One year. Twenty-five games of international rugby. How many do you remember?
Maybe you think ranking all the tests played this year involving New Zealand’s senior 15-a-side representative teams, in other words the Black Ferns and All Blacks, would be a straightforward exercise. More fool you.
Weighing up the relative merits of each of the 25 matches required a heady cocktail of science, maths and feelings to come up with a definitive answer. The formula is too complicated to write down, but if you can imagine a combination of Gödel’s Second Incompleteness Theorem, Archimedes’ Buoyancy Principle and Keith Quinn’s Twitter feed you might get some idea. Anyway, here we go.
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25. Black Ferns 95-12 Japan
Eden Park, September 24
With six weeks between the second Laurie O’Reilly test and the World Cup, the Black Ferns needed this “test” for a tune up. Nobody else did.
24. Black Ferns 28-0 Canada
Waitakere Stadium, June 12
The Pacific Four Series was an important piece of the Black Ferns build-up puzzle, but aside from a great solo try to Ruby Tui and a couple of yellow cards, nobody is remembering this test.
23. Black Ferns 50-6 US
Northland Events Centre, June 18
See above. This feels like we’re picking on the Black Ferns, but we’re actually picking on pre-World Cup tests. With the best will in the world, these games are for coaches and players, not viewers. In Whangārei the Black Ferns set piece wobbled but they had way too much class.
22. All Blacks 53-3 Argentina
Waikato Stadium, September 3
This was when All Black apathy was at an all-time high. Ian Foster’s retention had been announced at a show-trial press conference and his team then promptly lost the next test to this opponent. The Pumas subsequently spent the next week drinking at the Outback Tavern and New Zealand spent it stewing. The ABs responded with a big win but, frankly, no one outside of Foster and Sam Cane cared.
21. Australia 14-22 Black Ferns
Adelaide Oval, August 27
When you play the same team four times in a few months, one of those tests has to suffer. After a crushing win in the first Laurie O’Reilly, Wayne Smith picked an experimental side for this trans-Tasman jape and it showed in a disjointed, dull performance.
20. South Africa 26-10 All Blacks
Mbombela, August 7
There’ll be a job-security theme running through many of the All Blacks entries and let’s just say Ian Foster’s wasn’t high after this toothless performance, their third loss on the trot, and subsequent press conference where he uttered the infamous, “ I felt it was probably our most improved performance this year; I felt in some areas we really shifted our game forward.” Cue up the memes.
19. Black Ferns 57-0 Scotland
Northland Events Centre, October 22
Scotland had come heartbreakingly close to beating both Wales and Australia in Pool A but forgot to stop and fill up at GAS Bream Bay. By the time they got to Whangārei they were running on empty. The Black Ferns didn’t need to be much good but decided to be anyway, racing to a 45-0 halftime lead that featured a double to Renee Wickliffe, the second of which was a gem.
18. All Blacks 12-23 Ireland
Forsyth Barr Stadium, July 9
This first Irish win on New Zealand soil might have been a riotous occasion for those watching in green, but this was an inexcusably poor game of rugby under the Dunedin roof, marked only by Angus Ta’avao being red carded for face-butting Garry Ringrose and the All Blacks balling up their replacements so Ardie Savea couldn’t return. Also for Ireland’s Peter O’Mahony calling Cane a “shit Richie McCaw”, which was lauded in some quarters as being on a par with the wit and wisdom of Oscar Wilde, but is actually kind of just a shit thing to say to a fellow professional.
17= Black Ferns 56-12 Wales
Waitakere Stadium, October 16
17= Black Ferns 55-3 Wales
Northland Events Centre, October 29
The World Cup was not flawless. In the space of a fortnight the hosts were pitted against the women of the valleys and the first Pool A clash foretold exactly how the quarterfinal would unfold. Portia Woodman scored a double in both matches but perhaps unfairly the thing that will stick with me is how she should have passed when scoring both her tries in the pool match.
15. Japan 31-38 All Blacks
National Stadium, October 29
I want to give the Brave Blossoms more credit here but the harsh reality is this was cack, with the All Blacks starting backline featuring Fin Christie, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Braydon Ennor, Sevu Reece, Caleb Clarke and Stephen Perofeta. This test is best remembered for the shade Japan coach Jamie Joseph threw afterwards: “The key for us really is to go to England now and replicate that performance against a better side.”
14. All Blacks 42-19Ireland
Eden Park, July 2
Gets severely marked down for being the most misleading result of the season. I was in the crowd, was a sober driver… and still struggle to remember a single thing about it aside from Pita Gus Sowakula scoring a try. Which also turned out to be misleading.
13. Wales 23-55 All Blacks
Principality Stadium, November 6
Wayne Pivac’s Wales were absolutely ofnadwy and at times even anhymwys, but Ardie Savea’s dummy!
12. Black Ferns 23-10 Australia
Tauranga Domain, June 6
While the rest of the Pacific Four Series was relegated to the outskirts of these rankings, this test, on the final Queen’s Birthday Monday of the foreseeable future, carried more weight because it was the first test with Smith in charge and Ted being paid to look his most “Ted”. It wasn’t excellent, but it was a come-from-behind win and it was most definitely the start of something.
11. All Blacks 18-25 Argentina
Orangetheory Stadium, August 27
The Pablo Matera-inspired Pumas were immense, so this test gets a boost to show we’re not all about the home team here. But let this sink in: after the week in which Foster’s continued leadership of the team was confirmed, his loyal subjects responded with a performance so bad Stuff ran the headline: “NZ Rugby left with egg on its face after All Blacks suffer historic loss to Argentina.”
10. Scotland 23-31 All Blacks
Murrayfield, November 14
Given that Scotland remain the one tier-one side the All Blacks haven’t lost to, a win in Edinburgh shouldn’t warrant OTT celebration, but this was a sneaky good test, with a blinding All Blacks start met with a great Scottish middle , requiring a powerful, bench-assisted New Zealand finish. Debutant Mark Telea also emerged as a better wing option than anything New Zealand started the tour with.
9. Black Ferns 52-5 Australia
Orangetheory Stadium, August 20
If Tauranga was the start, then this first Laurie O’Reilly test at Christchurch was the crystallisation of the idea that airlifting resources into a camp at the 11th hour might just be crazy enough to work. It was a big night for Kendra Cocksedge, playing her di lei second and final test di lei in her adopted city, although the floor belonged to three-try wing Ayesha Leti-I’iga, showing the Ferns ‘extraordinary depth in the three- quarters.
8. All Blacks 40-14 Australia
Eden Park, September 24
Probably New Zealand’s most convincing performance of the year. A Rugby Championship-clinching demolition of an Australian team that didn’t even get as close as the final score suggests. Jordie Barrett proved liars of those who said he couldn’t play 12. (Oh wait, that was Foster, you say?) Another corner turned? Pfffft.
7. All Blacks 22-32Ireland
Sky Stadium, July 16
This elevated ranking serves as a short, magnanimous note to Ireland to say, “Well done chaps, you deserved it.” With consecutive losses on home soil and four out of the past five, New Zealand Rugby CEO Mark Robinson asked around for Razor’s Robertson number and put it into his contacts under “Plan B”.
6. England 25-25 All Blacks
Twickenham, November 20
Patriots might disagree, but blowing a 19-point lead against a side that had shown nothing – nothing! – for 70 minutes was the perfect coda for this All Black season. Oh, and that try to Rieko Ioane was something else.
5. Black Ferns 41-17 Australia
Eden Park, October 8
You might look at the score and go “meh” but then you’d have no idea about the sense of the occasion or how quickly the party atmosphere turned to anxiety when the Ferns found themselves in a 0-17 hole with half an hour gone . I think we have to acknowledge the worst of our national characteristics and assume the World Cup would have been a disaster if the home team had collapsed in that first game. Instead they pulled off a comeback for the ages.
4. South Africa 23-35 All Blacks
Ellis Park, August 14
A gloriously redemptive All Blacks performance when it was least expected, which featured a nose-thumbing try to beleaguered captain Cane and a sanguine Foster telling Jeff Wilson he still didn’t know whether he would be coach by the end of the following week but he was going to enjoy this win. It was the catalyst for the All Blacks winning the Rugby Championship but it was in other respects a false dawn.
3. Australia 37-39 All Blacks
Marvel Stadium, September 15
Before Twickenham collapse there was the Melbourne disintegration. After a first half that lasted 58 minutes and featured three yellow cards it was difficult to see what further drama the second could bring, but referee Mathieu Raynal found a way. The All Blacks led this one 31-13 and looked odds on to humiliate Dave Rennie’s Wallabies in AFL territory before switching off and imperiling any goodwill the team recovered after thrashing Argentina. A late, long-range Nic White penalty put Australia ahead and when they won a penalty while defending their line late on it was game over and another black mark for Foster. Instead Raynal pinged Bernard Foley for time wasting, Jordie Barrett scored in the corner – the ninth try of the match – and the rugby watchers of both countries wondered what the hell they had just seen.
2. Blacks Ferns 25-24 France
Eden Park, November 5
Hands up who, on first glance, thought Santo Taumata’s tackle in midfield was close to a perfect exclamation point on a Black Ferns defensive effort that was about to propel them into the World Cup final. (Picture of me on a couch, arm thrust enthusiastically skyward.) Hands up who, on second, third and fourth glances, thought Taumata was about to undergo the trauma of having committed the act that was going to cost the Black Ferns a place in the final. (Picture of me cowering behind a couch, arm meekly raised.) What a game. What a classic example of how not to close out a match. And sorry Caroline Drouin, a wonderful player, but what a miss.
1. Black Ferns 34-31 England
Eden Park November 12
To the surprise of nobody, that complete mindfuck of a World Cup final comes out on top. It had everything from English set-piece and mauling precision, to a red card, to Ruahei Demant’s imagination, to Stacey Fluhler’s broken ankle, to the Hand of God and it all happened in a cauldron of extreme jeopardy in front of a crowd as engaged as any seen in a rugby match here since at least 2011 and probably forever. The biggest occasion of the year was also the best match – a rare and cherished combination.
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