Olympic envy and breaking new ground
December 22, 2012
The past year has been eventful for the likes of England coach Stuart Lancaster, Wales and Lions boss Warren Gatland, Argentina's Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe and London Welsh © Getty Images
10 more highlights from 2012:
The London 2012 Olympics dominated the sporting agenda in the past year but rugby managed to hold its own with a blend of high-octane action, drama and the customary dash of controversy.
Rugby may be due to return to the Olympic programme with Sevens set to play a central role in Rio in four years' time, but this time around it was forced to look on, like every other sport, with envious eyes as London raised the bar when it comes to putting on a show to remember.
So impressed were England Rugby 2015, the organisers of the next World Cup that will hope to live up to the same standards, that they soon plundered the brains trust responsible with director of sport Debbie Jevans joining them as their new chief executive and chief executive Paul Deighton appointed to the management board in a re-vamp designed to inject some urgency into proceedings.
It remains to be seen whether another key element to the Olympics success resurfaces for the World Cup - the Olympic Stadium itself. The long-term future of the venue may yet to be confirmed, but it remains in the mix to host World Cup games having made the shortlist - but another iconic venue will not feature in the tournament. The omission of Leicester's Welford Road caused uproar earlier this year and many are still scratching their heads as to why the biggest club rugby ground in England will not be used. Gloucester's Kingsholm home has survived to this point but may yet be demoted to the role of training base as officials look to those venues that will provide the biggest return in terms of ticket sales - their only way of recouping the £80m hosting fee and generating what is hoped will be a £100m profit.
Only two other rugby specific stadiums made the shortlist and both witnessed more than their fair share of drama in the past 12 months. Twickenham embraced a new England era in the wake of their 2011 World Cup woe with Stuart Lancaster steadying the ship as interim boss during the Six Nations before being rewarded with the fulltime position having blooded a host of fresh faces that ensured England once again hit the headlines for their endeavour on the field rather than their misadventures off it. However, as notable the revival evident at English rugby's HQ, it was the Millennium Stadium that played host to the biggest party as Wales claimed the glory. They rode their luck - in Dublin in particular - but the record books will record a third Grand Slam in eight years that also paved the way for coach Warren Gatland's appointment as British & Irish Lions boss later in the year.
The jostling for a place on the plane to Australia next summer began long before Gatland's anointment with Leinster's Heineken Cup final victory over Ulster a key form guide as was Harlequins victory over Leicester in the Premiership finale and the Ospreys' PRO12 triumph.
Flush with domestic success, Europe's finest embarked on their June tours full of hope that they could bloody the nose of their southern hemisphere rivals but despite a gutsy showing, it was an all too familiar story. New Zealand's annihilation of Ireland in Hamilton - just a week after the tourists had come agonisingly close to a first ever victory over the All Blacks - was the most emphatic result of the season and reminded us that 'transition' is not part of the world champions' vocabulary. With a new coach at the helm in the form of Steve Hansen and some new names in their ranks, they picked up where they left off at the World Cup and looked on course for a new record for consecutive Test victories having swept all before them in the Rugby Championship only for Australia to throw a spanner in the works in their final Bledisloe Cup clash of the year. They would hit a more unexpected bump in the road at Twickenham at the end of the year but as stunning as that upset they were a class apart for the vast majority of the year.
Victories were not so easy to come by for Argentina but it did not matter for they had won before a ball was even kicked in the Rugby Championship. They realised a long-held dream by lining up alongside Australia, New Zealand and South Africa in new-look southern hemisphere championship and to their credit more than held their own. It was without doubt the biggest development the game saw in the past 12 months.
The Pumas' opening clash with South Africa in Cape Town represented the end of an epic battle for a place at rugby's top table having long been the only team among the world's leading nations denied a regular competition to cement the promise shown so often shown on the World Cup stage. The decision to expand the footprint of the elite game was long overdue and the feast for the senses served up in Mendoza, Buenos Aires and Rosario and the clear enthusiasm evident in Argentina and on the part of their title rivals begs the question why it took to so long. Argentina have already shown signs that their exposure to such quality will enhance their development and status and the sport as a whole should be applauded for embracing a new continent where new fans, experiences and possibly untold riches await.
While Argentina's step up represented the end of a quest stretching back several years, London Welsh's battle to reach the English club rugby's top table was a little more intense - a rollercoaster ride of emotion and legalities spanning a few weeks. The Exiles' promotion bid appeared to falter at the hands of the 'minimum standards criteria' with the timing of that body blow at half-time in their Championship play-off final clash with Cornish Pirates ill-timed at best and insulting at worst.
An appeal was already gathering momentum before they wrapped up the Championship crown but they had to wait until the end of June - just eight weeks before the start of the new Premiership campaign - to hear they had been granted their hard-earned right to step up. That victory came at a cost for Newcastle Falcons, who dropped out of the top flight as a result, and London Welsh's fans who must now travel to a 'home' ground the best part of 60 miles away from their Old Deer Park base, but there can be no doubt it was the right decision. By denying a side the chance to share a stadium when several of the existing Premiership sides were beneficiaries of such a set-up officials were asking for trouble and that is what they got with the year's most significant victory coming off the field.
With the year drawing to a close, England offered hope of a bright future by outplaying the benchmark-setting All Blacks with arguably the most impressive all-action display from a Test side this year - a result that added some much-needed gloss to an international window offering little else for the Home Nations and further evidence of Samoa's ability to punch above their weight. The performance saw England enter the 2015 World Cup pool draw with plenty of confidence - and they will need to retain that hope having been handed the toughest of challenges alongside Australia and Wales.
The prospect of a World Cup still three years' away offered a little respite from another highly-charged row between those determined to shape the future of the Heineken Cup that shows no signs of reaching a resolution in the near future. It is a deadlock of Olympic proportions.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.