Epic highs and lows
December 21, 2011
It has been a year of mixed emotions for the likes of Lewis Moody, Richie McCaw, Sam Warburton and Dan Carter © Getty Images
This year was supposed to be all about the Rugby World Cup and while the sport's latest global gathering in New Zealand was a delight in so many ways and will live long in the memory, sadly the All Blacks' long-awaited triumph was over-shadowed by English rugby's annus horribilis.
History will record a first Six Nations triumph since 2003 and a quarter-final exit at the hands of eventual finalists France at the World Cup that on the surface do not suggest such a calamitous 12 months - but the seemingly ever-present turmoil that has blighted the Rugby Football Union (RFU) ensures that this year will go down as one of the darkest chapters in the history of the English game.
The RFU began 2011 in transition with John Steele in the chief executive's chair but having been given the green light for his re-vamp of the organisation he would be sacked before the year was six months old in the wake of the Union's failure to appoint a performance director. The warning signs were also there about a possible lack of discipline among the country's leading players with England fullback Delon Armitage guilty of abusing an anti-doping official and fellow international Ben Foden arrested following a bust-up with a taxi driver.
Amid the dramas off the field, Martin Johnson steered his side to the Six Nations crown although the joy was tempered by their failure to complete the Grand Slam against Ireland in Dublin. And there was further ridicule when an advert celebrating an historic clean sweep was leaked online following their loss. Cue much guffawing.
England's attempts to cover their potential losses at the World Cup would soon come to light with the RFU betting £250,000 on their side reaching the semi-finals - a wager that, to coin a phrase that would later haunt their campaign, proved be money 'down the toilet'. There would be further woe with a slash in funding from Sport England in the wake of a worrying drop in playing numbers at grassroots level. Never mind, surely a headline-grabbing World Cup assault would drive up interest once again? But England did not wait until the sport's showpiece event to cause a stir with their decision to opt for an all-black change strip incurring the wrath of Kiwis everywhere - and all this before they had touched down in New Zealand.
What followed was an epic tale of woe that included official warnings, suspensions, fines, unlawful ball-juggling, ferry-jumping and an RFU-funded drinking session that dragged a recently recruited member of the Royal family into the tabloid mire. All the dwarf-throwing tomfoolery and the more worrying lack of discipline did not distract entirely from the rugby with a slightly more professional-looking England making solid if not spectacular progress to the quarter-finals where their quest would end. It may be a little alarming that their on-field endeavour does not warrant more than a line but it is a reflection of a sorry campaign that signalled the end of the international careers of Jonny Wilkinson and Lewis Moody as well as the tenure of manager Johnson.
There would be further grief on their return home with the leaking of the supposed confidential review into England's World Cup that highlighted divisions within the squad and suggested certain players were more focused on money than honour. With the year drawing to a close the blood-letting appears to be over, but while a new chief executive Ian Ritchie is in place at the RFU, the presence of an interim head coach ensures their remains a degree of uncertainty hanging over English rugby.
There is no such lack of clarity when it comes to identifying the world's best team with New Zealand ending a 24-year World Cup drought with a memorable victory on home soil. The country as a whole proved their doubters wrong by throwing a party to rival any previous World Cup while the All Blacks weathered the earth-shattering loss of key playmaker Dan Carter and carried the hopes of a nation on their way to capturing the Webb Ellis Cup - but only just. A France side that invited ridicule throughout the tournament with reports of player revolts and pantomime-like press conferences, bounced back from a drubbing at the hands of New Zealand and a frankly embarrassing loss to Tonga during the pool stages to book a place in the final that they could, and perhaps should, have won. But inspirational skipper Richie McCaw, playing through the pain barrier himself, got his side over the line with France's disappointment softened by captain Thierry Dusautoir taking out the International Rugby Board's Player of the Year honour.
An Australia side buoyed by the Super Rugby success of the Reds and a morale-boosting Tri-Nations title had to make do with third place having been edged out by the All Blacks in a thrilling semi-final but they recovered in time to pip a luckless Wales whose own promising tournament ended in controversial and dramatic circumstances with referee Alain Rolland giving skipper Sam Warburton his marching orders during their semi-final clash with France.
But perhaps the real story of the tournament was the ability of the so-called 'lesser' nations to hold their own against all the odds - well, for a week at least. Samoa had offered a warning shot with victory over Australia earlier in the year and went on to inflict a few more bloody noses at the World Cup with South Africa having to dig deep to avoid a shock defeat. The likes of Romania, Japan, the United States and Georgia may have failed in their bid to claim a stunning upset and find the consistency to match their bravery but they still lit up the tournament.
Unsurprisingly, the International Rugby Board hailed the tournament a huge success and heralded a return to running rugby just a few short months after acknowledging the eyesore that is the modern scrum was a real problem. That concern remains despite protestations to the contrary but it is not the only issue requiring attention from the sport's regulators. The high-profile gaff by referee Jonathan Kaplan and assistant Peter Allan during Wales' controversial Six Nations victory over Ireland highlighted the desperate need to review the use of the Television Match Official. The TMO in question, Geoff Warren, had his hands tied by the laws of the game but that didn't stop Johan Meuwesen, performing a similar role for South Africa's Tri-Nations clash with New Zealand going against protocol and offering referee George Clancy a helping hand. Thankfully change appears to be on the horizon according to comments from referees boss Paddy O'Brien but the rescuing the battered image of the scrum may not be such an easy fix.
The domestic stage was not immune to controversy with future England team-mates Chris Ashton and Manu Tuilagi famously coming to blows during Leicester's Aviva Premiership semi-final victory over Northampton. Another high-profile officiating error saw Tuilagi escape a red card for his assault on Ashton but the Tigers luck would run out in the final where Saracens continued their rise to the top of the English game with a gutsy victory. That drama was eclipsed by a classic game of two halves in the Heineken Cup finale where Leinster over-turned a 16-point half-time deficit to claim a stunning victory over Northampton thanks largely to an inspiring team-talk and dominant second half display from fly-half Jonathan Sexton. But they were unable to make it a famous double with Irish rivals Munster pipping them to the Magners League title.
The battle for the celtic crown now has a different name and the wind of change is also blowing elsewhere. Tier 1 nations South Africa, France and Italy are all set to have a new man at the helm while Argentina will make their bow in the unimaginatively named Rugby Championship - the new title for the expanded Tri-Nations.
But all eyes are set to be other not-so-fresh faces - new All Blacks coach Steve Hansen and England's interim boss Stuart Lancaster. For one it appears the only way is down having helped his side reach the rugby summit while the other can take heart from the fact it cannot get any worse.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.