Fourteen moments that shaped the rugby world in 2014
The national team rules Europe but the provinces are on the wane. Ruaidhri O'Connor assesses the stand-out incidents of a memorable year.
14 - Thomond loses fear factor
Clermont confirmed suspicions that the old fortress just ain't what it used to be when Fritz Lee led their storming of the Limerick venue in Round 3 of the Champions Cup.
The men from the Auvergne became the first French team to win at Thomond Park with their 16-9 victory but they followed Edinburgh, Ospreys, Ulster and Glasgow Warriors in claiming Munster's scalp away during 2014.
Although Clermont played to a full house, the real worry was the drop in crowds seen at Thomond for Pro12 games, helping to take away the fear-factor that once lingered over the away dressing-room.
13 - O'Driscoll rises
It was billed as a rematch but ended up as a damp squib. Warren Gatland came to Dublin with his Lions-packed Wales team for their eagerly anticipated clash with Ireland and his first and last match-up with Brian O'Driscoll since he had decided not to select the centre for the third Test against Australia.
Instead of a passion-fuelled encounter, Ireland served up a bloodless coup by out-mauling the visiting team and running out comfortable victors.
The moment that will linger from the 26-3 win occurred in the 12th minute, when Wales centre Scott Williams saw a chance to nail the man of the moment and rushed out of the line to issue a bone-crunching hit on O'Driscoll as he attempted a pass to Rob Kearney.
Such was the force, the ball popped out to George North as Nigel Owens' whistle sounded as the Ireland legend lay crumpled on the turf and the Aviva Stadium took a collective deep breath.
"He catches me full square in the sternum with his right shoulder. It's the biggest collision of my career, by far - 27 g (-force) on the GPS unit ... As I hit the floor every last ounce of breath has gone from my body. I've been badly winded before, but nothing like this," O'Driscoll recalled in his book, 'The Test'. "I'm barely aware of any pain but it feels like the closest thing to dying - unable to breathe, panicking."
But, after a consultation with Dr Eanna Falvey, the centre rose to the acclaim and issued a knowing smile to his assailant, who himself was feeling the pain. O'Driscoll played on but minutes later Williams conceded defeat, hobbling off with a shoulder injury that would end his Six Nations.
12 - Munster leak goes viral
This was the scoop of the year as news that a member of Munster's backroom team had mistakenly sent a player performance review document to every member of the squad before the start of the season broke.
The spreadsheet, a working document updated on a weekly basis by Anthony Foley's coaching team, outlined each player's strengths and weaknesses in brutal detail.
It was never designed to be seen by the squad who would receive feedback on a one-to-one basis, but they got the full picture when the mail dropped into their inboxes ahead of the pre-season friendly win over London Irish.
The leak entered the public domain via the Sunday Independent and the province had to front up and address the issue at a tense press conference at Thomond Park.
With one player described as being "on the gravy train" and another considered "mentally weak", it was all far from ideal for Foley who should have been preparing for a moment of pride in taking the team out for the first time; instead, he was fighting fires.
"If you write things down, you have to be prepared to stand over it, be prepared that someone's going to see it, be prepared that it could make the media. We understand that in this game," he said.
Munster lost the following weekend, but any lingering impact appears to have passed.
11 - Ravenhill Payne for Ulster
If there was an award for atmosphere of the year, the crowd at Ravenhill for Ulster's Heineken Cup quarter-final defeat to Saracens would win hands down.
It was visceral stuff as the stadium howled in anger at Jerome Garces' decision to issue Jared Payne with a red card for his challenge on Alex Goode and then rallied round their team for a remarkable performance that came up just short.
Things threatened to spill over at times, with a beer bottle hurled on to the pitch at one stage and winger Chris Ashton misjudging just how inappropriate his 'Ash-splash' celebration could be.
With Ruan Pienaar injured and a shadow of his normal self, the 14 men managed to stay in the game until the final play but couldn't get over the line.
It was the end of the European road for their coach, their captain, their director of rugby and two of their starting front-row.
"I'm massively proud," an emotional Johann Muller reflected after the 17-15 defeat. "I came in at half-time and I said to the boys, 'If we pull this off it will be the greatest rugby achievement of my career' and I've won a World Cup and a few trophies, I've achieved a bit.
"Still, the character that was shown in that squad, in every single guy; not one of those 23 guys ever doubted. We could have won it in the 78th minute there, it's one guy offside, one guy not rolling away - whatever the case may be.
"At the end of the day it's going to haunt us for the rest of our lives, because that is one that got away."
10 - Leinster save their best until last
Matt O'Connor is having a hard time at the moment due to the way his Leinster team are playing but we know that they can put together a complete 80 minute performance because they have already done it.
Their win over Glasgow Warriors in last May's Pro12 final was an impressive display despite O'Driscoll hobbling off with a calf injury just minutes in.
With his replacement Ian Madigan pulling the strings from inside centre and Zane Kirchner putting in by far his best outing in blue since he arrived and bagging a brace of tries, the province held on to their Pro12 crown with a 34-18 win at the RDS.
9 - Connacht capture Muliaina
The west awoke to news that All Black centurion Mils Muliaina would be heading to Connacht and probably wondered if they were still dreaming.
The province's first All Black may be well into his 30s, but his capture by Pat Lam caught the imagination the world over and appeared to confirm that they are a force on the rise.
Early signs are strong even though the Kiwi was sidelined for the first few months of this season. With Robbie Henshaw now a fully-fledged international and the likes of Kieran Marmion and Denis Buckley growing in stature, there is plenty of momentum behind Connacht.
Big-name imports like Rocky Elsom, Doug Howlett and Ruan Pienaar helped lift standards in the other provinces, now the traditional poor relation is on the rise.
8 - Sexton coming home as the IRFU keep their men
Early on, the year was dominated by the should they stay or should they go saga around a host of players - most notably Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip - but the most significant transfer of the year was news that Johnny Sexton would return to Ireland after two years in Paris.
It was a coup manufactured by Joe Schmidt (pictured left) and David Nucifora during the women's World Cup, while Leinster chief executive Mick Dawson played a big role too.
With commercial endorsements included, the four-year deal to bring Sexton home cemented the player's status as the most vital cog in Joe Schmidt's wheel.
His struggles in Paris have also served as a cautionary tale for players contemplating making the lucrative move to France and so far it looks like the front-line contingent will be remaining in Ireland beyond the World Cup.
7 - The great goodbye
They say sports stars never get to go out on their own terms, but Brian O'Driscoll's lap of honour was pretty well-scripted with his farewell to the Aviva Stadium as an Ireland player a day to cherish. The centre put away three of his team-mates with skilful assists during Ireland's 46-7 destruction of Italy on a day that couldn't have been choreographed any better.
Things got a little strange when O'Driscoll was interviewed beneath a giant banner of himself, but overall the day was a perfect way for the fans to say goodbye to a legend and vice versa before he closed the deal a week later.
6 -Toulon establish their dominance
Unfortunately, O'Driscoll's European farewell didn't go as well on the Cote d'Azur where European champions Toulon asserted their current dominance in a powerful display to end Leinster's run at the quarter-final stage.
In a match billed as the meeting of two of the continents superpowers, the French side produced their best display of the season at the Stade Felix Mayol with Matt Giteau pulling the strings and Steffon Armitage doing untold damage at ruck time. It was a sobering afternoon for the three-time champions who were due to lose both O'Driscoll and Leo Cullen at the end of the season and were given a reminder that there was a new force in town.
Bernard Laporte's team would go on to beat Munster and Saracens to become back-to-back champions and they continue to spend big to increase their dominance. "We didn't really fire any shots, which was disappointing," coach Matt O'Connor said.
5 - O'Connell's try caps Toulouse scalp
Rob Penney's two-year stint at Munster ended trophyless, but the New Zealander's finest hour was probably this destruction of Europe's most successful club at Thomond Park that left the men in red the last Irish side standing in Europe.
Toulouse may be a fading force under Guy Noves, but they still packed plenty of star power into their match-day squad in April and yet they couldn't handle the ferocious home side.
That was despite Munster losing Peter O'Mahony to a shoulder injury early on, with CJ Stander stepping in and stepping up with a barnstorming display.
The day was capped by Paul O'Connell scoring a rare try, his side's sixth on a day to remember in Limerick.
4 - Wallabies win makes it a clean sweep
O'Connell was again to the fore in November as he led the defensive resistance that kept Michael Cheika's Wallabies at bay in a dramatic end-game.
It meant that Ireland completed a first autumn clean sweep since 2006 after wins over Georgia, South Africa and this hard-fought victory over an Australia side who scored one of the tries of the season in the first half. That was part of a comeback after Joe Schmidt's side race into a 17-0 lead after tries from Simon Zebo and Tommy Bowe, but Ireland needed a Sexton penalty and a mammoth defensive effort to close the game out.
Afterwards it emerged that Schmidt had coached through the pain barrier and was rushed to hospital for an operation on his appendix that night. It only added to the New Zealander's reputation at the end of a hugely successful year.
3 - Black Ferns blown away
The story of last summer came from Marcoussis on the outskirts of Paris where the Irish women went where no man had gone before and beat New Zealand at the World Cup.
It was an incredible day for the 2013 Grand Slam champions who became the first team to down the Black Ferns at the competition since 1991, with tries from Heather O'Brien and a stunning effort from Alison Miller and crucial kicks from Niamh Briggs.
Philip Doyle's side ended the game in complete control, pounding away at the New Zealand line rather than defending their own before Briggs began the celebrations by kicking the ball dead.
"It's absolutely wonderful to win against the world champions," captain Fiona Coghlan said. "All credit should go to the coaches, the analysis team and the game plan they gave us. The heads never dropped because we were on the same page. Even when they went ahead, we knew we would go back up there, score and win the game."
While the victory helped secure a first semi-final appearance, their dreams of winning the World Cup were dashed when they met a rampant England side in the semi-finals.
2 - The Heineken Cup is no more
Off the pitch, this was a significant year as the 19-year history of the Heineken Cup came to an end as the English and French clubs won their power struggle and created a slimmed-down version, the Rugby Champions Cup.
After more than a year of high pressure negotiations which threatened the future of the club game on this side of the equator, there was relief when the clubs, unions and broadcasters brokered a solution even if it left the Irish game somewhat short-changed.
The upside is the renewed competitiveness of the Guinness Pro12 and a streamlining of the quality of teams in the competition, but the negatives are the emasculation of the Challenge Cup, the schedule that leaves little time for post-Six Nations recovery and the fact that fans are paying double to see all the games. When the rugby returned, the boardroom shenanigans were put aside but the feeling on this side of the Irish Sea is that the new competition won't be as kind as the old.
1 - Paris in the springtime
The agony was in the waiting game we played as a hush descended around the Stade de France and 80,000 eyes locked on the big screens to watch Pascal Pape's pass to Damien Chouly.
The game was on the line and Steve Walsh held Ireland's fate in his decision. He watched it over and over again, despite the fact that the ball clearly drifted forward before the No 8 touched down in the corner. Eventually, the referee eased Ireland's pain. The scrum went against the head but Chris Henry, Devin Toner and Paul O'Connell combined to hold Sebastien Vahaahamina up in a choke tackle and win the game, securing the Six Nations as they did.
It was the culmination of a memorable campaign and the signature performance of Joe Schmidt's time in charge.
Having earlier missed two kicks at goal, Johnny Sexton scored two brilliant second-half tries, while renaissance man Andrew Trimble got the other on a weekend when smog hung over Paris and things got claustrophobic.
"They have had to work so hard and when you work so hard for something and you manage to get over the line and it was close, hard fought," Schmidt said of his players.
"The whole tournament I think they have demonstrated a progression."
It was a fairytale finale for O'Driscoll in his final game in green. He appeared at the post-match press conference wearing his full kit and said he was reluctant to take it off.
"I've enjoyed every second and whatever it is - 45 minutes, an hour after the game - I don't really want to take this jersey off yet because I know when I take it off that it will be the last time," he said.
"It will be weird if I put it on at home and started walking around in it, so I'm kind of dragging the arse out of it a little bit!
"Not many people get to finish their career on their own terms.
"So I feel very fortunate and thankful that I'm part of a great, great team."
We won't forget Paris in a hurry.