What a decade it’s been for rugby.
From New Zealand winning two World Cups, Siya Kolisi and South Africa raising the other, the rebirth of the Lions, Japan upsetting the odds in two World Cups, the passing of legends and the emergence of new ones, growing professionalism of our sport and the magnifying of the players’ voice; the second decade of the 21st century was one to look back on with a range of emotions.
And so, as the sun begins to set on a decade of Rugby, we look back at a momentous ten years in our sport.
The decade started with France claiming the Six Nations Grand Slam in the Northern Hemisphere, before New Zealand won the Tri Nations.
In club action The Bulls beat fellow South Africans the Stormers to win the Super 14 title while it was an all French affair in the Heineken Cup final, as Toulouse overcame Biarritz to claim the title in Europe.
The year ended with England winger Chris Ashton scoring a length of the pitch stunner against Australia in Twickenham to claim the IRPA Try of the Year and Richie McCaw claimed the International Rugby Board (now World Rugby) Player of the Year.
For the first time, the Rugby World Cup was held in New Zealand, with a “Stadium of 4 million” getting behind not just the All Blacks, but the tournament itself.
The first shock came in the pool stages with Ireland beating Tri-Nations champions Australia in Auckland, setting the tone for a fantastic tournament which took over the country.
Sam Warburton saw red after a tackle on Vincent Clerc in Wales’ semi against France and while the final wasn’t a classic, the Kiwis finally got the job done for the first time since 1987 as they put away France in the tournament decider, 8-7.
Thierry Dusatoir, French captain, won Player of the Year while Radike Samo won IRPA Try of the Year in 2011, for this wonder effort against the All Blacks in the Tri Nations.
The U20 Junior World Cup was notable not just for hosts South Africa winning the tournament for the first time, but for the Pitch Side Concussion Assessment (PSCA) test being introduced.
With head injuries becoming more of an issue in the sport and awareness of concussion increasing, the then International Rugby Board (IRB) introduced the examination where a player with a suspected knock would come off the pitch for treatment instead of a medic assessing the player while play was ongoing on the pitch. It eventually made way for what is now known as the Head Injury Assessment (HIA)
Up north, Wales won the Six Nations championship for the 25th time, claiming their 11th Grand Slam, while Leinster crushed Ulster 42–14 for their third Heineken Cup, becoming the first ever team to win the trophy three times in four years.
Down south, the Chiefs claimed the Super Rugby title by beating the Sharks while the Tri-Nations finally brought in Argentina and was re-named The Rugby Championship. New Zealand won the tournament with a clean sweep and Dan Carter won IRB Player of the Year while South Africa’s Bryan Habana claimed IRPA Try of the year.
With competition heating up for Lions’ jerseys, Wales again started the year by winning the Six Nations with some impressive displays.
Meanwhile, Japan demonstrated perfectly at the Hong Kong Sevens why you should always carry the ball in two hands, even when you’re running for the line unopposed…
In Ireland, the search began for a replacement No.13 after Brian O’Driscoll hung up the boots after 141 Test caps, but not before winning the 6 Nations with Ireland in Joe Schmidt’s first year as coach.
In Russia, New Zealand’s men’s and women’s teams won the Rugby World Cup Sevens in Moscow in front of the proverbial three men and a rain-soaked dog, while England claimed the U20 Junior World Championship in France.
In Australia, Sam Warburton led the Lions, the youngest ever man to do so, as they took on the Wallabies. Finely poised on one test a piece, the third test was a tight affair until the Lions broke free in the last quarter, claiming the series in front of a sea of red and yellow in Sydney.
The Lions Series was, however, overshadowed by a concussion to Wallabies great, George Smith, which saw the back-rower return to the field in the third test despite an obvious head injury. The fallout led to a much needed review of player safety and changes in the approach to head injuries.
Elsewhere in 2013, New Zealand’s No.8 Kieran Read won Player of the Year and Beauden Barrett claimed the IRPA Try of the Year for this effort against France.
2014 saw the focus moving to the women’s game, with record crowds and TV audiences tuning in to watch the Women’s Rugby World Cup from Paris.
Highlights of the August tournament included Ireland beating a New Zealand senior team for the first time, a phenomenal Magali Harvey try for Canada in the semi-final of the competition and England winning the tournament in front of a packed Stade Jean Bouin in the French capital.
It was also the year where the IRB re-branded to World Rugby, but just before that, the governing body were forced to intervene after Samoa threatened to pull out of a November Test with England in Twickenham.
The Pacific Islanders were aggrieved at the ongoing mis-management of the Samoan Union and were supported by fellow internationals around the globe, who showed their support with the #SamoaUnited campaign on social media, organised by the International Rugby Players Association.
The match went ahead in the English capital, however both English and Samoans huddled together in prayer after the final whistle in a show of solidarity.
The mid-point in the decade was a Rugby World Cup year; this time England had the honour of hosting the event.
It will be remembered for its shocks, such as Japan beating South Africa…
…and then hosts England were sent packing in the Pool stages, after narrowly losing to neighbours Wales and followed that with an unexpected loss to old rivals Australia in Twickenham.
New Zealand met their Tasman rivals Australia in the final and, led by legends Richie McCaw and Dan Carter playing their last games in the famous black jersey, they pulled away from the Wallabies to clinch a 34-17 win.
However the year finished on a sad note, with the death of a legend.
Jonah Tali Lomu, the barnstorming New Zealand winger often credited with bringing the game into the professional era when he burst on the scene at Rugby World Cup 1995, had been suffering from a kidney disease. He was survived by his wife Nadine and two young children.
As one year ended with sadness, the next began in a similar mood, with the passing of another legend of the game who made his name in the 1995 Rugby World Cup.
South African scrum-half Joost van der Weisthuizen died after a long battle with Motor Neuron Disease, aged just 45 years old.
On a brighter note, after being appointed after the 2015 World Cup disaster, Eddie Jones took up the coaching duties with England and promptly led his side to a Grand Slam, their first in 13 years, and 3-0 test series rout of Australia down under.
It was also a momentous year for the Sevens game, with Rio de Janeiro providing a stunning backdrop for Sevens to make its bow on the Olympic stage. Australia beat their rivals New Zealand to claim gold in the women’s event with Fiji beating Team GB to take gold in the men’s competition.
As is usual with the Olympic Games, stars from all over the world wanted in on the action, with Hollywood A-list actor Matthew McConaghy among the celebs who showed up to see what all the fuss was about.
In Irish Rugby, the last part of the year was shrouded in both sadness and sheer delight.
In October, the world of rugby was rocked after Munster coach Anthony “Axel” Foley died suddenly just hours before their European match against Racing 92 in Paris. His sudden passing triggered tributes from across the game.
One month later, his presence was invoked as Ireland formed a figure of 8 while facing the New Zealand Haka at Soldier Field in Chicago. The boys in green summoned the spirit of the immense back-rower as they beat the All Blacks for the first time in 111 years of trying.
Think back on it now; when the Lions team packed their bags for a tour of New Zealand did you give them any chance? Many didn’t, but the guys in the red jerseys didn’t listen.
After New Zealand opened the first test with an 30-15 impressive win, the Lions took the positives, including an otherworldly team try started by Liam Williams and finished by Sean O’Brien, into the second test in Wellington.
That game was particularly notable for the red card shown to centre Sonny Bill Williams, meaning the All Blacks were forced to play over 60 minutes with 14 men. They relied on the boot of Beauden Barrett (who later won World Rugby Player of the Year) to keep them in the match but tries from Conor Murray and Toby Faletau, along with a long range penalty from Owen Farrell gave the Lions the 24-21 win.
With the rugby world on tenterhooks for the third and final test, the two sides went full throttle. New Zealand led 12–6 at the break, with tries from Laumape and Jordie Barrett, but the Lions fought their way back into the game, and eventually five penalties were enough to draw the game.
There was controversy with two minutes left when Ken Owens was initially adjudged to have handled the ball in an offside position; with the scores level, referee Romain Poite initially awarded a penalty in kicking range before overturning it to a scrum after discussion with the video officials.
A draw was not the ideal way to finish a breathtaking series but, with questions frequently asked about the relevance of the Lions in the modern era, the sight of Sam Warburton and Kieran Read holding up the trophy at the end of the match reaffirmed its position in the game.
After a period of negotiation, 2017 also saw an important moment in player relations as International Rugby Players Association signed a Memorandum of Association with World Rugby, “in response to the evolving needs of the world’s players in the modern sporting and societal environments.”
Women’s Rugby World Cup 2017 was held in Dublin and Belfast where the tournament came down to New Zealand and England in a thrilling final at Ravenhill. Led by the retiring Fiao’o Fa’amausili, the Black Ferns claimed the trophy in front of a crowd of over 17,000, edging out a resolute English side, 41-32.
The star of the show throughout the tournament was Kiwi winger Portia Woodman who deservedly won Women’s Player of the Year.
But again, there was sadness in 2017 as Scottish rugby legend Doddie Weir revealed that he had been diagnosed with the dreaded Motor Neurons Disease. The former second-row
But the former second row was determined that he would not give in to the disease and set up the My Name5 Doddie foundation to help find a cure. It has since gone on to raise millions for MND research.
If 2018 was a colour, it would be green.
Ireland won everything from the Six Nations Grand Slam to their first Series victory over Australia down under to an historic first win against New Zealand on home soil in Dublin. They also won team, coach (Joe Schmidt) and Player of the Year (Johnny Sexton) at the World Rugby Awards while Leinster did the Heineken Cup and Pro 14 double. Irish eyes were smiling… but would it last into 2019?
2018 was also the year that International Rugby Players dropped the “Association” and moved their base from Auckland to Dublin. Former All Black Conrad Smith and English Women’s Rugby World Cup winner Rachael Burford joined Johnny Sexton and Jamie Heaslip for the launch in March.
Later that year saw the inaugural meeting of the newly formed Players Council in Monaco, with a host of current and former stars getting together with International Rugby Players to show their solidarity and discuss the big issues of the day.
Meanwhile in San Francisco, Rugby World Cup Sevens organisers breathed a sigh of relief as crowds turned out in their droves to attend the tournament at the AT&T Park. 40 teams (24 men’s and 16 women’s) took part, with New Zealand men’s and women’s teams repeating their success of 2013 by doing the double.
Over ten years since they were awarded the event, it was now Japan’s turn to host Rugby World Cup 2019; the first time the competition visited Asia.
Despite a Typhoon, the severity of which hadn’t been seen in decades, cancelling matches and bringing humidity that had some European teams searching desperately for air, the ninth edition of the tournament saw packed venues, massive coverage and fans of all countries becoming acquainted with the Japanese culture.
Shocks? There were some. It started with minnows Uruguay overturning Fiji followed with the hosts dispensing with Ireland and then Scotland to top Pool A and claim a place in the quarter-finals. And they did it playing beautiful, expansive and exciting rugby.
Michael Leitch and his side weren’t able to replicate their performances in the knockout stages, however, and South Africa beat them to meet Wales in the semis, with England and New Zealand facing off in the other last-four encounter.
South Africa muscled their way past Wales but it was undoubtedly the meeting of England and New Zealand that lived up to the hype. A clash of skills, speed and physicality saw England take the match to the favourites and be rewarded with a 19-7 victory.
Anyone watching the semi-finals would have installed England as the runaway favourites to lift the William Webb Ellis trophy the following weekend, but it was the Springboks who took the game to Owen Farrell and his men. Getting the edge in the scrum and putting England’s game plan under pressure, the South Africans were rewarded with two fantastic tries from Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe ensuring a 32-12 win for the resurgent South Africans, led by Siya Kolisi.
The following night at the World Rugby Awards, Springbok giant Pieter-Steph du Toit became Player of the Year and New Zealand’s TJ Perenara won International Rugby Players Try of the Year.
Earlier in 2019, players from all over the globe got together to have their voices heard in protest at the “Nations Championship”, a global competition proposed by World Rugby.
The deal, which would have locked out several “Tier Two” teams as well as lengthening the season for those involved, was pitched without any consultation with or agreement from Players.
In what was described as a seminal moment for the game, the leading players did not hang back.
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The fallout led to uproar in the sport, with Players asserting themselves on the world-stage and letting the old guard know that a new era in the administration of the game was coming.
An interesting end to an exciting decade in rugby.
Stay tuned for the next one.
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