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Year in review: Ten of the best

Before we start the countdown to World Cup 2015, it is worth looking back at the year that was – 2014.

It has been an interesting year – a mixture of sublime, skilful rugby and some real howlers, by players, coaches and match officials alike.

While it is important to acknowledge both the good and bad, it would be indecorous to allow the negatives to detract from what was a great year of awesome entertainment.

Yes, there was the very first Rugby Union 'own try' in the NRC match between the North Harbour Rays and Sydney Stars. Referee Ian Smith, who was unsighted, consulted the TMO, who ruled that Rays forward Mitch Lewis had 'scored' for the Stars when he placed the ball over his own line.

There was also George Clancy's horror show in the Rugby Championship match between Australia and South Africa in Perth.

Year in review: Ten of the bestProbably the worst of the year was South African ref Craig Joubert's penalty decision in Super Rugby Final – when he penalised Richie McCaw, which allowed the Waratahs to win the game – and then scooped SA's Referee of the Year award, much like Bryce Lawrence did in New Zealand after his 2011 World Cup howlers.

But those were as amusing as they were annoying, and can't detract from what was another year dominated by a great All Black team.

Yes, there was the loss to the Springboks, probably their biggest threat at the World Cup, and that under-par showing against the Wallabies (a draw) in the opening round of the Rugby Championship.

But five years as No.1 tells you all you need to know. The Springboks, Ireland and – if they avoid another internal fall-out – the Wallabies may be real threats.

The past year, 2014, was also very busy and productive for the World Cup organisers – who launched a ticket sales programme that has seen an extraordinary public demand. There will be plenty of drama in 2015, that we all know.

But if it is anything like 2014, it will be an exciting year.

Jan de Koning takes a look at the Top 10 ranked teams of the year!

1 New Zealand:

In the iconic words of that Tina Turner song: Simply the best! They started by dominating an England team that often seems competitive, but struggle to overcome the big guns. The All Blacks' 36-13 demolition of the English in the third Test in Hamilton just about sums up the chasm in class between the two countries.

The Kiwis simply did not turn up for the opening match of the Rugby Championship, a drab 12-all draw with the Wallabies of atrocious conditions in Sydney. The return fixture, a 51-20 win for New Zealand in Auckland showed how much ground the Aussies still have to make up.

They easily accounted for the Pumas and shared the matches one-all with the Springboks, the 25-27 loss in Johannesburg showing that when on form the Boks can be a real threat.

There was another below par showing par showing in the meaningless third Bledisloe Cup fixture, but the All Blacks still had enough in the tank to squeeze out a win. The year-end tour was a mixed bag, with the win over England at Twickenham far more convincing than the 24-21 scoreline suggest, while Wales were also easily outclassed (34-16) – again showing that the Home Unions (with perhaps the exception of Ireland) some way off New Zealand's best standards.

The Crusaders were robbed of an eighth Super Rugby title by that well-documented Craig Joubert blunder, but with three teams in the play-offs (top six) – the Crusaders (second), Chiefs (fifth) and Highlanders (sixth) – New Zealand also had a successful (even without the title) tournament.

 

2 South Africa:

Always the bridesmaid. That may well be the new theme for the Springboks. They have been second, behind New Zealand, for the past three years.

It was a year of erratic performances – the best showing the win over New Zealand in Johannesburg and the low points the year-end flops.

After a so-so June series – with scrappy wins over Wales (twice) and Scotland – the Boks squeezed past Argentina in the opening rounds of the Rugby Championship. It is well documented that their loss to Australia in Perth, partly, be put down to some refereeing howlers, while there were encouraging signs in a four-point loss to the All Blacks in Wellington.

A good win over the Wallabies in Cape Town was followed by their best performance of the year, the victory against New Zealand. But the team seemed to lose focus and got outplayed by both Ireland (a real World Cup threat) and Wales, with wins over England (a decent performance) and Italy sandwiched in between.

The serious knee injury suffered by Jean de Villiers means the Springboks may be looking for a new captain in 2015. Any money on it being the THOR, Duane Vermeulen?

The Super Rugby season was a big disappointment for South Africa, with the Sharks their only representation in the play-offs. The team from Durban, after a great start, steadily faded as the season progressed. The highlight was their win over the Crusaders in Christchurch in a pool match, when they were reduced to 13 men at one stage and finished the match a man down. Pity they couldn't duplicate that form in the play-offs and the Crusaders got their revenge.

3 Ireland:

No doubt the most improved team of the past two years (since Joe Schmidt took over in 2013) and serious threat at the World Cup.

They are deserved Six Nations champions and followed that up with unbeaten year-end run – which included impressive wins over South Africa and Australia.

Brian O'Driscoll's final season was always going to be emotional. In the event everything came down to the final Six Nations weekend when Ireland, despite England's 52-11 win over Italy in Rome earlier in the day, needed merely a one-point victory over France in Paris to secure the title. They won 22-20, but not without a cliff-hanging finale during which the home side had a possible late try denied by the television match official. It was Ireland's first win in Paris since 2000 and their first Six Nations title since 2009, a fitting book-end to the extraordinary O'Driscoll era.

Their only loss of the year was the 10-13 reversal against England at Twickenham in February, while Ireland's best match of the Six Nations was most likely the 26-3 demolition of big-talking Warren Gatland's Welsh side – as Ireland served up a bloodless coup by out-mauling the visiting team and running out comfortable victors.

Just as impressive was their 29-15 victory over the Springboks in November, while the win over the Wallabies was more convincing than the 26-23 scoreline suggests. It meant that Ireland completed a first year-end clean sweep since 2006.

Munster were the only Irish team to advance past the European Cup quarterfinals, but was knocked out in the semifinals by Saracens. Ulster and Leinster lost in the quarterfinals.

4 England:

Has there ever been a team that believed their own as much as the English? Yes, they do have a shot at winning the World Cup, but an in depth analyses will tell you they don't have the talent and depth to win crunch games.

They paid dearly for their loss to France in the opening round of the Six nations, as that allowed the Irish to claim the title – despite that 10-13 loss at Twickenham. The matches (all wins) against Scotland, Wales and Italy were of little significance.

Despite going close (15-20 and 27-28) against the All Blacks in June, the 13-36 loss in the third Test showed just how much ground the World Cup hosts still have to make up.

Their year-end defeats to New Zealand (21-24) and South Africa (28-31) are also significant, as those were on home turf and would have given the two top teams in the world an important psychological boost ahead of the World Cup. Beating Samoa was to be expected and the Australian team was a royal mess – having dropped several places in the rankings.

There is a feeling that England have plateaued, with their centre partnership still a riddle and question marks lingering over the halfbacks.

Saracens looked impressive in the European Cup, advancing to the Final, but ran into a determined and impressive Toulon team that became just the third side to retain the title.

5 Australia:

One very descriptive Aussie journo said the body count this year was higher than in the 1968 classic movie Night of the Living Dead. It tells you that Australia performed as poorly off the field as they did on the playing paddock.

With just six wins from 14 Tests it is obvious there is something seriously wrong. If you look for a purely rugby reason, it is because they still can't scrum. If the fundamentals are not in place, they will continue to lose the big match-ups.

But this year was all about the off-field drama, the Kurtley Beale saga – those lewd text messages and the lies that accompanied them. Di Patston walked out and Ewen McKenzie fell on his sword. The first the public knew of the simmering tensions was when a mid-air argument erupted over the Atlantic Ocean between the badly attired Wallaby and the  team business manager. Never before has Australian rugby had such a bitter, divisive feud played out in public.

As the Sydney Morning Herald so aptly put it: "That the situation had spiralled out of control exposed a lack of governance in the organisation. There was plenty of spin from rah-rah headquarters, but it was mostly of the wrong 'un, not top, variety. The credibility of Chairman Michael Hawker and Chief Executive Bill Pulver took a hit. Both had advocated the removal of Beale, but the Code of Conduct Tribunal ignored the request. The star Wallaby was instead left AU$48,000 out of pocket but kept his contract and is set to sign a new one shortly. His reputation, though, has been damaged further."

On the field – all a result of the internal strife, limited player resources and poor set-piece skills – the results were just as shocking.

The three-nil series win over France in June just papered over the cracks, with the walls crumbling down during the Rugby Championship. A 12-all drawn in the opening round in atrocious conditions in Sydney was followed by a significant loss – 20-51 to the All Blacks. Despite winning (with a little help of a friend) against the Springboks in Perth (a one-point squeaker) and edging Argentina on the Gold Coast, another significant loss (10-28) to South Africa in Cape Town showed that the Wallabies just were not capable of winning the big games.

Then followed the Di Patston saga and a loss to the Pumas, Argentina's first Rugby Championship win, a change in coaching staff (exit McKenzie, enter Michael Cheika), before another scrappy loss to the All Blacks in a meaningless third Bledisloe Cup encounter and a disastrous year-end tour. The fluky (33-28) win over Wales was followed by defeats to France, Ireland and England – all games that showed up just how poor the Wallaby fundamentals are.

The highlight of the year for Australia was the Waratahs' first-ever Super Rugby title – as already stated, the result of a massive refereeing blunder. They will hope Michael Cheika can also turn the Wallabies' fortunes around.

6 Wales:

They still flatter to deceive. Is there a coach anywhere that talks such a BIG game like Warren Gatland, but seldom delivers?

Just five wins from 11 starts and finishing third in the Six Nations is a failure in anybody's book. On the administrative front the drawn-out battle between the Welsh Rugby Union and the professional teams (regions) also contributed to a disappointing year.

The most significant wins of the year were against France in the Six Nations and South Africa on the year-end tour. But defeats to Ireland (3-26) and England (18-29) in the Six Nations showed they are well behind in the race, while the 16-34 year-end loss to New Zealand was another indicator that Wales can't be regarded as a serious World Cup threat.

It is also significant that Wales could not win back-to-back matches once in 2014. In the World Cup you have to win three BIG games on the trot in the play-offs and the Welsh just don't seem to have the grunt or depth, despite some obvious talent in their frontline selection.

What is worth remembering is that the Welsh got themselves into positions to win against both Australia and New Zealand in the Novembers Tests, but those winning positions disappeared in the blink of an eye, in what has become a familiar and depressing pattern against the big Southern Hemisphere teams.

They will take heart from hanging on against a fading Bok team, but Gatland's record against the big three – now two wins from 28 encounters – still makes for grim reading.

Not a single Welsh team made the European Cup play-offs.

 

7 France:

When you speak about France, you inevitably ask: 'Which version will turn up?'

The year started on a promising note, a 26-24 win over England in the opening round of the Six Nations. However, a 6-27 defeat to Wales a few weeks later showed how utterly rubbish France can be – with a better showing in the final round against Ireland (a 20-22loss), where only a forward pass robbed the French of snatching a late winner.

It also handed the title to Ireland.

June was a write-off – the French utterly rubbish in going down 0-3 to the Wallabies – losing 23-50, 06 and 13-39.

Year-end wins over Fiji and Australia suggested progress was made, till they slumped to a 13-18 loss to Argentina.

There remains question marks over both the coaching and selections of Philippe Saint-André, the man nicknamed Le Goret (the piglet).

The ugliest scene of the year was also in France – when in a French Top 14 match, Guy Novès, the Toulouse Director of Rugby, implored his centre Florian Fritz to return to the field swiftly when he was obviously concussed and in no fit state to resume. Concussions in rugby are inevitable, and whilst awareness and education have increased hugely, there is the lingering feeling that too many risks are still taken. Second impacts can be fatal. That should be sufficient deterrent.

The big positive for French rugby is that the 2013/14 European Cup confirmed Toulon's power on and off the field with their second successive title, but it also offered one of the biggest disappointments for French clubs when Saracens smashed Clermont Auvergne 46-6 in the semifinal at Twickenham.

8 Scotland:

Bravehearts. Always willing, but lacking in real talent. If bravery were to count points, the Scots would be a World Cup threat.

However, skills and talent are vital components and they only occasional produced that.

They had a poor Six Nations, with their only win against lowly Italy.

Their best performances were reserved for Argentina – beating the Pumas 21-19 in June and 41-31 in November.

They never threatened any of the big guns, not even a second-string All Black team in November, with a 6-55 loss to South Africa in June displaying the chasm between the Scots and the real World Cup contenders.

No Scottish team made the European Cup play-offs and that is where their problems start – no significant feeder base and too many imports keeping the Scottish teams afloat.

    

9 Argentina:

The duck has been broken. Yes, to much acclaim they won their first Rugby Championship match and also beat Italy and France in the their November campaign.

The latter win came a the week after France had beaten Australia in a cracker that suggested the French had turned the corner after a fitful year.

While probably not a serious World Cup threat – more a long-shot – they are building steadily under Santiago Phelan. However, 2015 may come a bit early for them.

They lost their first eight matches of the year – against Ireland (twice in June), Scotland, South Africa (twice), New Zealand (twice) and Australia.

Then the Pumas won three of their last four matches of the year – that famous Rugby Championship win over the Wallabies, as well as edging Italy and France. There is promise, but just that – promise.

Argentina's strength in depth beneath the senior team was evident in 2014 with the Jaguars and the Pampas XVs both going through the year unbeaten and claiming three tournament titles between them.

In March, the Pampas XV won the revamped Pacific Cup in their debut season, while later in the year the Jaguars, effectively Argentina's second team, took both the Tbilisi Cup and Americas Rugby Championship titles.

 

10 Samoa:

The Pacific Islanders is a perfect example of how politics ruin sport. The despotic Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sa'ilele Malielegaoi, who also acts as Samoan Rugby Union President, is at the heart of everything that is wrong with the game in that country.

It is well documented that the game in Samoa is being held back by poor and hard-to-fathom administration. It has been an open secret for the past few years that administrators in Samoa are worse than awful. Equally sad was the predictable response of management towards the players last month when they spoke out about what they felt was happening.

And the players were again left raging after a rant from the country's Prime Minister accused them of not training hard enough and hinted at a drinking culture in the squad.

In a multi-pronged attack, Malielegaoi also took aim at World Rugby (formerly the IRB), accusing it of inflaming recent tensions, as well as the four Home Unions, which he said should be merged under a ‘Great Britain' banner.

Samoa's hard-pressed stars – who have demanded action over a range of issues including team selection, financial transparency, match fees, travel and grass roots development back home – threatened to strike for the year-end Test against England, but relented when World Rugby arranged meetings to address the issues.

But Malielegaoi failed to show, preferring instead to dismiss the players' demands as "childish rants".

Following a meeting with the Chairman of World Rugby, Bernard Lapasset, in Brussels last month, Malielegaoi again went on the offensive.

He accused the Samoan players of "talking to players in Tier One countries and think they should be paid the same allowances".

It will be interesting to see if World Rugby takes a stance on the matter. I doubt very much Lapasset and his cronies have the backbone.

We look at two other important tournaments this year – courtesy of World Rugby media unit!

Junior World Championship

England claimed back-to-back Junior World Championship titles after a thrilling 21-20 win against South Africa at Eden Park. Having beaten hosts New Zealand twice in their own backyard to get to the final, 2012 champions South Africa were always going to provide stiff opposition for England and so it proved.

Jesse Kriel handed the Baby Boks an early lead with the first of his two tries before Nathan Earle responded to edge England in front 11-10 at half-time. A Joel Conlon try and penalty and conversion from Billy Burns extended England's advantage after the break, but Kriel found his way over for a second time and the outstanding Handré Pollard added the extras to set up a tense finish. England held on though. Meanwhile, New Zealand had to settle for third place after a 45-23 win over Ireland in the play-offs.

Sevens World Series 2013/14

With five tournaments titles and two runners-up finishes New Zealand took the Sevens World Series crown by 28 points from South Africa. New Zealand won the opening leg of the series on the Gold Coast of Australia but had to wait until Wellington in February before tasting victory again.

In between times, they suffered their heaviest defeat under Gordon Tietjens when they lost 44-0 to Fiji in the Dubai semi-final. But a superb defensive display saw New Zealand get back on track on home soil. From the second game onwards in Wellington, the reigning champions kept the opposition pointless, including a 21-0 win against South Africa in the final.

The BlitzBokke reached their fifth consecutive final as the series moved on to Tokyo but Fiji proved too strong in the final. NZ returned to the top of the standings with two rounds to play after victory over England in Hong Kong. Canada continued to justify their reputation as a force to be reckoned with by making their first series final in Glasgow, but they were powerless to stop a New Zealand side who had built up a head of steam and slipped to a 54-7 defeat.

By progressing to the knockout stages of the cup in London, New Zealand were guaranteed their 12th title in 15 years, an outstanding achievement in anyone's book. Twickenham staged the highest scoring final of all time when NZ concluded the series with a 52-33 win against Australia.

 

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