2021 Sporting Year in Review: Top International Performances- Football comes 'Rome'

As a pandemic-plagued 2021 draws to a close, Newshub's sporting experts reflect on the highs and lows of another dramatic year that featured (finally) the Tokyo Olympics, another All Blacks campaign and international honours for our Blackcaps cricketers. 

Our top international performances this year were...

Alex Powell, Newshub digital sports producer

Fiji retain Olympic rugby sevens gold

Winning Olympic sevens gold at Rio de Janeiro cemented Fiji as the sport's powerhouse and defending it in Tokyo heralded the birth of a dynasty for the Pacific nation.

Even with a disrupted build-up, spending months away from home due to the impacts of COVID-19 in their own country, Fiji made the most of every available resource and opportunity, and lived up to their favourites tag.

A 24-19 win over hosts Japan first up hardly convinced, but Fiji built into the tournament, defeating Canada 28-14 and Rio silver medallists Great Britain 33-7 to complete pool play unbeaten.

CHOFU, JAPAN - JULY 28: Team Fiji pose with their gold medals after winning the Rugby Sevens Men's Gold Medal match between New Zealand and Fiji on day five of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Tokyo Stadium on July 28, 2021 in Chofu, Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)
Photo credit: Getty Images

Any cobwebs were well and truly gone by the knockout rounds, where they defeated Australia 19-0 and Argentina 26-14 - setting up a gold medal match against the All Blacks Sevens.

The contest wasn't even close.

A try inside the opening minute to Ratu Meli Derenalagi foreshadowed what was to come, as Fiji scored four tries to New Zealand's two, running out comfortable 27-12 victors.

Seeing New Zealand lose in a final is never nice, but it's always easier to stomach against a team that deserves it. 

Make no mistake, Fiji deserved it.

Luke Robinson, Newshub sports reporter

Caeleb Dressel 

Caeleb Dressell
Caeleb Dressell Photo credit: Getty Images

The swimming sprint sensation had the weight of the world on his massive shoulders at the Tokyo Olympics.

The heir to the American swimming throne, previously owned by Michael Phelps, delivered in the pool.

Dressel won five gold medals in the Tokyo pool, breaking world records for fun and cementing his spot in not only American sporting history, but Olympic history as well.

Grant Chapman, Newshub digital sports editor 

Wout van Aert's all-round excellence

Wout van Aert
Wout van Aert Photo credit: Getty Images

The 2021 Tour de France will always be remembered for Slovenian Tadej Pogacar defending his crown to become the youngest rider to win the world’s most famous cycle race twice.

Beyond that headline, this epic 21-stage, 3414km trek threw out so many other enthralling storylines, including the miraculous comeback of sprint ace Mark Cavendish, who broke a five-year drought to equal the record for most stage wins.

But one of the least appreciated achievements during this year’s classic was that of Belgian Wout van Aert - a Jumbo Visma teammate of Kiwi George Bennett - who quietly stole three very diverse stages along the way. 

On July 7, he took out the iconic mountain stage that featured, not one, but two ascents of the legendary Mount Ventoux, a victory he described as the greatest of his career.

Ten days later, he was fastest over the penultimate stage - a 30km time trial that had catapulted Pogacar to overall glory 12 months earlier.

Then, van Aert showed his sheer speed by out-finishing the specialist sprinters - including Cavendish - for victory on the Champs-Élysées finale.

No rider had captured a mountain stage, a time trial and bunch sprint in the same Tour de France since five-time champion Bernard ‘The Badger’ Hinault in 1979.

Andrew Gourdie, Newshub sports presenter

Emma Raducanu

Emma Raducanu
Emma Raducanu Photo credit: Getty Images

The international sporting performance of the year and a genuine sporting fairytale... 

Few had heard of Emma Raducanu, 18, before this year's US Open. She arrived in New York to face qualifying rounds, but two weeks later, she has established herself as the rising star of women's tennis, becoming the first qualifier in the Open era to win a Grand Slam and the youngest winner since Maria Sharapova in 2004.

Ranked 338th in June, the win saw her jump to 19th in the world. 

What made this such a special performance was the backstory. Raducanu promised to "come back stronger", when she withdrew from her round-of-16 match at Wimbledon in July, as the pressure that came with a Grand Slam debut on home soil caught up with her.

Two months later, she emphatically delivered on that promise by not dropping a set on her way to the title at Flushing Meadows. 

Brad Lewis, Newshub digital sports producer 

Max Verstappen 

Max Verstappen - 2021 Formula One champion
Max Verstappen - 2021 Formula One champion Photo credit: Getty Images

Wow! What a culmination to the greatest Formula One season in decades, with young Dutchman Max Verstappen edging Lewis Hamilton on the final lap of the final race of the season in Abu Dhabi.

The 2021 season had been intense, filled with drama, heroics, heartbreak and controversy, with debate still raging over the closing stages of the season finale.

But regardless of the outcome and where you stand on the fairness of the last-lap shootout, Verstappen was simply magnificent in an inferior car with less straight-line speed.

With more podiums, more pole positions, most laps led and more wins than Hamilton, the 24-year-old son of a former driver has rung in a new era in Formula One.

No doubt the determined seven-time champion Brit will be back in 2022 with a vengeance, with Mercedes tipped as well ahead of the pack in development of the new car under new regulations, but 2021 will always be the year of the Dutch.

Drive to survive indeed. 

Stephen Foote, Newshub digital sports producer

Italy win football's European Championships

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 11: (BILD ZEITUNG OUT) Giorgio Chiellini of Italy lifts the trophy while his team-mates celebrate after winning the UEFA Euro 2020 Championship Final between Italy and England at Wembley Stadium on July 11, 2021 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Matteo Ciambelli/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)
Photo credit: Getty Images

While England were busy whipping their collective nation into a fervor over their prospects of a first FIFA trophy since 1966, Italy were doing what they do best - playing clinical, winning football.

The Azzurri almost flew under the radar, as they tore through pool play on their way to the knockout stages of the tournament, desperate to wash out the bitter taste of their failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

A statement quarter-final win over heavyweights Belgium was tarnished by the loss of linchpin defender Leonardo Spinazzola, who was stretchered off with a campaign-ending Achilles injury during the 2-1 triumph, leaving many questioning their championship credentials.

Unfazed, the Italians battled past a surging Spain in a semi-final of remarkable technical quality, leaving standout midfielder Jorginho to hold his nerve and calmly slot the penalty-shootout decider to send his team into the showpiece match.

Entering the white-hot cauldron of Wembley to take on England, the stars appeared perfectly aligned for the hosts to end to their 55 years of trophy-less misery and ensure football really was 'coming home'.

But showing their trademark resilience, Italy overcame the deafening pressure of desperate English supporters and the shock of conceding a second-minute goal to equalise through Leonardo Bonucci, then force a penalty shootout.

While the English youth sputtered in the spotlight, titanic Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma put a bow on his Player of the Tournament award with a slew of saves to clinch their first European title since 1968, restamping their mark as one of football's elite international sides and sending a nation into mourning.

Football was 'coming Rome'.