All Black flop is year's highlight

LONDON - South Africa, England and Argentina might beg to differ but the rugby story of 2007 was New Zealand's all-too-familiar but still shocking World Cup implosion.

LONDON - South Africa, England and Argentina might beg to differ but the rugby story of 2007 was New Zealand's all-too-familiar but still shocking World Cup implosion.

The ruthlessly efficient Springboks were worthy winners of a World Cup where the success of Argentina and Fiji, the exuberance of Tonga, Namibia and debutants Portugal and a memorable quarterfinal weekend overruled concerns about negative play to mark it as the best of the six played to date.

That was good news as the World Cup casts a huge shadow over the rest of the game.

This is particularly true in New Zealand, where the side's domination of the sport between tournaments has become almost an irrelevance alongside their consistent failure on the biggest stage.

Coach Graham Henry spent four years building towards October 20 in Paris but, despite an unprecedented no-stone-unturned approach, watched his team go out in the quarterfinals for the first time.

Henry's policy was to build a virtually interchangeable 30-man squad, where every player would be vastly experienced and all eventualities would be covered, with key players rested from provincial games and even Tests in a bid to ensure freshness in France.

However, the policy backfired spectacularly. Some of New Zealand's leading players had almost forgotten how to play 80 intense minutes and when France, wounded and snarling after their opening-game defeat by Argentina, ripped into them in the second half on a memorable Cardiff night, they faltered, froze and failed for the fifth successive tournament.

Henry was forced to reapply for his job.

He was successful - though only for two years - and already the rugby world is wondering just how sport's greatest team might conspire to mess it up when they host the World Cup in 2011.

For France, having recovered from the defeat by Argentina, Cardiff proved the highlight as they lost their Paris semifinal to a resurgent England in a fantastic atmosphere in the Stade de France.

France coach Bernard Laporte bowed out with a legacy of ruining the team's chances with his cautious insistence on a kicking game that neutered their attacking instincts and left fans of French flair feeling betrayed.

Defending champions England were in disarray when they lost 36-0 to South Africa in the pool stage but the return to action of the irrepressible Jonny Wilkinson and some old-style forward grunt helped them to turn things round magnificently as they stunned Australia, then France.

South Africa had a quarterfinal scare against Fiji, whose pool victory over Wales was one of the all-time great matches, but they were always too strong for Argentina in the last four.

The Pumas had performed wonders to top the toughest group - easily taking the scalp of a disappointing Ireland - and signed off in style by beating the French again in the best ever third-place playoff.

They still have not got a berth in the Six or Tri-Nations but the International Rugby Board (IRB) has taken some positive steps to ensure they keep their place at the top table.

In the final, South Africa had enough defence and discipline to keep England at bay and they took the trophy on the back of relentless efficiency without ever having to do anything extraordinary.

Scorching winger Bryan Habana, the IRB player of the year, epitomised their approach with his total commitment to his defensive duties in the final, while captain John Smit was a universally popular follower in the footsteps of 1995-winning skipper Francois Pienaar.

So, 11 months after being told he was one game from the sack, coach Jake White was the toast of Pretoria but then walked away from the job having been thoroughly ground down by the incessant politics of South African rugby.

It was not as if things were going badly there either as the Bulls beat the Sharks in a dramatic all-South African Super 14 final.

Almost forgotten now, the All Blacks completed a hat trick of Tri-Nations titles while France triumphed in a dramatic finale of the Six Nations tournament.

In London , nearly 100 "stakeholders" came together to thrash out the future and emerged with agreements to address all the ills of the game. - Reuters

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