OPINION: The Telegraph’s rugby writer, Mick Cleary, picks his best moments from 2018.
Moment of the year
Siya Kolisi standing proud at Ellis Park in June preparing to sing Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, as the first black test captain in the history of Springbok rugby, a landmark moment for a sport so associated with the ruinous apartheid policies. Kolisi, a township child from Port Elizabeth who had a hard upbringing, has become the totem of the nation, selected on merit as a grafting, influential flanker but, at long last, properly representing the “rainbow nation”, spoken of by Nelson Mandela when South Africa won the World Cup in 1995.
Ireland beating the All Blacks. Perhaps it should not be a notable thing that the No 2 ranked side should beat the top-seeded team on home soil but Ireland’s 16-9 win over New Zealand at the Aviva Stadium in mid-November had the feel of a seminal event. The Irish victory in Chicago in 2016 had the air of a one-off, an exhibition game, even if it was not. This, though, was proper test rugby – hard, relentless, unflinching stuff. The Kiwis were up for it on all fronts and yet they could not break Ireland’s resolve. Joe Schmidt’s side carved out one great chance and they took it through wing Jacob Stockdale, potent and opportunistic, qualities that were once the almost exclusive preserve of New Zealand.
Any mini-rugby coach of whatever gender, of whatever ability, of whatever nationality, be it British, Irish, French, South African or from any other country in the rugby world. So much of our focus is on the professional game, the ebb and flow of form, the ins and outs of the transfer market, yet that high-end of the business is only a tiny percentage of the activity in the sport. There have been concerns about investment in the grass-roots game and those worries must be addressed. Coaches need to be qualified first and foremost but they also need to be loved, to feel that it is all worthwhile. Without them, there simply would be no Owen Farrells or Johnny Sextons or Beauden Barretts.
One thing England’s rugby union got right in 2018
Awarding full-time contracts for the women’s elite game. The Rugby Football Union had come under fire for terminating 15-a-side contracts in the wake of the 2017 Rugby World Cup in which England had reached the final. Its explanation was that it was going to focus in the short-term on sevens. However, pressure mounted on the union and its response has been admirable in that 28 full-time contracts will be available in the new year, enabling the leading players to prepare as their male counterparts do as fully fledged professional athletes. England have set the pace ahead of other countries as they look towards the 2021 World Cup, an extremely positive sign for the women’s game.
One thing rugby union got wrong in 2018
Belly-aching about the crackdown on high tackles. Even now, months into the season, you can hear the groans as the referee goes to the television match official to check on a possible high hit before brandishing a yellow or even a red card. Leicester lock Will Spencer was one of the first to be affected by the new directive, being sent off for what might have seemed a routine, instinctive, non-malicious tackle on Wasps’ Tommy Taylor. Leicester hooker Tom Youngs said that the “game has changed”, and not for the better, a view echoed by the Tigers acting head coach, Geordan Murphy. To his credit, Murphy revised his view three days later, recognising that head injuries are a blight on the game. It is time for cries of “the game has gone soft”, to end and player behaviour to change.
Joe Marler in the John Harvey Tavern, Lewes. Marler is a distinctive figure, so too was his choice of location for the exclusive interview to talk about his surprise decision to retire from international rugby. Marler was open, honest and revealing. It made for a perfect assignment, that is until the Lewes Folk Group arrived to claim their reserved table and strike up with the music. Nice people, though, as is Marler, a sensitive soul despite his image.
One prediction I got right
The Year of the Irish. It always looked as if Irish teams would come up trumps, be it Joe Schmidt’s side in the Six Nations or Leinster in the European Champions Cup who lorded it over the rest.
There is little reason to expect much change over the next 12 months.
One prediction I got wrong
That Eddie Jones would continue to sail towards the sunset bathed in a golden glow. So successful had Jones’s tenure been, the 12-6 win over Wales in February being his 25th victory in 26 matches, a better return than even Clive Woodward managed, that it seemed as if all were well with England. Three defeats later, England had finished fifth, their worst placing in the championship since 1983.
Sum up the year in five words
All Blacks finally looking vulnerable
Source link : https://www.stuff.co.nz/sport/opinion/109706731/ireland-deliver-years-best-with-win-against-all-blacks
Publish date : 2019-01-02 18:29:00