The 2017 Rugby Championship is over and New Zealand are the champions.
But who were the standout performers in the tournament? Here’s our best XV.
Do you agree or disagree with our team selection?
When Sir Graham Henry was forced to leave New Zealand after being overlooked for the All Blacks coaching job in 1998, the then 55-year-old might have thought his dream job would never be realised.
Henry, a former teacher, could have been forgiven for sulking and feeling a little like a mischievous schoolboy, expelled to another institution.
Rather than mope, he instead threw himself into the new task set him by Wales. There, he not only transformed the fortunes of a flagging nation and left them a legacy they are still reaping the rewards of today, but he finally achieved star pupil status back home.
Henry was finally granted his dream job in 2004, but not before he seized an opportunity to poke New Zealand Rugby in the eye by taking the British & Irish Lions coaching job for the 2001 tour to Australia – the first coach appointed from outside the home nations.
His ploy didn’t quite go to plan as the Lions lost a heartbreaker, going down 2-1 Down Under. But he’d finally caught the attention of the rugby hierarchy back home and was hired as the All Blacks’ 23rd coach after yet another failure, beaten by Australia in the semi-finals of the 2003 Rugby World Cup.
Success was instant in one sense as Henry’s black-clad heroes destroyed the Lions 3-0 in the 2005 series – a trip to the land of the long white cloud that would have lived painfully long in the memory.
More World Cup woe was to follow after losing to France in the 2007 quarter-final, before he finally led the nation to a first triumph on the grandest stage of all in 2011 – 24 years after New Zealand had last lifted the Webb Ellis Trophy.
Nicknamed ‘The Great Redeemer’ in Wales after revitalising the country’s rugby fortunes, Henry and New Zealand rugby would both have felt like some demons had been exorcised.
His record at the helm is incredible – 88 wins from 103 Tests – with leading Welsh media outlet Wales Online inserting him at the number one position on their ‘25 greatest rugby coaches the game has ever seen’ poll in 2015.
Steve Hansen may well now be closer to Henry than the 10th place he occupied on that list two years ago. But it’s not a bad record for a man who left his homeland in a huff nearly 20 years ago.
“The reason I took the Lions job was because I wanted to stick it up the New Zealand rugby union.”
— Matt Jones (@MattJones360) October 12, 2017
Henry admitted, talking to media in Dubai last month where he was a guest at the Emirates Airline Rugby Long Lunch, ahead of this year’s Dubai Rugby Sevens.
“They didn’t think I was good enough to coach the All Blacks when I left in 1998 to go to Wales. So I just wanted to give them a little signal.
“And it was the wrong reason (I took the Lions job), but when you’re coaching an international side and you’re asked to coach the British & Irish Lions, it’s a pretty hard thing to say no to.
“You probably don’t think about it as much as you should, you’re just elated to be given that honour. I should have thought about it.”
Deemed not good enough to lead his nation two decades ago, the All Blacks soon came calling in 2004, replacing the successful but unloved John Mitchell.
Henry was key in orchestrating a revolution both on and off the field at international level the All Blacks, setting the scene for what has become today’s near world domination – even if most of the success has come under the stewardship of successor Hansen.
But Henry insists there is no sense of satisfaction that he was forced to leave his home country in order to prove himself, only to return to shape the success New Zealand are currently enjoying.
“It’s not down to be. It’s down to a group of people and I happened to be the head coach,” said Henry.
“I feel very proud of what we achieved. You look back with a lot of satisfaction because we, a group of us and the players, we changed the environment. It was a change, because all teams in those days were coach driven.
“I was coach driven when I played, but people change. It’s a lot like this city (Dubai) and empowering young people and giving them the skills and education to make a difference.
“That’s what we did at the All Blacks. We empowered young people to make a difference to that team. And it became their team. It’s the same now. Questioning the status quo, can we do better, always looking for innovation, looking elsewhere to find that as well as inside.
“Steve and Gilbert (Enoka, the famed mental skills coach) have just been to the States and spent some time at West Point, with the Navy Seals, just to try and enhance their knowledge about skills under pressure.
“They’re always looking to find another thing they can add to the skills of the guys on the field.”
With Warren Gatland given a year’s leave of absence to coach the Lions in New Zealand and Australia this summer and in 2013, Henry admitted arrogance in believing he could combine both the Lions and Wales roles in Australia 16 years ago.
“I was old, 55, when I got the Lions job, but I hadn’t coached a lot of international rugby,” said Henry.
“I’d perhaps coached 20 Tests. I finished up coaching 140. I think you get better with experience and get more wisdom, you are more relaxed. I wasn’t ready.
“I was also coaching Wales and was arrogant enough to think I could do both. When Warren does the same now they give him a year’s leave of absence. They learned from my situation, which is good.
“If I coached the Lions now I would be a hell of a lot better than I was then because I’ve gone through the experiences and I had to change as a coach.
“It took me a long time. The Lions tour was a big catalyst for me to make those changes. Luckily I survived as a coach. I was able to learn from those experiences. A lot of coaches get sacked so they don’t get the chance to. And you have to learn and change if you want to coach well.”
He makes coaching sound like a fool’s errand, although Henry admits he still has the passion for the game. He briefly considers it and says he’d be tempted to return, even aged 71, but he’s happy with his lot and couldn’t do that to his long-suffering wife, Raewyn.
“When I finished I’d coached 140 Tests. I don’t know if that’s still the record. I would imagine Hansen and Gatland are up there and passed me by now,” he ponders.
“Bernard Laporte had coached 90-odd Tests and he was the longest serving. I think Steve is knocking on that door and Warren’s passed it too.”
They haven’t passed him. Hansen has coached 108 Tests (30 with Wales, 78 with New Zealand), while Gatland has taken charge of 137 (38 with Ireland, 93 with Wales and six with the Lions).
Henry added: “It’s a long time coaching, 12 seasons of international rugby coaching. I’ve still got the passion but if you’re going to do those things, nothing else matters. Nothing else can encroach.
“I’ve been married to the same lady for 47 years and she’s very resilient. I couldn’t put her through that again.
“The people close to you find it harder than you do, not that they complain. But it’s a tough gig for them. And after 12 seasons, there’s still a bit of me that wants to do it, but we’ve just been to Jordan, we’re in Dubai now, we’re going to the beach and catch some fish, it’s a pretty good life.”
This was a great Test and one that was desperately needed to restore some of the battered pride in Australian rugby.
In the end it was a few moments of All Blacks genius in the 78th minute that clinched an absorbing match, but the Wallabies did enough to win it and will be bitterly disappointed to lose.
Indeed if Bernard Foley had not had an extremely off day with the boot – striking the post a remarkable three times – Australia would have claimed a famous victory.
It’s harder to remember a greater turnaround in international sport than the Wallabies over the last seven days.
Diabolical in the opening 50 minutes against the All Blacks last weekend in Sydney to go down 54-6, they have outscored mighty New Zealand 57-35 over the next 110 minutes.
Last week the Wallabies made 112 tackles and missed 32, this week they made 149 tackles and missed 34 – a six per cent increase in efficiency.
There was no greater difference than No 8 Sean McMahon. In Sydney he was a passenger chasing shadows. In Dunedin he was breathtaking, a constant presence in both defence and attack; making metres with the ball in hand and driving the All Blacks with his ferocious tackling.
Compare his stats: in Sydney he made eight runs for 11 metres and six tackles; in Dunedin 13 runs for 31 metres and 11 tackles. McMahon has always had potential but this was the first time he really delivered on the world stage.
But he was not the only plus for the Wallabies. Kurtley Beale, two games back into his Test career after a season in England, had one of his best games in a Wallaby jersey and his defence on Sonny Bill Williams was staggering.
I have been extremely critical of new flanker Ned Hanigan but for the first time he looked at home in the Test arena – making tackles, disrupting opposition ball and generally being a nuisance.
Scrum-half Will Genia was back to his best, setting up a try and scoring another, as was Israel Folau, Foley (except for his kicking) and Tevita Kuridrani.
Captain Michael Hooper was also impressive in attack but his six missed tackles proved costly, especially on Aaron Smith right on half-time that gave up a crucial try.
The Achilles heel for the Wallabies was the scrum with All Blacks tighthead prop Nepo Laulala announcing himself as a major new force decimating the Aussie scrum.
If Australia are to win these tight matches they must find a point of weakness in the All Blacks set-piece. New Zealand won all nine scrums and all 13 lineouts. With that set-piece stability the All Blacks are very difficult to beat.
The Wallabies also must be more aggressive at the breakdown. The penultimate try from the All Blacks was scored after 22 phases and you simply cannot give New Zealand that consistent possession. Australia just can’t sit back and expect to hold them out.
But the All Blacks’ performance overall will have deepened the furrows in Steve Hansen’s brow. One off day can be dismissed as an aberration but there are issues that need to be addressed. New Zealand missed 13 tackles and turned over possession in attack 17 times – concerning numbers for any team.
The All Blacks have tough away trips to come in The Rugby Championship to South Africa and Argentina and maybe, just maybe, the Pumas – and especially the Springboks – will start to believe they are beatable.