Prediction time for 2011
January 1, 2011
Expect the likes of Danny Cipriani, Gavin Henson, Wayne Barnes and Sonny Bill Williams to hit the headlines in 2011
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With a New Year comes our now traditional gaze into the ESPNscrum crystal ball for some predictions for the next 12 months.
This time last year we predicted the All Blacks' resurgence, Gavin Henson's return from self-imposed exile, the growth of 3D and the dangers of free speech so it is with a fair amount of confidence we offer up some of the stories that we think you'll be reading over the coming months and some we hope will catch your eye.
All Blacks end the drought
New Zealand clinch the sport's biggest prize for the first time since 1987 with victory over old rivals Australia in an epic finale that pits the tournament's two poster boys against each other - All Black centre Sonny Bill Williams and Wallabies playmaker Quade Cooper. But predictably it is veterans Richie McCaw and Dan Carter who steer the hosts home, although English referee Wayne Barnes is hailed as the hero for his handling of the game and his 'brave' decision to award a crucial last minute penalty. The ref is duly chaired off the field by the delighted home fans.
All-action England raise the bar
An almost unrecognisable England power to a Grand Slam in the Six Nations Championship, playing a fast-paced brand of 15-man rugby more akin to the southern hemisphere giants. Wales and Italy are swept aside before France are given a lesson at Twickenham. The crunch clash comes against Scotland, when victory is assured thanks to the tactical masterstroke of hiding Dan Parks' boots prior to kick-off. France, Wales and Ireland battle it out for mid-table obscurity while it is an all too familiar story for Italy at the foot of the table.
ABs crank through the gears
The All Blacks continue to raise the hopes of a nation with a commanding victory in the battle for southern hemisphere supremacy. Two victories over the Springboks and another against Trans-Tasman rivals Australia see them claim the Tri-Nations crown for the 11th time - just two weeks before the Rugby World Cup kicks off. But in a bid to keep a lid on expectations the New Zealand media opt not to report their latest success.
Cipriani ploughs a lonely furrow
Danny 'Google Me' Cipriani proves to be a revelation on the Super Rugby circuit in the colours of the Melbourne Rebels but continues to escape the gaze of England boss Martin Johnson, who blames a faulty satellite dish for his failure to keep up with the 23-year-old's exploits on Sky Sports. But thanks to his wife's subscription to Hello! magazine he is aware that Cips wore an Armani suit to the final of the Australian Open tennis and that he is "ranked No.2 on Australia's most-eligible batchelors list."
Put 'em up!
Sonny Bill Williams risks the wrath of All Blacks head coach Graham Henry by scheduling a fight with a kangaroo on the eve of New Zealand's World Cup campaign. Hamstrung by the contract they agreed to lure the gifted Williams back home from French club Toulon, his game-breaking talent and public profile means the New Zealand Rugby Union has no choice but to allow their star to have his way. Williams wins the fight on a TKO in the third round although Skippy 'The Kid' Kangaroo's corner claims their fighter's food was poisoned on the eve of the bout.
Henson dances his way into controversy
The long-time absent star breathes life back into the Welsh dragon with a series of outstanding displays laced with the kind of magic sorely missing from Warren Gatland's side in recent months. Henson emerges as one of the stars of the 2011 Rugby World Cup and, inspired by his Strictly Come Dancing experience and The Sprinkler dance made famous by England cricket hero Graeme Swann, performs the rumba at every opportunity. But while his team-mates must partner up among themselves, the perma-tanned Henson flies easy-on-the-eye dance partner Katya Virshilas around the globe to be by his side at the expense of the Welsh Rugby Union. Centre Jamie Roberts is not amused by what he sees as the latest example of "favouritism" by the Welsh Rugby Union but is appeased by lifetime supply of Muller yoghurts and immunity from being selected as Adam Jones' dance partner.
Saints claim famous double
Northampton secure both the Heineken Cup crown and the Aviva Premiership title to cap an outstanding season. European giants Toulouse are put to the sword first in a memorable Millennium Stadium finale and Jim Mallinder's troops dig deep to pip East Midlands rivals Leicester to Premiership glory at Twickenham just a week later. Speedsters Chris Ashton and Ben Foden grab the tries but the foundations for both victories are laid by the ever-influential front-row triumvirate of Soane Tonga'uiha, Dylan Hartley and Brian Mujati.
Wilko conspiracy theory
England fly-half Jonny Wilkinson is reportedly the target of a hitman at the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand. Investigations reveal that the Rugby Football Union are behind the extreme behaviour as a result of their policy of not selecting overseas-based players post RWC'11. Wilkinson's decision to commit his future to Toulon in the south of France left the RFU open to the embarrassment of having to select the in-form and irrepressible playmaker in the face of their own selection criteria. Thankfully sanity prevails and Wilkinson offers to retire from international rugby in return for the RFU retiring his 'No.10' jersey.
Royal wedding woe for Tins
Gloucester prop Mike Tindall finds himself in a major predicament when he realises his much-anticipated wedding to Zara Phillips, the 29-year-old daughter of Princess Anne and her former husband Captain Mark Phillips, clashes with the Anglo-Welsh Cup Final. The Cherry and Whites' unexpected run to the finale of the much-maligned competition and the double-booking forces Tindall and his team-mates to consider drastic measures. After opting against asking The Queen and rest of blue-blooded England to re-schedule, Tindall convinces his club to concede the game to the Scarlets in return for the "mother of all piss ups" and a picture with his grandmother-in-law to be.
England manager Martin Johnson admits defeat in his battle to curb his players' increasing use of Twitter by embracing the micro-blogging website for team talks. Sadly everything does not go to plan as No.8 Nick Easter accidently starts 'following' a different Martin Johnson - a refuse collector in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, USA. The confused Quins star is urged to 'find God' - a Tweet he takes to mean 'nail Richie McCaw'. A vital instruction for his Quins team-mate Danny Care also fails to reach the scrum-half, who was too busy offering his latest review of a Nando's restaurant to read Johnno's directive.
The much-maligned set piece reclaims its rightful place at the centre of the game after years of re-sets, collapses and mis-matches. The turning point is a record-breaking horror-show during Ireland's Six Nations clash with Italy where one scrum saps an incredible 18 minutes of playing time out of the game. At that point the 'Crouch-Touch-Pause-Engage' pre-scrum dance is immediately thrown out with players taking the matter into their own hands to preserve the integrity of the game. Rugby Players' Union chief Damian Hopley, a notable back in his playing days, calls it a "victory for common sense" while admitting he has no idea why "those fat blokes couldn't just get the ball in and out".
The Year of the Kiwi
New Zealand rugby dominates all corners of the rugby globe in 2011 with the Crusaders returning to the top of the Super Rugby tree, former All Blacks Jerry Collins and Marty Holah powering the Ospreys to back-to-back Magners League titles and ex-New Zealand scrum-half Byron Kelleher the dynamo behind Toulouse's latest Top 14 title.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.