Another year is over, but not just any year in Rugby. There’s something Rugby World Cup years that always makes them extra special. Here are the highlights and biggest stories from the last 12 months:
Gavin Henson made his debut for Saracens over the Christmas period, in what prove to be the start of a disastrous spell at the club that resulted in the controversial centre moving to Toulon six weeks later. Then Gloucester lock Dave Attwood was banned for 9 weeks for stamping, as was Delon Armitage for 8 weeks ruling them both out of the Six Nations, with Tom Wood being called up for the first time. Wales were dealt the blow of losing both Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones for the Six Nations, whilst Wasps produced a shock win over Toulouse in the Heineken Cup thanks to a moment of brilliance from David Lemi.
Tom Wood made his England debut against Wales in Cardiff, impressing many as England won in Wales. Alex Corbisiero was also called up following an injury to Andrew Sheridan, making his debut against Italy. Super Rugby kicked off for the first time with 15 teams, with newcomers the Melbourne Rebels on the wrong end of a 43-0 thumping in their first ever match against the Waratahs. Christchurch was hit by a devastating earthquake, leaving the Crusaders without a ground for the remainder of the season. England were leading the way in the Six Nations after also defeating Italy and France.
Plenty of young players were leaving their mark on the Six Nations, including Sean O’Brien, Richie Gray and George North. England defeated Scotland to set up a Grand Slam decider in Dublin, but they were unsuccessful, well beaten by a spirited Irish team, and having to settle for the Championship and not the Grand Slam. The Crusaders took on the Sharks in a special match at Twickenham to help raise money for the Earthquake fund back in Christchurch, in an incredible match which ended 44-28. Gloucester’s 11 game winning streak came to an explosive end in a 50 point hammering against Harlequins, and Aironi picked up their first even Magners League win over Connacht.
Manu Tuilagi was named Premiership Player of the Month for March. Gloucester produced an incredible draw at Welford Road thanks to a late interception try from Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu. In the Heineken Cup, Leinster and Northampton were headed to Cardiff after winning their respective semi-finals against Toulouse and Perpignan.
A crazy final day of the Premiership season saw Leeds seemingly on the brink of survival following a bit first half lead against Northampton, with Newcastle set for the drop, before the Saints came back and left Leeds relegated once more. In France, Montpellier were proving a surprise package by making their way to the playoffs. Saracens, Gloucester, Leicester and Northampton all made the Premiership playoffs, with Manu Tuilagi copping a six week ban for punching Chris Ashton along the way. Leinster won a remarkable Heineken Cup final, coming back from the dead against Northampton.
The Rugby Blog celebrated it’s 4th birthday, as Saracens won their first Premiership title thanks to Owen Farrell’s nerveless boot at Twickenham. The Barbarians defeated Wales in Cardiff, whilst there was more breakdown at the RFU where John Steele was forced out. Worcester were promoted from the Championship.
The Queensland Reds completed a remarkable turnaround, defeating the Crusaders to win their first Super Rugby title thanks to a brilliant try from Will Genia. Samoa produced a shock win against Australia, sparking fervent discussion about further Tests involving the Pacific Island nations. We trialled the new Rugby World Cup 2011 video game, as the Tri-Nations kicked off.
The World Cup warm-up matches were underway as Wales took on England both home and away, with each side notching up a victory. Ireland had a disastrous campaign, losing all four of their warm-up matches to Scotland, France (twice) and England. After missing out World Cup selection, Matt Giteau retired from international rugby, whilst Danny Care and David Wallace were ruled out of the World Cup through injury. Australia won only their third ever Tri-Nations title against New Zealand in Brisbane.
The Rugby World Cup kicked off in New Zealand, with Hutch jetting over for the arduous task of following England around the country. Wales narrow defeat to South Africa and Ireland’s victory over Australia were two of the highlights from the group stages. The Aviva Premiership, Top 14 and newly named RaboDirect Pro12 all began without their World Cup stars. England and Mike Tindall were in the firing line for their drinking antics, as was Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu for his poor choice of words. England were in more hot water a few weeks later, after they were caught switching balls for conversion attempts. Richie McCaw became the first All Black to win 100 caps.
As the World Cup got serious, New Zealand was rocked by the news that Dan Carter was ruled out of the rest of the tournament with a foot injury. Newcastle picked up their first win of the season in the Premiership. England and Ireland crashed out in the quarter-finals, causing widespread damnation in the English press and disappointment in the Emerald Isle. Harlequins continued on their unbeaten domestic run. Wales were rocked by the sending off of Sam Warburton in their semi-final with France, going out of the tournament but with their heads held high.
New Zealand produced a brilliantly comprehensive performance against Australia to get back to the final for the first time since 1995. They were not to be denied this time round, winning 8-7 thanks to the boot of Stephen Donald. Thierry Dusautoir was named IRB Player of the Year, whilst Graham Henry picked up the Coach of the Year award. Gloucester lost at home for the first time in three years, whilst the Lions won the Currie Cup.
Richie Gray announced his transfer to Sale Sharks for the beginning of next season, whilst Joe Worsley retired and Springbok Solly Tybilika was tragically killed in a shooting in Cape Town. Martin Johnson stepped down as England Head Coach following the disaster of the World Cup, with many calling for Rob Andrew to follow suit. Edinburgh produced a wonder comeback against Racing Métro 92 in a 48-47 win in the Heineken Cup. The Barbarians were thrashed by Australia at Twickenham.
Shane Williams capped a final performance for Wales with a try in their second defeat to Australia within two months. He was not the only player to retire from international rugby, as Jonny Wilkinson, Steve Thompson and Chris Paterson followed him out the door. The Heroes Rugby Challenge took place at Twickenham, with an array of international and retired stars rocking up to raise money for Help For Heroes to great success. Chris Ashton was condemned for pulling Alesana Tuilagi’s hair, whilst Stuart Lancaster, Graham Rowntree and Andy Farrell were announced as the interim English coaching team for the Six Nations.
by Ben Coles