Beat that!

by Joseph Romanos / 31 December, 2005
The list of great New Zealand sporting victories in 2005 is mind-boggling.

The greatest year in New Zealand sports history? It's always dangerous to make such sweeping assessments, but I would argue the case for 2005. New Zealand sport has never sparkled in so many areas at one time.

We've had great moments in the past. Peter Snell, the All Blacks, Danyon Loader, our America's Cup heroes and others have achieved wondrous feats, but never have we produced such a breadth of sports excellence in one year.

I'd always thought 1987 would be hard to beat. That year, the All Blacks and the New Zealand netballers won their World Cups, the Kiwis beat Australia 13-6 at Brisbane, and Richard Hadlee and Martin Crowe inspired the cricket team to great deeds against the world champion West Indies. Our world champion canoeists, squash players and triathletes were reduced to also-rans among the year's award-winners. But even 1987 pales when compared to what went on in 2005.

Outstripping everything, as far as I'm concerned, was securing hosting rights for the 2011 rugby World Cup. Sebastian Coe was lauded for leading London's successful bid for the 2012 Olympics in the face of the compelling case put by Paris. But Jock Hobbs, Chris Moller and company overcame even steeper odds in grabbing the World Cup ahead of Japan's much more financially impressive bid.

The rugby World Cup that New Zealand will host in 2011 will bear little resemblance to the quaint inaugural tournament we hosted back in 1987. Few overseas rugby spectators bothered to make the trip to New Zealand that year and there was a low-key, informal feel to the event.

The tournament has grown into one of the biggest sports events in the world and it will do New Zealand no end of good to host it.

New Zealand teams performed magnificently in 2005 in what I term the Commonwealth sports, the ones we take seriously but which aren't of global importance.

The All Blacks swept the series against the Lions 3-0, won the Bledisloe and Tri-Nations Cup in style and then achieved a rare Grand Slam of victories against the Home Nations. Daniel Carter was named international player of the year, though he broke a leg midway through the season, and Graham Henry was coach of the year. The All Blacks didn't just win, but smashed their opposition, so that by the end of the northern hemisphere tour they had earned the grudging admiration of even their sternest British critics.

Less predictable but even more exciting was the stunning triumph of the Kiwis in rugby league's Tri Nations, which was, in effect, a world championship. The Kiwis beat Australia and England in preliminary matches and then smashed Australia 24-0 in the final. It had been 52 years since the Kiwis won a series against Australia and more than two decades since Australia were held scoreless in a test. New coach Brian McClennan instilled pride and grit in his team and captain Ruben Wiki led by example.

The Silver Ferns, after playing bridesmaids to Australia for so long, got a measure of revenge in 2005. Not only did Ruth Aitken's team go through the year unbeaten, but they beat Australia by such a decisive margin - nearly 30 goals in the last test - that for once it was the Australians who were looking divided and squabbling about what had gone wrong. This is the best New Zealand netball team since 1987, and maybe the best ever.

In terms of our greatest days, September 3, 2005 will take some beating. On that day New Zealand won four rowing world titles within little more than an hour at Gifu, Japan. "God Defend New Zealand" was played so often that the 27,000 Japanese spectators must have just about learnt the words. Not since the drug-soaked days of the East German dominance in the early 1980s has one country ruled world rowing as New Zealand did in Gifu.

Caroline and Georgina Evers-Swindell won the women's double sculls, Juliette Haigh and Nicky Coles won the women's pair, George Bridgewater and Nathan Twaddle won the men's pair and Mahe Drysdale, who was so badly injured earlier in the year that he had no right even to be rowing, won the blue riband single sculls.

There was another memorable afternoon a few weeks later when Wellingtonians Jonathan Wyatt and Kate McIlroy did the double at the world mountain running championships. Competing on their home course, they both repelled international fields of impressive strength to win by massive margins. For Wyatt, it was confirmation that he is one of the legends of this sport. For McIlroy, it was an announcement that New Zealand has unearthed another runner of international calibre.

Among the other feats of special merit in this most glorious of years was Valerie Vili's shot put bronze medal in the world championships in Helsinki. This was only the second time New Zealand has won a medal at the world athletics championships (following Beatrice Faumuina's discus gold in 1997), so the feat should not be lightly dismissed. Faumuina bounced back to near her best with a fourth placing at Helsinki.

Also worth mention was Sara Runesten Petersen and Dan Shirley's mixed doubles bronze medal in the badminton world championships. No New Zealander has got even remotely near a medal at this event previously, so even though what Runesten Petersen and Shirley did got swallowed up by the sports heroics all around them, it was a singular achievement.

Greg Henderson, that most underrated of New Zealand sportsmen, had another fantastic world track cycling championship. He was second in the 15km scratch race, sixth in the points race and seventh in the Madison (with Peter Latham). As Joanne Kiesanowski was sixth in the women's points race, Catherine Sell sixth in the women's scratch race, and the men's pursuit team of Jason Allen, Timothy Gudsell, Latham and Marc Ryan finished fourth, our cyclists showed impressive depth in a world sport.

All this and no mention yet of the best sports achievement of the year by a New Zealander, perhaps the best in decades. Michael Campbell, who early in 2005 watched his world ranking tumble outside the top 100, won the US Open, after a dramatic last-day duel with a bloke named Tiger Woods.

Campbell became just the second New Zealander, after Bob Charles in 1963, to win a golf Major. He used the victory as the springboard to a stunning last half of the year, during which he achieved top 10 finishes in the British Open and US PGA and won the world matchplay championship at Wentworth. Now Campbell is ranked inside the world's top 15.

Though we love it when our rugby, netball and league players shine, we must salute what Campbell did, because golf is such a fiercely competitive global sport. The fact that in his US Open triumph he held off Woods, perhaps the greatest golfer of all time, merely added to the value of the achievement.

As an aside, this has not been a stellar year for Australia sport. The Aussies have been whipped by New Zealand in rugby, netball and, most painful of all, rugby league. They lost the Ashes cricket series to England and did not land a significant tennis or golf title. True, the Australians were still too good for us at cricket, and our league (Warriors), basketball (Breakers) and soccer (Knights) teams have floundered in the Australian club competitions, but that is of only minor consolation to them when the year in total is reviewed.

It's probably a bit mean-spirited to point it out, but we'd be less than human if we didn't feel even more proud of our year because so many of our successes have come at the expense of our trans-Tasman rivals.

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