment, Foster and his coaching panel can take deep breaths to reflect on their playing stocks. The growth of the new All Blacks, together with returning players like Akira Ioane, Karl Tu'inukuafe and Asafo Aumua, was typical of the All Blacks' system.

 

Beneath Test level, Mitre 10 Cup rugby, which a enjoyed rejuvenation, maintained its role as a stepping stone to Super Rugby, as reflected in the squads named for 2021. There is every chance that yet more players may emerge next season as contenders for inclusion in the Rugby World Cup squad in France in 2023.

 

That has always been the way for New Zealand and All Blacks' rugby and the achievement of completing so much in a pandemic-ravaged year may reveal itself sooner than most other countries, by comparison.

 

For many years Australia enjoyed the description of being 'the lucky country', but in a rugby sense, New Zealand can claim that title after the way it performed in 2020.

 

As fans take that deep breath that Foster suggested, they can reflect on just how fortunate they were to be able to enjoy a level of competitive rugby while the rest of the world could only watch on in envy. It was a year like no other.

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