Year review: International rugby this year can be summed up by the ongoing trials and tribulations of the England national team.
Hemispheres are still poles apart in rugby
International rugby this year can be summed up by the ongoing trials and tribulations of the England national team. Their 26-19 defeat to Wales at Twickenham on the first day of the Six Nations helped herald a new international season. When the Red Rose wilted against New Zealand at the same stadium just a few weeks ago, that 32-6 defeat to the All Blacks brought it to an end.
Those defeats bookend this year's international action, and if 2008 has illustrated anything at all to rugby observers, it is that the gulf in class between the two hemispheres is widening. England's World Cup quarter- final victory over Australia in Marseille last year, bracketed with France's stunning triumph over the All Blacks in Cardiff, gave oxygen to the belief that the Six Nations teams could once again front up to their southern hemisphere counterparts. Not so.
The Six Nations sides went head-to-head against the SANZAR teams of Australia, South Africa and New Zealand 20 times this year. Wales's stirring 21-18 win over Australia last month was the northern hemisphere's only success: the worst return by European sides this century. France started this year's Six Nations tournament as favourites, and their coach, Marc Lievremont was one of three new faces to head up the national teams. Nick Mallet, the former South Africa coach, had taken hold of Italy after Pierre Berbizier's post-World Cup departure, and Wales were hopeful that Warren Gatland and Shaun Edwards would be their dream ticket.
As England had dourly finished as runners-up at the World Cup, many thought that Brian Ashton's squad might build on that success. And so it seemed in their first game against the Welsh when the captain, Phil Vickery, led his side in to half-time with a 16-6 advantage. Gatland had other ideas, however, and he gave an inspirational team-talk during the interval. Out came Wales in the second-half, and although they conceded a penalty first, they went on to score 20 unanswered points to seal their first win at Twickenham in 10 years. Wales used that momentum to record a famous Grand Slam.
Victories in their final two games against Ireland in Dublin, and the 29-12 win at the Millennium Stadium against France crowned them as the best team in Europe for the second time in four years. England's Twickenham defeat, however, knocked the stuffing out of Ashton. His team's lack of composure ultimately led to his dismissal after the tournament, despite England's second-placed finish. The Rugby Football Union dithered disgracefully over his sacking, but eventually it was the World Cup-winning England captain, Martin Johnson, who replaced him. Johnson was not in place when England suffered humiliating defeats to the All Blacks on their June tour.
It was a tough summer for the northern hemisphere Scotland and Italy were the only sides from Europe who made any headway, both beating Santiago Phelan's new-look, but understrength Argentina. A word must be said about Ireland's efforts during the summer. After they had finished fourth in the Six Nations, their coach, Eddie O'Sullivan, resigned, and Declan Kidney, the Heineken Cup-winning Munster coach, replaced him. They immediately looked invigorated, and they put up some decent showings against Australia and New Zealand, losing 18-12 and 21-11 respectively.
From the dominance of the June tours, the SANZAR countries then turned their attentions to experimental law variations. For quiz fans, New Zealand's 19-8 victory over South Africa in Wellington in the first round of the Tri-Nations was the first international to be played under the new laws. It was a win that gave enormous relief to the coaching team of Graham Henry, Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith, who had been given a stay of execution by the New Zealand Rugby Union after last year's World Cup failure.
The trio were not so happy a week later, however, when South Africa, under the guidance of another new coach in Peter de Villiers, secured a famous 30-28 win in Dunedin's self-styled House of Pain. It was the first time in 10 years that the Springboks had won on New Zealand soil, and that defeat ended the All Blacks' world record run of 30 matches without a loss at home. New Zealand went on to secure their ninth Tri-Nations title, finishing above Australia. Their subsequent tour of Europe yielded a third grand slam in their history, achieved without conceding a try.
It had seemed an unlikely achievement at the beginning of the year. The high-profile departures of Luke McAlister, Carl Hayman, Byron Kelleher and Chris Jack for lucrative European contacts after the World Cup left a huge vacuum in their talent pool. The drain continues, too. Greg Somerville, the All Black prop, has now also come to Europe, and although he is set to return, Dan Carter currently plies his trade for Perpignan in France.
But new stars have emerged. Conrad Smith, the centre, looks a lethal weapon in attack, offering a rapier-like threat to Ma'a Nonu, his bludgeon of a centre partner. Richard Kahui and Stephen Donald are other new All Black backs to keep tabs on. Other players who stood up to the plate during the Tri-Nations were Australia's Luke Burgess, the scrum-half who looks set to occupy George Gregan's boots for the next few years.
Jongi Nokwe, the South African winger who scored four tries in the world champions' rout of Australia at Ellis Park may also have a bright future. The ELVs (Experimental Law Variations) on the other hand may not. They were implemented globally on Aug 1, but even in Australia, where the biggest groundswell of support seems to be, there are still mutterings. There are too many free-kicks say critics. The loss of the rolling maul devalues the forward contest, say others.
What seems to be the biggest area for concern is that there are too many kicks from hand. the former Wallaby Dick Marks even found time to be facetious. He said: "Sure, there are stats that say the ball is in play more, but that's not much use when it's 50 metres up in the air!" This year will always be associated with the implementation of the ELVs, but as we get ready to usher in a new year, we can only look forward to 2009, which, hopefully, will be remembered for a titanic series between the world champion Springboks and Ian McGeechan's touring Lions.