As the year draws to a close, we reflect on the best and worst moments of a sound year of rugby.
Not quite a great year, but an enthralling one nonetheless - where we saw seven of the top eight nations operate under new coaching regimes. Post World Cup, we were allowed to see all of our top players in action, and as a consequence, all competitions were richer for it.
Team of the year goes to the All Blacks. Down on the ropes after losses in Dunedin and Sydney, Graham Henry’s team came back to win the Tri Nations, Bledisloe, Grand Slam and all associated plaudits. It was a perfect riposte for a team that not only had to answer for World Cup failures, but had a point to prove after having the heart of the team ripped out by the European Dollar.
Domestic team of the year goes to Canterbury, narrowly pipping the Munster men. Again the men from the south like their representatives in Black, were weaker in personal this year, and faced credible challenge from a usual strong Super 14 season. As Robbie Deans completed his swansong, Canterbury then defeated a fabulously strong Wellington team to take the Super 14/ANZC double.
Player of the yeargoes to Richie McCaw. When scared flightless birds masqueraded as All Blacks in Sydney, it took the presence of a special man to turn his team back to a 44 point turnaround. McCaw’s face in the stands at Sydney was the expression of pain – and he is developing the mana to lead the All Blacks to World Cup glory.
His presence is worth at least 10 points to the team – but is he too valuable?
Game of the year goes to South Africa and New Zealand. 1-1 all, and the All Blacks come down to the cape and hold the Springboks scoreless winning 19-0. At this point the All Blacks began to believe they were the best in the world.
Special note goes to the Springboks for putting exclamation marks on the year with record beating wins over Wallabies and England.
Transformer of the year goes to Ma’a Nonu. 12-18 months ago, Nonu was still a ball running destructor, but threw wild passes, knocked on and was a defensive liability. Come to the end of 2008, arguably the best inside centre in world rugby, and twice the player.
Further transformation has also been seen by the Wallabies – who now appear to have the ability to win away from home. Deans would love a win in New Zealand though.
Newcomer of the year goes to Euan Murray and Luke Fitzgerald. Scottish prop Murray came of age this year and ensured Scottish scrums were equal to Puma, Springbok and All Black packs. In Fitzgerald both Leinster and Ireland have unearthed the heir apparent to Brian O’Driscoll.
Coach of the year just goes to Graham Henry, who won based on his decision to dump policies that clearly hadn’t worked in 2007, and to redevelop a team that had lost many key players. Deans deserves a mention, but you can’t help but mention a 1-3 Wallaby & All Black 2008 match ledger.
Coaching moment of the yeargoes to the RFU’s unceremonious dumping of Brian Ashton from the England post after somehow taking them to the World Cup rugby final and the runner’s up position of the 2008 RBS Tri Nations. He wasn’t doing brilliantly, but he was improving, and England has shown that Martin Johnson will be performing no miracle.
Coaching lesson of the year goes to Tana Umaga. Great players and captains will not translate into great coaches. Maybe England should have watched Tana longer to see how he went. Jake White’s influence has done Umaga wonders since his arrival, thus the lessons are being paved for Johnson.
Best foreign signing would have to be coming close to Harlequins signing of Nick Evans, the man who deserved to be at least Dan Carters equal at the end of 2007. His recent form has been match winning – he is far outperforming the retirement planners of the Toulon players.
Biggest confusions of the year go to our friends at the IRB, releasing two different sets of ELV’s, trialling them, bringing back the old laws, bringing back hybrid laws, bringing back global laws and the like. This is attracting the consternation of many elite coaches around the world, most regularly Ewen McKenzie.
Let’s all be on the same page - fans, players, unions, and most importantly, referees. And yes, he had a great season, but Shane Williams as the IRB player of the year?
Comment of the yeargoes of course to Springbok coach Peter De Villiers after the Springboks beat the Wallabies 53-8 in Durban.
“The same people who threw their robes on the ground when Jesus rode on a donkey were the same people who crowned him and hit him with sticks and stuff like that, and were the same people who said afterwards how we shouldn't have done that, he's the son of God," de Villiers said.
"So that's exactly what we do. You have to look at history is repeating itself, and I'm not saying that I'm God."
Then on that note Jesus, we look forward to another great year of rugby in 2009.
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