Brendan Fanning gives us his rugby highlights of 2015
Rugby had reason to celebrate and mourn in 2015, but faces many trials in the years ahead
In the days when snooker commanded huge television audiences, and the World Championship at Sheffield's Crucible Theatre was the annual highlight, the stunning finish by Dennis Taylor in the 1985 final was the choreographer's dream: a black ball finish in a contest over 35 frames. Rugby's equivalent came in the Six Nations last year with Super Saturday.
Seven years earlier, Elvis Vermeulen had deprived Ireland of a Championship with an injury-time try against Scotland, which secured the title for France. At the time it seemed like high drama. It was nothing compared to this final day when Wales left the field in Rome thinking they had done enough to be champions; then Ireland walked off Murrayfield hoping they had done enough; to be followed by England looking midway through the second half that they would erase both.
The Crucible Moment came from France - tinged with madness and defiance - running the ball out from their in-goal area when they had done the hard part by stopping England getting the score that would have given them the title. Wherever you were watching that from - by then we were in the departure lounge in Edinburgh Airport - it was a JFK moment.
The World Cup. The weather was great, and pretty much every team responded by playing rugby to match. We've never had a more pressured tournament, yet never a better one. Combined with Super Saturday it reinforced the argument that risk-free rugby is not the only road to travel if you want to win high stakes games.
The arrival of what we know now as simulation, or to put it another way: faking injury to win a penalty, or get an opponent booked, or both. The Six Nations kicked off with a warning from on high that this wouldn't be tolerated. Rugby tends to get a bit precious about the game's values - an exercise that became harder to sustain after 'Bloodgate' in 2009 - but even so it's mostly a sport which focuses on trying to win by being better than your opponents at the basics, unlike football, which has been hobbled by the craven tactic of creating opportunities to fall over in your opponents' penalty box. Rugby should create a space beside the naughty step for yellow card convicts and call it the simulator. And the crowd might be encouraged to throw rotten fruit at the man, or woman, therein.
Neatest Symmetry of the year
Ireland's men's and women's teams securing Six Nations titles on the same weekend. These are changing times for the women's game, from getting their matches shifted out of Ashbourne - great pitch but a nightmare location on a Friday night - to Donnybrook, plus the advent of a November series, and best of all the prospect of hosting the 2017 World Cup.
Comeback of the Year
In a match it had to be Romania coming back from 15-0 down against Canada in the World Cup. Off the field however Jillion Potter's return to captain USA in the Dubai Sevens early last month was a remarkable triumph over adversity. Over the last couple of years she has survived first a broken neck, and then a rare form of cancer - for which she received lengthy chemo and radiation - without giving in to retirement. You'd imagine the Rio Olympics next summer can't come quickly enough.
Beating France in the World Cup, mostly because it was a unique occurrence, and Ireland's to-do list at that tournament is driven by achieving new things. That it was done against the backdrop of losing team leaders Johnny Sexton, Paul O'Connell and Peter O'Mahony at various points on the day made it all the better.
Losing to Argentina in the World Cup because it confirmed that the expedition was a failure. In his recent press briefing IRFU performance director David Nucifora said the following: "We have had a coach in place now for two years who has managed to deliver us two Six Nations titles with this group of players. We won the pool in the World Cup, which was a good achievement. Yes, we lost a quarter-final game - that's disappointing. Does that mean it is a failure? No. Are we disappointed? Yes." Eh, with respect to Fargo, we're not so sure we agree with your police work there Nuce. When you target a place in the last four and you fall short, it is inescapable that you have failed. There may be a raft of reasons why it didn't happen, but they don't alter the fundamental fact. If Ireland had overcome the obstacles and made it to the last four, would you be calling the exercise a success regardless of what happened at that point? We suspect yes - and it would be in your opening sentence.
At the risk of feeding rugby's versions of the Greatest Fans in the World, the contribution of Ireland's supporters at the World Cup left all others in the shade. This looked especially useful given this country's bid to host the 2023 gig. Ironically, it was the capacity of the fans to fill out Wembley, against Romania, to create the biggest attendance ever at a World Cup match (89,267), which shows how hard it will be to make the sums add up in 2023. England (and Cardiff's Millennium) were able to provide 13 stadia with an aggregate capacity of 605,000.
By comparison, Ireland would have probably 12 stadia coming in at circa 515,000 - and this would depend on Páirc Uí Chaoimh, Casement Park, Fitzgerald Stadium and the RDS all achieving their current development goals, as well as Kingspan Stadium expanding to its potential of 25,000 which currently Ulster have no plans to do. The only conceivable way to make good the shortfall is to have the Government underwriting the difference. Given that England were able to stage seven of the last eight games in grounds with at least 75,000 capacity - naturally these are the most expensive seats to buy - that's a big difference.
DTH van der Merwe's incredible individual effort for Canada against Italy was our pick from the World Cup. Paul O'Connell's opener against Scotland on Super Saturday - a really good team try - was the best from the rest.
The final whistle in Brighton when Japan sealed the biggest upset in Test rugby history by beating South Africa. Rugby's agenda will be driven increasingly by the power struggle between the international and club games, and that day was uniquely powerful for what is still the top tier.
Best Coaching Achievement
If you want to start at the top then New Zealand's Steve Hansen is the obvious choice given their World Cup success was the first time it has been won back-to-back, and given their history of meltdown at this gig that's a big deal. Daniel Hourcade, however, was operating on meagre resources by comparison, and did brilliantly with a Puma squad who lost a man to suspension before it all warmed up.
Outside of that, Joe Schmidt's successive Six Nations titles looked very long odds when he took over, as did Michael Cheika's transformation of first the Waratahs (in 2014) and then the Wallabies whom he took to the RWC final. On a different planet, the schools game in this country saw its biggest upset in its biggest competition - the Leinster Senior Cup - since 1985, with Roscrea winning their first title. The importance of the schools game is a bit inflated in Ireland, but coach Pieter Swanepoel's achievement was outstanding.
Best Post-Match Interview
England's Mike Brown dealing virtually in monosyllables after his team lost to Wales in the World Cup. He managed to make Jamie Heaslip sound both interesting and co-operative.
On the international stage Dan Carter delivered World Cup performances of the highest quality, which was fitting for a man who four years previously had to opt out halfway through the tournament with injury. On the club front Steffon Armitage did for Toulon what David Pocock does for the Wallabies.
Jonah Lomu and Jerry Collins
Even now there has been no rational explanation for referee Craig Joubert doing a runner at Twickenham after he had undone the Scots in the last moments of their World Cup quarter-final against Australia. It has been reported that he wanted to avoid the prospect of an unseemly spectacle with the furious Scots post-whistle. In fairness to him, he had learned a lesson when touch-judging the explosive Wales versus England Test in Cardiff in 2013, making the near fatal mistake of wandering over for a yak with the apoplectic England lads immediately after the final whistle.
Best reads of 2015
The glut of rugby books in Ireland this year reminded you of the Mad Cow roundabout before the engineers sorted it out. We counted a remarkable nine (remarkable in number, not quality) queuing to get onto the Christmas market. Tom English's No Borders was head and shoulders above the rest. Drifting into another code there are two very different offerings from Gah-land. Jim McGuinness and his ghost Keith Duggan have produced a winner in Until Victory Always, a story from the other end of the spectrum to John Leonard's Dub Sub Confidential. But they are both wonderful insights into wildly differing lives in the same game. Incidentally, it was gratifying to see Duggan's name on the cover of the McGuinness book, and not buried inside as tends to be the norm for those who do most of the work on these projects.
New Year's Wishes
1. For Joel Jutge's successor to do what neither Joel Jutge nor his predecessor, Paddy O'Brien, could do: stop the constant erosion of space by players breaking the back foot around the fringe of the ruck, and in midfield. The two constants in this have been the physical development of those who play the game, making them bigger, faster, stronger; and the non-development of referees in picking up on something so fundamental that it beggars belief why is has gone on so long.
Interestingly, there is a raft of laws' trials getting under way in the New Year, initially south of the equator. They will arrive on these shores for the 2016/'17 kick-off of the AIL Division 1A, and will include shifting the offside line to the back foot, plus one metre. When we've mentioned this before to those high up the refereeing food chain we've been told it wouldn't work. Hey presto, we'll find out soon enough if it does. In the meantime we fear referees will actually get worse at applying something eminently doable at the higher levels - where there are three bodies on the case - because they know there's a trial coming around the corner.
2. That the IRFU stop faffing about on the AIL and give us two national divisions supported by regional leagues, and abandon the daft Player Points System. They get a six-figure sum from Ulster Bank to sponsor it, but we wonder did anyone in the bank stop to think why they were diverting such a wedge in that direction? In terms of 'bang for buck' it's powder puff stuff. And its potential is significant.
3. Bite the bullet on the eligibility regulations for international rugby. Three years' residency is a joke; five is a realistic commitment.
4. Off the field we'd be delighted if stadium announcers felt less inclined to 'instruct and entertain' - especially on the issue of barracking goal kickers. When that lecture starts up we reach for the sick bag. Grow up. Holler and shout all you want.
5. Introduce a fines system for match commentators, and their wingmen, who talk over conversations between the referee and a player that we are all trying desperately to hear over the reflink.
Sunday Indo Sport