December 29, 2017 / 6:58 AM / 23 days ago

North closes gap but All Blacks remain the benchmark

SYDNEY (Reuters) - A humdinger of a British and Irish Lions series in New Zealand was the highlight of the test rugby year and although it finished with honours even, there is little doubt that the All Blacks remained the benchmark in 2017.

A sweep of their Rugby Championship fixtures gave the world champions a 12th southern hemisphere title in 16 years and flyhalf Beauden Barrett kept the World Rugby Player of the Year award in the country for the sixth successive year.

England, the team widely considered to have the best chance of knocking them off their perch at the 2019 World Cup, also enjoyed another strong year even if they were denied the chance to test their mettle against the men in black.

Eddie Jones’s powerful side matched New Zealand’s tier one mark of 18 successive wins on their way to retaining the Six Nations title only to be deprived of the grand slam, and the outright record, by the Irish in Dublin.

Ireland went unbeaten at Landsdowne Road and finished the year with wins over South Africa and Argentina but their Six Nations campaign was derailed by their Celtic brethren with defeats in Wales and Scotland.

The revival of Scotland under first Vern Cotter and then Gregor Townsend was one of the most welcome stories of 2017 for a game where strength in depth at the top level has so often been lacking.

Playing rugby at a blistering pace, the Scots brushed off a record loss to England to beat Australia in Sydney, give the All Blacks a run for their money before rounding out the year with a record 53-24 victory over the Wallabies.

England hammered Australia 30-6 in November and Ireland’s crushing 38-3 win over the Springboks was also a record, placing a major question mark over two of the traditional powers of the game.

SOUTHERN PROBLEMS

South Africa started the season with a June series sweep of a hapless France side but, depleted by a player exodus and apparently demoralised, slumped to the nadir of a 57-0 humiliation at the hands of the All Blacks in September.

Australia’s year was a public relations disaster with the protracted saga of the axing of the Western Force team dominating news of the sport when losses to New Zealand sides in Super Rugby and tests were not.

Michael Cheika’s team restored pride with a deserved victory over the All Blacks in the dead rubber Bledisloe Cup test in Brisbane but Australia expects a better return than seven wins, five losses and two draws from a season.

If former world champions South Africa and Australia have their problems, and Argentina looked in danger of stagnating, three-times World Cup finalists France had a calamitous season.

They slumped to five straight defeats after the Six Nations and only a botched late conversion saved them a sixth with 2019 World Cup hosts Japan forced to settle for a draw in Paris.

Coach Jacques Brunel has plenty of work on his hands after replacing Guy Noves, who was sacked after winning just seven of 22 matches.

While French clubs continue to splash the cash to attract the best talent to their shores, it was the big spenders of England who walked away with the biggest prize when Saracens beat Clermont 28-17 to retain the European Champions Cup.

Down south, New Zealand also ruled the roost at provincial level with the Canterbury Crusaders becoming the first team to cross the Indian Ocean to win the Super Rugby title.

They secured their eighth title with a 25-17 victory over Johannesburg’s Lions, who had to play for 41 minutes with 14 men after flanker Kwagga Smith was red carded for a dangerous tackle.

Smith’s dismissal was one of a number during the year as World Rugby continued its crackdown on offences which could seriously injure a player, the most notable being that of Sonny Bill Williams in the second Lions test.

Warren Gatland’s squad had been given little chance of winning one test let alone the series but the Lions stormed to victory in Wellington after the red card to level up the series.

The third test made for an unforgettable night at Eden Park with the two sides battering each other to a standstill in a marvellous display of physicality, skill and most of all character.

The tourists had a bit of luck to secure the draw that allowed them to become the first Lions party not to lose a test series in New Zealand in 46 years when referee Romain Poite revised a late penalty decision.

The lack of a series winner probably also allowed New Zealand’s Black Ferns to claim a breakthrough World Rugby Team of the Year award after their World Cup triumph - the first time a women’s team had won the honour also competed for by the men.

Editing by Greg Stutchbury

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