Dust settles on another exciting season
June 4, 2008
"For those who love the unexpected this was a bumper season proving all over again that rugby is the greatest game in the world when it comes to overturning the form book." John Taylor draws a line under the European season
2007 - 2008 may have been a modest vintage for the rugby purist but it was certainly not short on excitement.
For those who love the unexpected this was a bumper season proving all over again that rugby is the greatest game in the world when it comes to overturning the form book.
First we had the World Cup and immediately there was a sensational upset. France had spent the best part of three months together and traditionally come into the tournament well prepared but they had no answer to the collective will of Argentina's European mercenaries.
The South Americans had already earned respect but suddenly they were real contenders.
Many thought the smaller nations with mostly amateur players would be unable to live with the professionals, some even advocated a second tier to the tournament on the grounds of safety, but Portugal and Namibia, probably the weakest countries, went away with heads held high while Georgia and Tonga - who only qualified through the repechage system - won the respect of everybody and definitely left their mark as all their opponents will testify.
The pool stage was a disaster for the home nations. England were clueless as they were defeated 36-0 by South Africa, they suffered mini-crises against Samoa and Tonga as well, but they scraped through to the knockout stages.
Scotland, who had shown good form in the warm-up games, also made it after edging past Italy 18-16 but they lacked any sort of attacking potential and nobody was betting on them going further.
Wales again succumbed to their quadrennial Pacific nightmare, finishing in total disarray as, incredibly, they tried to play Sevens against Fiji and predictably went down 38-34.
Their World Cup was over and within 24 hours so was Gareth Jenkins' tenure as coach.
The next day there were loud voices calling for the resignation of his Irish counterpart, Eddie O'Sullivan, as his team, having struggled to beat Georgia 14-10, were put to the sword by Argentina. It was another ignominious exit but O'Sullivan somehow survived.
At this stage there were huge odds available for anybody betting on a northern hemisphere team in the semi-finals.
Then - resurrection. England were drawn against Australia and destroyed their front row so comprehensively - it was the only area of the English game that was at all convincing - Jonny Wilkinson was able to kick them home while France destroyed the myth of All Black invincibility just as they had done in 1999.
Suddenly we were guaranteed a northern hemisphere country in the final and, amazingly, it turned out to be England who have the hex on France at the moment.
There was no fairy tale ending, however. South Africa, who had seen off the brave Argentine challenge in the other semi, were always too strong and deservedly took the Webb Ellis Trophy for the second time. England's consolation was that they had improved out of all recognition in the space of five weeks and a disappointing final was settled by penalty goals.
The big debate about whether England coach Brian Ashton had engineered the turn around or whether it happened in spite of him was resolved in his favour and when England were leading Wales 16-6 at half-time in the opening Six Nations match it all looked rosy.
But this topsy turvey season was only just warming up. The new Welsh coaches, Warren Gatland and Shaun Edwards, could not believe their luck as England went into self destruct mode in the second-half.
Astonishingly, Wales won 26-19 and from that moment never looked back, improving with every game to win the Grand Slam. From World Cup Wallies to European Champions in six months with largely the same players - incredible.
Ireland and England both had desperately disappointing campaigns and this time there were no reprieves for O'Sullivan and Ashton.
The former fell on his sword still clutching the four year contract he had inexplicably managed to negotiate just before the World Cup.
Ashton's exit was much more protracted and disgracefully handled but inevitable. He never quite cut the mustard.
It was time for the clubs/provinces to take centre stage and provide a thrilling finale with still more surprises.
Who would have believed the Munster forwards, having looked ready for the knackers yard in Ireland's cause, could haul themselves off the ground and, almost by sheer willpower, keep mighty Toulouse at bay to take the Heineken Cup.
And finally, Wasps, the play-off Kings, yet again timed their run to perfection to give Lawrence Dallaglio a fitting send-off by taking the Guinness Premiership title.
Not a great vintage in terms of class perhaps but never a dull moment.
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