Having completed 2017 with a grand finish to his season against France, Scotland and Wales, Sam Cane silenced the doubters who believed Ardie Savea or Matt Todd deserved the All Blacks test No 7 starting jersey ahead of him.
All three are gifted, with the speedy Savea particularly athletic and an attacking threat, especially when he comes off the bench. But none hit as hard in the tackle as the ruthless Cane who had his finest test last Sunday in the 33-18 defeat of Wales in Cardiff when he and Sam Whitelock were immense on defence.
Make no mistake, this was a test in which the All Blacks pack badly missed Brodie Retallick, Dane Coles and skipper Kieran Read, just as they have also missed several other key players who didn’t make the northern tour.
Consequently, winning no more than 35 per cent possession and territory against Wales and Scotland pointed to a weakness against teams who, like Ireland and England, deserve praise for closing the gap on the world champions.
The All Blacks no longer possess the invincible look they possessed for much of the past two years. But they retained their character and blooded some exciting young talent like Jordie Barrett and Damian McKenzie in 2017 who should serve them well in future years.
However none shone brighter than the fast and powerful 20-year-old left wing Rieko Ioane who made his test debut against Italy in 2016 and scored 10 tries this year.
That included scoring two of the five the All Blacks notched against Wales as well as setting up another for classy replacement centre Anton Lienert_-Brown.
Such is Ioane’s enormous talent, few protested his elevation ahead of the prolific scoring Julian Savea during a season in which Nehe Milner Skudder and Waisake Naholo were world class performers on the right wing.
But for Beauden Barrett retaining his World Player of the Year status, Ioane might well have added that to his Breakthrough Player of the Year award.
While Barrett sometimes struggled against the rush defence, he remained a key figure in the All Blacks’ success despite a disappointing drawn series against the British and Irish Lions.
A villain in the lost second test when he was sent off early for a dangerous no arms tackle, Sonny Bill Williams repaid the selectors’ faith with a much-improved performance on the northern tour, especially on defence.
It was also good to see Lienert-Brown take his chance so well with a polished all-round performance that reminded the selectors of his worth as Crotty’s midfield partner in 2016.
Given more exposure Ngani Laumape might have done the same after scoring 16 tries in Super Rugby this year. As an attacking threat, he’s more like Ma’a Nonu than any of them.
Pleasing, too, to see exciting McKenzie display a more mature game at fullback against Wales although Ben Smith and Jordie Barrett look to be the country’s two best when they are available.
Meanwhile it was a shame referee Matt Cecchin didn’t seek a video replay to double check his decision not to award Andrew Fifita a try against 20-18 winners England which Tongan fans believed should have carried their team into the Rugby League World Cup final against Australia.
But what a storming finish to a great Tongan campaign.
- Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sports writer and author