A-Z of World Rugby in 2015

Daniel ReyFeatured ColumnistJanuary 1, 2016

A-Z of World Rugby in 2015

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    Tim Ireland/Associated Press

    2015 was arguably the finest year of rugby in the professional era.

    Internationally, New Zealand were world champions, Australia won the Rugby Championship and Ireland retained the Six Nations. The Highlanders claimed the Super 15 title and Toulon secured a third-straight victory in the rebranded European Champions Cup.

    In this A-Z of the year, Bleacher Report remembers the key moments that made the past 12 months so memorable. Included are triumphs, disappointments and quirky stories you might have forgotten.

A Is for Australia’s Revival

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    Frank Augstein/Associated Press

    Australia closed 2014 with an internationally-unproven new coach, great team potential but without a scrum.

    By the end of 2015, they had a top-class coach in Michael Cheika, a strong scrum and the two best opensides in the world. The 2015 World Cup final was their first since 2003.

    2015 was the year Australia were reborn.

B Is for Burgess

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    Alastair Grant/Associated Press

    Sam Burgess’ conversion and adaption to union was one of the stories of the year.

    Sadly for the rugby league star, things did not go to plan, and he ended 2015 with a return to league. So much expectation and too little time.

    It’s a great shame for rugby union, but 2015 was an annus horribilis for Slammin’ Sam.

C Is for Conversions by Props

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    Retiring Namibia prop Johnny Redelinghuys provided one of the most memorable moments of the 2015 Rugby World Cup after being nominated by his team to take an 82-minute conversion in his team’s final World Cup match, against Argentina.

    The 20-stone front-rower came agonisingly close to securing the extra two points.

D Is for Dan Carter

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    World Player of the Year for the third time, Dan Carter got the send-off from international rugby that he deserved after a man-of-the-match performance in the World Cup final. But it could have been very different; there was a chance that he wouldn’t make the squad.

    However, New Zealand coach Steve Hansen backed the fly-half, and after one of the all-time greats missed out on home soil in 2011, Carter was the most deserving of World Cup winners in 2015.

E Is for Exiting Legends

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    Some exiting legends from the international game have their own letter in this A-Z, so here we should pay tribute to Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, Schalk Burger, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Thierry Dusautoir and the rest.

    Thanks for the memories.

F Is for the Final Day of the Six Nations

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    March 21, 2015the final day of the 2015 Six Nations.

    Surely the most dramatic day in the history of the championship as Wales, Ireland and England each provided compelling cases to be crowned winners of the tournament. Even the French could have won the title when the day started, but the trophy went to Ireland on points difference.

    Per BBC Sport, the three matches produced 27 tries and 221 points. Now that’s entertainment.

G Is for Georgia and Gorgodze

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    Georgia were one of the success stories of the World Cup, and their captain Mamuka Gorgodze stood out again and again.

    Against Tonga, back-rower Gorgodze was particularly inspiredscoring a try, making an astonishing 24 tackles and a match-high three offloads, per the official Rugby World Cup website.

    In the backs, scrum-half Vasil Lobzhanidze made a star turn and became the youngest player in Rugby World Cup history when he faced Tonga aged 18 years and 340 days.

H Is for Habana

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    Bryan Habana raced a cheetah and won the World Cup in 2007; and in 2015, he equalled the great Jonah Lomu’s record of 15 Rugby World Cup tries.

    But Habana knows he should have the record all to himself after squandering excellent scoring opportunities against the United States and Argentina.

    2015 then was a year to remember for Habana, but also one to ponder what might have been.

I Is for Imhoff

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    Juan Imhoff cemented his reputation as one of the game’s premier wingers in 2015.

    The year began well for the Argentinian, as he scored the best try of the 2014-15 European Champions Cup with a 65-metre effort against Treviso in January (see video above).

    It got even better as a hat-trick at Ellis Park, Johannesburg, gave the Pumas a first-ever win against South Africa. And at the Rugby World Cup, the winger crossed the line five times, per the tournament's official websitea tally only bettered by Kiwis Julian Savea and Nehe Milner-Skudder.

J Is for Japan and Jones

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    Frank Augstein/Associated Press

    Who or what else could it be for this letter?

    The sporting story of the year was Eddie Jones’ Japan beating the mighty Springboks in an upset nobody saw coming.

    Japan’s attacking approach and commitment were heartwarming, as was their conquest of a rugby giant at the Brighton Community Stadium.

    Turn to “K” for more recollections from Brighton on September 19.

K Is for Karne Hesketh

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    Kiwi-born Karne Hesketh cemented himself into rugby history and sporting folklore on a sunny September afternoon on England’s south coast.

    Coming on as a replacement on 79 minutes, five minutes later, Hesketh scored the most dramatic try in World Cup history to secure the most improbable upset in sport.

    A day later, Hesketh recalled the emotions, per the official Rugby World Cup website:

    I remember crossing the line and thinking, ‘We’ve done it.’ Just immense happiness and pride. And to be lucky enough to be on the end of that, it was special.

    Before that game, just being involved in the World Cup was the pinnacle of my career. To be part of something like last night is so special.

L Is for Lomu the Legend

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    Ross Setford/Associated Press

    On 18 November, the rugby world mourned the passing of the man who changed the sport forever: Jonah Lomu.

    The first global superstar is still the one shining brightest. His 37 tries in 63 Tests only begin to tell the story. Illness restricted Lomu to only half-a-dozen years at the top of his game and claimed his life, aged just 40.

    Even when onlookers thought Lomu was in peak condition, such as when he demolished England in the 1995 World Cup semi-final with four tries, he was suffering from kidney disease.

    But Lomu should be remembered as the man who changed rugby for ever. Post-Lomu, size mattered.

    We should also remember his smiley, gentle off-field demeanour. Truly, Lomu remains a sporting giant.

M Is for McCaw

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    Tim Ireland/Associated Press

    Richie McCaw has the strongest of claims to be the greatest rugby player of all time.

    He captained New Zealand to two World Cupsthe first time the William Webb Ellis trophy has been retainedamassed a record 148 caps and won a staggering 131 Tests. Twenty-seven tries from the flank is impressive too, per ESPN.

    Opponents could be frustrated at McCaw’s seeming invisibility to referees at the ruck, but he was an operator who pushed himself to the limits in every way.

    McCaw is not the most talented man ever to set foot on a rugby field, but with his work ethic, drive and bravery, has there been anyone better than the bloke born in Oamaru?

N Is for Nehe Milner-Skudder’s Sidestep

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    There’s a new kid on the block, and he can step.

    He warned the world against Australia in August, and this deadly weapon helped Nehe Milner-Skudder finish the year with eight tries from eight caps, per ESPN.

O Is for Ormaechea

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    Uruguay scrum-half Agustin Ormaechea had the most eventful match of any player at the 2015 Rugby World Cup. He began with a trip to the sin-bin for dangerous play after two minutes, which led to a Fijian penalty try.

    Then, in the second half, Ormaechea equalled the feat of his father, Diego (a try scorer in the 1999 edition), when he crossed the whitewash. He would subsequently be awarded the man-of-the-match honour. But the joy turned sour as Ormaechea Jr. was sent off for a second yellow card after a scuffle.

    But the drama wasn’t over as Ormaechea had his award disqualified following his dismissal. Quite an evening for the Uruguayan No. 9.

P Is for Pocock

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    Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

    Dan Carter may have been awarded the World Rugby Player of the Year accolade for 2015, but the player who stood out most was Australian back-rower David Pocock.

    Putting his injury woes behind him, Pocock had an exceptional Rugby Championship and World Cup.

    The 27-year-old topped the turnover charts in England with an extraordinary 17 steals at the breakdown and added three tries to the Wallabies’ count, per the official Rugby World Cup website.

    To make his feat all the more impressive, it was accomplished from the unfamiliar position of No. 8.

    Nobody was more important to his team at the World Cup than Pocock, and no one outperformed him on the world stage this year.

Q Is for Quoi?

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    French speaker Jamie Cudmore tried to listen in to France’s lineout calls in Canada’s match against Les Blues at the Rugby World Cup.

    Did he really expect that his bulky frame and different coloured shirt would go unnoticed?

R Is for Referee Craig Joubert

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    Referee Craig Joubert should organise a race with fellow South African Bryan Habana if his speedy exit from the Twickenham turf is anything to go by.

    Having just awarded a controversial penalty to Australia in the dying moments of their quarter-final against fan-backed Scotland, Joubert showed a good turn of pace.

S Is for SBW: Sonny Bill Williams

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    Paul Gilham/Getty Images

    Sonny Bill Williams leads a truly extraordinary life. He has won the Rugby World Cup twice with the All Blacks, but between those two triumphs, he was named International Player of the Year for 2013 by the Rugby League International Federation. He has also won six professional boxing bouts.

    And if all this success drew the rest of humanity to jealousy, his selfless donation of his 2015 Rugby World Cup winners’ medal to a young fan, Charlie Line, who was being restrained by security staff, ensures that we can only admire this great man.

T Is for TMO: Television Match Official

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    Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

    The first Rugby World Cup with an enhanced television match official was a great success, but it began so badly in the opening game of the tournament between England and Fiji when constant referrals disrupted the flow of the game. That first half lasted 53 minutes.

U Is for Upsets

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    Tim Ireland/Associated Press

    The Rugby World Cup 2015 will be remembered for producing some of the sport’s most memorable upsets.

    As well as Japan and South Africa, Georgia beat Tonga and Romania came from 15-0 down to defeat Canada in the biggest comeback in the tournament’s history.

V Is for Van Der Merwe

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    DTH van der Merwe scored in each of Canada’s four pool matches at the World Cup, including a superb effort against Italy (see video above).

    Van der Merwe’s feat has only been achieved once before, by Wales winger Shane Williams in 2007.

W Is for World Cup 2015

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    Matt Dunham/Associated Press

    England 2015 was the best Rugby World Cup ever.

    For rugby quality, fans, upsets and drama, no tournament can match it. South Africa in 1995 had immense social and political importance; for pure rugby, though, nothing beats 2015.

X Is for the X-Ray That Sadly Ended Jean de Villiers’ Springbok Career

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    LIONEL BONAVENTURE/Getty Images

    South Africa captain Jean de Villiers ended his international career at Villa Park after helping the Springboks to defeat Samoa 46-6 in Pool B of the World Cup.

    However, a collision with Samoa’s Tim Nanai-Williams revealed that the centre had once again broken his jaw, the same injury that almost kept him out of the tournament.

    For De Villiers, who missed the 2003 edition with a knee problem and was injured in the first game of South Africa’s victorious campaign in 2007, it was a sad end to a long career with the Boks.

Y Is for Yellow Cards for All Blacks

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    David Rogers/Getty Images

    It should not be forgotten that the All Blacks were on the rack during the first game of their World Cup defence against Argentina, as experienced heads Richie McCaw and Conrad Smith were sent to the sin-bin for cynical offences.

    Argentina didn’t make the most of their numerical advantage, however, opting to take an easy three points rather than go for the try that would really have put pressure on New Zealand.

    Had the South Americans backed themselves, everything could have been very different.

Z Is for (New) Zealand

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    David Rogers/Getty Images

    New Zealand were the best team on the planet in 2015, and having comprehensively brushed aside any doubts that they could deliver when the pressure was on, can anybody stop the Kiwis in 2016?

    Was the 2015 New Zealand team the best ever? My money says it was.