Dust settles on Big Dipper of a year
December 24, 2009
It has been a rollercoaster 12 months for the likes of Harlequins' Tom Williams, Leinster's Brian O'Driscoll, South Africa's Schalk Burger and IRB boss Bernard Lapasset © Getty Images
Peter De Villiers Schalk Burger Dan Carter Bernard Lapasset Richie McCaw Brian O'Driscoll Sergio Parisse Alan Quinlan Jamie Roberts Jonny Wilkinson Tom Williams
What a rollercoaster of a year. Rugby union has hit the heights and plumbed the depths with such alarming regularity in the last 12 months that the average fan can be forgiven for feeling a little queasy as 2009 draws to a close.
From Grand Slam glory to eye-gouging horror, to fake blood fiasco and Olympic elation - the sport has transcended the back pages time and time again and sadly been forced into a rearguard action on occasion to protect its reputation - a battle that will stretch well beyond the sound of Big Ben ringing in the new year.
Let's start with the bad. The seeds of the now infamous so-called 'Bloodgate' scandal were sown during Harlequins narrow Heineken Cup quarter-final loss to Leinster. With Quins on the brink of a European exit, Tom Williams was withdrawn from the field with what appeared to be a cut mouth that allowed the already injured Nick Evans to return to the fray in the hope he could conjure a late turnaround. But the TV cameras caught Williams winking towards the touchline as 'blood' poured from his mouth and the fuse of suspicion was lit, later to explode in the form of the most damaging headlines to have hit the game in the professional era. An initial cover-up served only to ensure a more severe backlash when it was revealed that Williams had bitten a fake blood capsule to orchestrate the substitution and later cut his own lip in an attempt to hide his guilt. Williams took the brave step to come clean and as a result saw his initial 12-month playing ban reduced to four on appeal.
There was no such leniency for director of rugby Dean Richards who admitted his guilty but was cast into the rugby wilderness with a three year ban - later extended worldwide. The unsavoury episode hogged the headlines for many more months than it should have done and as a result rugby union took a battering with critics queuing up to heap woe on a sport that has for so long claimed the moral high ground. The question marks remain and papering over the cracks is no longer an option for the game's powerbrokers.
Leinster of course survived Harlequins' attempts to cheat them out of their destiny and captain Brian O'Driscoll lifted the Heineken Cup in Edinburgh having led his side past Munster in an epic semi-final clash and then Premiership rivals Leicester in the season finale. But it was the Irishman's heroic endeavours in emerald green that set the tone for what would be landmark year for the all-action centre.
Shoulder to shoulder with his countrymen, O'Driscoll erased sixty-one years of hurt with a series of battling performances that ended with Ireland laying claim to only their second Grand Slam. A sensational finale played out at the magnificent Millennium Stadium where Ireland and Wales went head-to-head for the northern hemisphere crown. Stephen Jones looked to have dashed Ireland's hopes and kicked Wales to the Triple Crown and with a drop-goal in the closing moments but Ronan O'Gara responded with two minutes on the clock. The drama didn't end there with Jones offered one last chance to break the hearts of a nation - but his effort fell agonisingly short to spark wild celebrations.
Ireland had further reason to celebrate before the season was out with British & Irish Lions coach Ian McGeechan naming a record 14 of their Six Nations squad for the trip to South Africa. Sadly injury would prevent scrum-half Tomas O'Leary and hooker Jerry Flannery boarding the plane but in tour captain Paul O'Connell and O'Driscoll they had two of the Lions' most valiant warriors - although it was Welsh centre Jamie Roberts who stole the show.
There was to be no repeat of the Lions' series victory in '97 with South Africa claiming the glory amidst the blood and thunder of the second Test battle in Pretoria. That pivotal clash began with the most shocking moment of the year with South Africa's Schalk Burger clawing at the eye of Irish winger Luke Fitzgerald. The Springboks flanker escaped with a yellow card - but was later hit with an eight-week suspension - and referee Christophe Berdos' decision arguably cost McGeechan and co another famous victory. The rocket boot of Morne Steyn delivered the killer blow on the high veldt and although the Lions exacted some revenge at Ellis Park this was to be South Africa's year.
The signs were good at the start of the year as the Bulls cruised to the Super 14 crown with an annihilation of the Chiefs at Loftus Versfeld. And the Springboks kicked on from their series victory over the Lions to clinch only their third Tri-Nations title. The All Blacks had no answer to Peter de Villiers' side and after suffering three defeats at the hands of their old rivals had to relinquish their grasp on the southern hemisphere title. The Springboks deservedly claimed the International Rugby Board's Team of the Year although De Villiers' was beaten to the coaching honour by Ireland's Declan Kidney with his outspoken ways perhaps costing him dear.
Sadly the ugly spectre of eye-gouging would dominate the headlines throughout the year with Munster's Alan Quinlan, Italy's Sergio Parisse and Stade Francais scrum-half Julien Dupuy are just three of the many high-profile players guilty of the unacceptable act of barbarism. It has no place in the game but shows no signs of being eradicated despite the best efforts of the IRB who claim to be taking a proactive stance in the battle to rid it from the game. We await their next move with bated breath - the sport is still reeling from the bruising body blow that was 'Bloodgate' and does not need its biggest names showing a complete disregard for the laws of the game and authority.
There was more trouble in the shadow of the Lions with France's Mathieu Bastareaud another player guilty of poor judgment. His false claims that he was mugged on the streets of Wellington during Les Bleus' tour of New Zealand caused a diplomatic row but the disgraced centre some how managed to escape with just community service. Elsewhere drugs-related drama engulfed Premiership club Bath with England prop Matt Stevens handed a two-year ban for failing a drugs test and subsequently admitting to a cocaine problem. There was more woe for the West Country giants with three other players - Michael Lipman, Alex Crockett and Andrew Higgins - handed nine month bans for refusing to take drugs tests.
In between defending the state of the game and their disastrous attempt to refine the laws with the Experimetal Law Variations that also glady ended this year, the IRB continued their campaign to reclaim Olympic status and years of hard work were rewarded with the nod from the International Olympic Committee for the 2016 Games in Rio. The sport has not featured in the Games of the Olympiad since 1924 and although it will only return in the increasingly-popular Sevens format, there can be no question that the door opened in Copenhagen is one of the most significant moments in the history of the sport. "The Olympic Games will be the pinnacle of the sport for all our athletes and the Rugby family," promised IRB chairman Bernard Lapasset following the announcement. Time will tell if it triggers the wealth of funding hailed as the key to the sport strengthening its grip in emerging nations and breaking into new territories but one thing for sure is that Sevens will get the party started in Rio - never were a city and an event more suited.
Rugby's woes were not restricted to the realms of eye-gouging and fake blood with the state of the game on the field coming increasingly under the microscope. The tackle area and the breakdown were scrutinised and then blamed for the game's shortcomings in terms of entertainment - ELVs anyone? - but all was forgiven, or at forgotten, as New Zealand served up the most refreshing and dazzling display of the year in their demolition of France in Marseille. The All Blacks' end of year efforts saw them reclaim the No.1 spot in the IRB World Rankings and further accolades followed for captain Richie McCaw although for many O'Driscoll was the stand out player of the year.
If you've caught your breath then the ride is about to go round again. I'm on board. Are you?
Ten more highlights of 2009:
Huw Richards profiles French forward Walter Spanghero, a man who even rugby's hard men thought was a tough nut
"To be part of the Commonwealth Games, I'd wear anything. I'd wear a clown suit." Tom Hamilton talks to Scotland's Sean Lamont
Scrum Sevens looks back at how rugby has fared in both the early Olympics and the past four Commonwealth Games
"Cheika's been phenomenal. He gives you an incredible level of mental strength." Tom Hamilton talks to Waratahs star Jacques Potgieter