Well, it’s certainly been an eventful year for rugby in Ireland, and around the world.
We saw Leinster winning the Heineken Cup, in one of the most thrilling finals, ever, and New Zealand finally won another Rugby World Cup, after 24 long years of waiting.
And rugby had one of its most exciting seasons, with more tries scored and more running of the ball. It was also a year of upsets, with the minnows coming into their own, and knocking a few of the big guns off their pedestals.
On the down side, it was also a year engulfed in controversies, with England’s off-field shenanigans during the World Cup, dominating the headlines. France, also, seemed to implode during that tournament, though still managing to reach the final, and almost win the trophy.
The year started with the 6 Nations, which took on a sort of World Cup ‘appetiser’ feel, in some ways. Some of the coaches were using the 6 Nations as a trial-run for the more important World Cup, trying out new players, and new combinations in matches.
It was England who finished the 6 Nations with the best record, winning 4 of their 5 matches. They were denied a Grand Slam by Ireland, who took advantage of their opponents’ lack of experience.
In the Heineken Cup, Leinster and Northampton were the stand-out sides. Leinster claimed some impressive scalps on their way to the final, beating both the Heineken’s most decorated sides, Leicester and Toulouse, in the knock-out stages.
Northampton had an amazing run, not losing a single match during the whole tournament (which may be a record). The 2 teams met in what would turn out to be an amazing final.
It was an unbelievable match. Under-dogs Northampton completely dominating in the first half, never letting Leinster near the ball. It looked all over for Leinster, before they completely turned it around in the 2nd half, and claimed their second Heineken trophy.
The World Cup was the main focus for the coaches and players during the year. It was a tournament of surprises. Ireland beat the mighty Australians, and South Africa almost came undone against the Welsh. The biggest upset, though, belonged to the Tongans, who conquered the mighty French.
It was a very difficult tournament for the French, with poor results leading up to the knock-out stages, and stories of implosions within the squad. Despite all their woes, they somehow managed to make it all the way to the final, and come within a hairs-breath of winning the Cup.
It was an eventful year for each of the main rugby nations. A year of amazing highs and extreme lows, sometimes for the same country. I’ll now do a short review for each of the countries.
IRELAND had quite a mixed year. They came close to winning a Grand Slam, but almost unravelled against Italy. They had a poor run-up to the World Cup, and almost managed to reach the semi-final. Leinster won the Heineken, but Munster failed to reach the quarter-finals.
Ireland had a poor start to the 6 Nations, almost losing to Italy. They completely turned it around against France, and came close to winning. Then they had a difficult time beating Scotland.
They lost to Wales due to a referee mistake (when the ball used to score a Welsh try turned out not to be the official match ball) and finally put in their best performance against the all-conquering English, sparing some blushes, but not exactly covering themselves with glory.
The World Cup warm-up games were a travesty, losing the 4 internationals, with 2 losses against France (meaning the French beat us 3 times in one year). More importantly, the team failed to gel as a unit, which boded ill for the World Cup.
Ireland looked like they might be out of the tournament before the quarter-finals, cementing the view with a poor showing against the U.S. They completely turned it around with a terrific performance against Australia, which changed the whole complexion of the tournament.
They managed to top their pool, but, ironically, after beating Australia, were completely undone by Wales. On a high note, several players put themselves forward to become stars of the future, especially Sean O’Brien, Cian Healy and Conor Murray.
WALES had a rather poor Six Nations, beating us on a poor refereeing decision, and losing to England and France. They put in some nice performances in their World Cup warm-up games, but had a very difficult pool to overcome.
They almost managed to pull it off in the tournament, only losing to South Africa by a point, and winning their other pool games, comfortably. They completely outplayed Ireland (in one of the most complete performances I’ve ever seen) but came undone against France.
They were unlucky to lose their inspirational captain, Sam Warburton to a controversial referee call, and seemed to lose their direction with him, becoming completely unstuck, against the French. On the plus side, they have a quality team, who should shine in 2012.
SCOTLAND had one of their poorest seasons. Their biggest win of the year probably came against us, in the warm-up series. In the World Cup, they had their worst ever record, failing to reach the knock-out stages for the first time, ever. In their defence they did have a very difficult pool, facing both Argentina and England.
On the plus side, their 2 main Heineken teams, Glasgow and Edinburgh, are doing very well, and could both qualify for the knock-out stages, which could only improve the fortunes of the national side.
SOUTH AFRICA: it was a very difficult year for the ‘Springboks’. They decided to rest their star players during the Tri-Nations, to have them 100% for the World Cup. This resulted in a very poor record, only winning one of their games.
This ploy didn’t even work, as they ended up having their worst-ever World Cup performance. They almost lost against Wales in the pool stages, and just scraped home at the top of the table. They then faced off against Australia, who showed them the door.
These poor results resulted in the sacking of their beleaguered coach, DeVilliers (not a great loss in my opinion) and the international retirement (he’s still playing club rugby, for English side Saracens) of their great captain, John Smit. 2012 will be a transitional year for South Africa.
AUSTRALIA had great Tri-Nations, winning the tournament with a young, talented team. They came unstuck in the World Cup, though, with their loss against Ireland completely flooring them.
They turned it around against South Africa in the quarters, but were outclassed in the semis by New Zealand (who, for once, had their number). They salvaged some pride by winning the bronze medal and coming 3rd. They have the makings of a great side which will cause other teams problems in the coming years.
FRANCE had a tumultuous year, losing to both England, and, embarrassingly, Italy, in the 6 Nations, and almost losing to Ireland. They somehow still managed to come second in the table, which summed up their year: generally poor performances but somehow achieving results.
They had a poor start to the World Cup, failing to impress against New Zealand, and calamitously, losing to Tonga (in the biggest upset of the tournament). They managed to scrape through to the quarter-finals, where they met an English side that were even in more of a fix than they were.
They still had a tough time beating the English, and didn’t look to have much of a chance against an in-form Wales, in the semis. Somehow they came through the match, thanks in no small part to a poor refereeing decision, and an inexperienced Welsh side, who seemed to be overwhelmed by the occasion (World Cup semi-final).
The tables were turned in the final, when poor refereeing decisions went against them. They were facing New Zealand for a second time in the tournament, but it was a different New Zealand this time around, that had had a terrible run of bad-luck in the run-up to the final, losing 3 of their out-halves to injury.
It was a final that could have gone either way, and, all credit to France, they stuck in there when they had no real right to do so. New Zealand are notorious for choking in World Cup tournaments, and almost came undone this time around, but they were playing a team that were unable to capitalise on their mistakes and finally managed to win a 2nd trophy, 24 years after their 1987 win.
France had already parted ways with their coach before the final had even started. Marc Lievermont was probably the most ridiculed coach in rugby, and the French authorities had had enough.
The French team now have a new coach in Phillippe Saint-Andre, who was a great player in the 1990’s. Hopefully he’ll be able to construct a more positive environment for the players, so they can really shine. They have a terrific captain in Thierry Dusautoir.
NEW ZEALAND end the year as World Champions. It wasn’t a vintage World Cup for them, though, or a vintage season. They looked to have the Tri-Nations in the bag, before coming undone against Australia.
They didn’t shine in the pool stages, and had a very tough time beating Argentina in the quarter-final. They managed to get one over the Aussies in the semis, but were quite poor in the final, winning mainly through referee errors. They came very close to choking yet again in a World Cup!
It will be interesting to see how New Zealand performs with their World Cup monkey now off their backs. They have a 3-match series against Ireland (Yikes!) in the summer, so we’ll know then.
ENGLAND had a pretty good season overall, in terms of results, but all that will be overshadowed by massive controversy in off-field incidents.
They had almost pulled off a Grand Slam, but came undone in the World Cup warm-up games. They had a very difficult pool, and all credit to them, managed to come out on top, beating Scotland and Argentina.
They came undone against the French, and ended up with their worst World Cup showing since 1999, not good after winning in 2003, and reaching the final in 2007. Still, all of that is forgotten due to deplorable conduct off the field.
There seemed to be no discipline amongst the players, either from management or from themselves, and they seemed to think they were on a holiday, rather than in the most important tournament of their careers.
These incidents led to a major inquiry within the RFU (governing body of English rugby) which has resulted in many firings and resigning of managerial personnel, and punishment of players.
English rugby is in a poor state of affairs and I can’t see it improving in 2012!
PREDICTIONS FOR 2012
Leinster to retain Heineken, beating Munster in epic final, becoming the first team to ever do so;
Wales to win Six Nations, including Grand Slam;
Ireland to beat New Zealand IN New Zealand, for first time ever (we’re playing them 3 times next summer so we have to win at least one match (come on!);
Rugby in England to get worse before it gets better (behind-the-scenes anyway: more fights between RFU and clubs, more controversies re World Cup);
Irish team to feature in Six Nations 2012:
15. Rob Kearney
14. Andrew Trimble
13. Gordon D’Arcy
12. Fergus McFadden
11. Luke Fitzgerald
10. Jonny Sexton
09. Conor Murray
08. Jaimie Heaslip
07. Sean O’Brien
06. Stephen Ferris
05. Paul O’Connell (Captain)
04. Donncha O’Callaghan
03. Mike Ross
02. Rory Best
01. Cian Healy