Wednesday 13 December 2017

Best of times, worst of times

Brendan Fanning casts his eye over the rugby year and picks his hits and misses

Included in the best and worst moments of the rugby year, are Connacht’s stunning win in Toulouse
Included in the best and worst moments of the rugby year, are Connacht’s stunning win in Toulouse
Aaron Cruden’s winning conversion for the All Blacks against Ireland
Johnny Sexton’s Lions tour diary, the best rugby book of 2013
Northampton’s recent win over Leinster, sealed by Jamie Elliott’s try
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Best coaching performance

Warren Gatland with the Lions. It was a bit of a boshfest but it worked for a team whose record is horrendous.

Biggest news moment

The seismic shift in the tectonic plate under the east coast of Ireland when Gatland dropped Brian O'Driscoll for the Third Test in Australia. Was he vindicated? Thoroughly, for Jonathan Davies had a fine game at outside centre, doing comfortably something which O'Driscoll can not -- ie kick the ball well. Was the decision a game-changer? No. The forwards still would have pummelled the home pack up and down the park and O'Driscoll might well have had his finest moment in red.

Biggest result

Connacht in Toulouse two weeks ago. Expected to perform well they went about 10 steps better and won by playing rugby to the final whistle, in the process showing what they had learned from Ireland's endgame against New Zealand.

Best gesture

Brian O'Driscoll giving Warren Gatland a Christmas card when the squad got together post tour to visit 10 Downing Street. Whoever came up with that idea should work in bomb disposal.

Worst gesture

Toulon fullback Delon Armitage waving goodbye to Brock James as he ran in the winning try in the Heineken Cup final? Eh no, actually. The winner is Aurelien Rougerie, patting Armitage on the head after the Clermont centre had ridden Armitage's tackle to put James away to score 15 minutes earlier. You reap what you sow.

Best conversion

Aaron Cruden's second bite at the cherry with the last kick of the game versus Ireland. It may not have meant a whole lot to Irish supporters whether he hit or missed -- the win was all that mattered given the circumstances -- but it was a big deal to the ABs for whom the perfect season was new ground broken. Brilliant composure under extraordinary pressure.

Best bounce-back

Northampton turning around from the humiliation of Franklin's Gardens to outmuscle Leinster in Lansdowne Road a week later.

Greatest irritant

Players continuing to grab opponents on the side of rucks, and getting away with it in full view of touch judges -- or assistant referees as they like to call themselves.

Best try

For sheer impact, George North for the Lions in the First Test in Brisbane. Best team try however goes to the struggling Highlanders against the Sharks, an outstanding effort started, finished and converted by Colin Slade.

Best line

"It'll all be over on Tuesday. And they can all fuck off!" Warren Gatland, a few hours after the Third Test in Sydney, looking forward to leaving Australia and going on his holidays. Not in Ireland.

Best cup performance

Munster beating Harlequins 18-12 in the Stoop, a week after they had done a Laurel and Hardy impression in leaking 51 points in Glasgow, in the Pro12. Two different competitions, but not two radically different teams, with just four changes to the starting line-up for the Heineken Cup quarter-final, one of which was the loss of Doug Howlett. Remarkable.

Worst cup performance

Edinburgh losing 45-0 to Saracens. At home.

Best interviewee

Donnacha Ryan, in the lead-up to Ireland versus New Zealand, recalling the events before, during and after Munster's epic struggle with the All Blacks in 2008. Passionate, articulate and hugely entertaining.

Worst interviewee

Rob Penney playing question time ping-pong in press conferences when he wanted to be somewhere else but hadn't the cop to disguise it. It's odd how some coaches don't see past the chore of media sessions and beyond to the supporters who read and listen to what comes out of those sessions.

Best rugby books

Not a lot to choose from this year but Johnny Sexton's diary Becoming a Lion does what any book of this kind should do -- provide an inside line on the life of a professional athlete. Well structured and equally well written -- and so many of these books are neither -- it reveals a lot about how the player himself is hard-wired, and puts both figures and context on the saga that was his move to France.

Also well worth a read is Behind the Lions, a big lump of a thing with an irritating amount of italicised print, but which has heaps of good insight from a range of characters who toured and told all. Best by far from an Irish perspective was the controversy around the captaincy of Ciarán Fitzgerald to New Zealand in 1983. Fascinating times.

Worst rugby DVD

The Lions dvd Lions Raw. Ever since the original in 1997 we've been getting pale imitations and this is colourless. The actual rugby stuff is fine, but the player-cams and the endless speeches about the lore of the Lions is tedious beyond belief.

Happiest ending

Isa Nacewa, Leinster's best ever backline recruit, signing off with a box set of medals: Heineken, Amlin and Pro12.

Saddest ending

Ronan O'Gara's long, post-match lap having lost to Clermont in the Heineken Cup semi-final.

Best piece of footballing skill

Simon Zebo's heel-flick in Cardiff.

Worst piece of footballing skill

Paul O'Connell's hoof on Dave Kearney in Limerick.

Best pic

Kurtley Beale and James O'Connor with a Lions fan at a fast food joint in Melbourne -- at 3.50am, a few days before the Second Test.

Best atmosphere

Ireland versus the All Blacks, proving that the stadium is not the issue, it's the clowns who come to eat and drink and get in the way of the game -- at which they occasionally shout things like: "Eaaarly Engaaaagement Ref!" -- when the ball has been thrown in to the lineout.

Longest day

Ireland versus Samoa, the game that felt like it would never end.

Shortest day

Ireland versus New Zealand, which flew by. Well, until the last 120 seconds.

Best impact

Ireland's front rowers in the Junior World Championship (under 20s). Peter Dooley and George McGuigan came on against Fiji, and the Byrne brothers, Bryan and Edward, arrived into the final quarter against New Zealand. In both cases the effect was positive and immediate.

Irish Independent

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