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Rugby’s year in review: 2015

Brett McKay Columnist

By Brett McKay, Brett McKay is a Roar Expert

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    2015 has, from a rugby sense, been a rather big year. Rugby World Cup years always are, but when you think about everything that happened between the start of February and the Rugby World Cup Final, you realise just how much has gone down this year.

    At this time of annual reflection, contemplate all this while you put your feet up in front of the cricket with a well-earned brew of some description.

    Super Rugby: the Clan blow Hurricanes away to take maiden title
    What shaped as one of the tightest seasons of Super Rugby in the last few years proved to be the case, when the Highlanders emerged as the first team in the history of the competition to win the title from fourth place.

    Their 21-14 win over the Hurricanes in Wellington was just the third time the trophy had been claimed by a side on the road, while the Highlanders also became the fourth New Zealand side to win a Final. Under the 15-team, three-conference format, the Highlanders were the first non-conference winners to take a title, as well as being the first Champion to have come through a qualifying final.

    The Hurricanes had been the dominant team in 2015, not losing a game until their Round 10 defeat at home by the Waratahs, and only losing once more before the Final. They were hotly tipped to claim a maiden title themselves, but the 2015 Highlanders were reading from a very different script.

    The three conferences themselves were quite tightly fought. In South Africa, the Bulls and Sharks failed to capitalise on dream draws handed to them, and mounted respective five- and six-game losing streaks during the season to finish well out of the Finals. This opened the door for the Lions, who lost just three of their last 12 games to record their most successful season to date and finish just three points behind the Stormers.

    The Stormers topped the South African conference, but limped into the finals with a draw and a loss, and became the first conference winners to finish with a record that ordinarily would’ve seen them finish outside the top six teams.

    The seventh-placed Crusaders finished with one competition point more than the Stormers, and missed the playoffs. The Stormers’ terrible late-season form carried into the finals, where they were blown away at Newlands by the Brumbies in the qualifying final.

    The Australian conference looked close on paper in February, but within the first few weeks it became clear that the Western Force weren’t going to repeat their 2014 deeds, and that the Queensland Reds were in for another tough season under embattled coach Richard Graham.

    The Brumbies started well and carried that form through, only to be overrun in the final few weeks of the season by the Waratahs as conference champions. The Melbourne Rebels had a very promising middle portion of the year that fuelled talk of an inaugural finals appearance, only to stumble in the closing rounds.

    New Zealand very nearly finished with an unprecedented four teams in the playoffs, and enjoyed a ridiculously tight conference all season. The Hurricanes were able to establish themselves as frontrunners early on, and streaks of 11 and then five straight wins cemented their minor premiership and finals hosting rights, despite a hiccup to the Crusaders three weeks from the playoffs. That win was the start of a three-game streak for the Crusaders themselves, but they left their run a little late to earn a playoffs berth.

    The Blues proved to be disappointments again, and the Chiefs and Highlanders ran with each other all season, before spending the last month of the competition swapping places. The Highlanders finished with the momentum, and repeated the dose by storming past the Chiefs in the Qualifying Final.

    The semi finals set up equally mouth-watering prospects of all-Australian, all-New Zealand, or trans-Tasman Finals, and though all Australian hearts pined for a Waratahs-Brumbies title showdown, there could be little doubt the two best teams in the competition won through, as the Hurricanes and Highlanders progressed.

    The Hurricanes played a smart semi game plan, getting out to a start and banking on the Brumbies to panic under pressure, while the Highlanders played a surprisingly physical game in Sydney to out-muscle the Waratahs. Both teams progressed playing almost nothing like they had through the season.

    Come the Final in Wellington, a new Champion would be crowned, and happily none of the fog that swamped the last decider in the windy city was present, as the southerners stormed home to beat the heavily-favoured home team.

    The Highlanders’ first title was a tribute to Jamie Joseph’s simple game plan executed perfectly by an underrated squad of players, and they’ll start the expanded 2016 Super Rugby season with a large target on their back.

    Highlanders' Aaron Smith celebrates his teams win over the Hurricanes

    The Rugby Championship: Cheika’s Wallabies experiments net silverware
    With the Rugby World Cup rapidly closing in, The Rugby Championship was the last major chance for the four respective nations to get their personnel and combinations right before finalising squads.

    It meant that sides changed dramatically from game to game, and once Australia and New Zealand had both accounted for South Africa and Argentina, it set up the first leg of the Bledisloe Cup series in Sydney as the decider.

    Wallabies coach Michael Cheika pulled out his trump card, starting David Pocock at No.8 alongside Michael Hooper at openside, and despite a stellar debut from All Black winger Nehe Milner-Skudder, the Wallabies’ bench delivered in the last quarter of the game, with scrumhalf Nic White scoring and converting the matchwinner.

    That same weekend, Argentina caused a massive boilover in Durban, registering their first ever win over the Springboks, their first ever away win, and first bonus point win since being admitted to The Rugby Championship in 2011.

    Bledisloe Cup: McCaw rules, okay

    The win in Sydney had Wallabies supporters riding high on confidence that, finally, the 29-year Eden Park hoodoo would be broken. But having seemingly developed the masterplan in Sydney, Cheika made seven changes to the starting side, including benching Pocock, and the Wallabies found themselves on the back foot almost immediately.

    Three converted tries in six minutes early in the second half blew the Wallabies away, with Ma’a Nonu delivering a masterclass and Richie McCaw going past Brian O’Driscoll’s record as the most capped player in Test Rugby. The Wallabies’ Bledisloe drought was extended to a 13th year, and the Auckland hoodoo remains.

    Rugby World Cup: All Blacks dynasty claims record third crown
    The tournament that felt like it had been coming forever was suddenly upon us, and we only had to wait until the second day for the first major upset. Japan’s last-ditch 34-32 over South Africa in Brighton was immediately written up as the single greatest upset in the written and mythical history of the universe, and even without the hyperbole, it will be remembered as one of the obvious highlights of the tournament.

    Japan’s win put all eyes on the so-called ‘minnows’, and all delivered on years of promise. Fiji’s scrum literally pushed their Pool A combatants all the way, Japan finished with three wins alongside South Africa and Scotland in Pool B, Georgia finished third in Pool D despite almost shelling their last game against Namibia, and Romania recorded their first ever Rugby World Cup win, topping Canada in Pool D.

    South Africa (thereafter) and New Zealand had little trouble topping their respective Pools B and C, and Ireland’s convincing win over France saw them home in Pool D, too. In Pool A, the Wallabies emerged atop the ‘Pool of Death’ after comprehensive and hard-fought wins over England and Wales in successive games. Wales’ three-point win over England earlier in the pool meant that their loss to the Wallabies confirmed the first occasion of a Rugby World Cup host not escaping the pool stage.

    Come the quarters, the Springboks and All Blacks had little trouble with Wales and France, respectively, while Argentina’s 43-20 thumping of Ireland added to the list of tournament upsets.

    The Wallabies very nearly found themselves on that list in the final quarter final, escaping a major boilover at the hands of Scotland courtesy of an 80th minute Bernard Foley penalty, in a controversially refereed game that might be remembered by Scots in the same infamous manner as New Zealand’s QF loss in 2007.

    An all-Southern hemisphere semi-final stage was set, and though Australia would have little trouble getting past Argentina to earn a fourth Rugby World Cup Final appearance, the day before saw New Zealand battling in the last twenty minutes to hold off South Africa despite complete dominating possession.

    Ultimately, sadly, the first trans-Tasman Final played out largely to script. Tries to the All Blacks either side of halftime – their ‘Championship minutes’ – threatened to again put the Wallabies away, before a Tevita Kuridrani try brought the margin back to four points with 15 to play.

    Enter quasi-player of the tournament Dan Carter. A 70th minute drop goal and a 75th minute penalty came in a wonderful period of game management, before replacement Beauden Barrett scooped up a loose ball in the 79th minute and run 60 metres to seal the result.

    The comeback spoke for the Wallabies’ rapid improvement in 2015, but the closing out of the game issued a stark reminder that this All Blacks side has always had the tools and the smarts to win regardless of the situation. The best team in the world capped off four years of international dominance with an unprecedented third Rugby World Cup.

    All Blacks celebrate

    What a year!
    It’s been a massive year for rugby, no doubt, and as we wrap it up for 2015, I’ll leave you with this scary thought: the new season is only eight weeks away!

    All the best for 2016…

    Brett McKay
    Brett McKay

    Brett McKay is one of The Roar's good news stories and has been a rugby and cricket expert for the site since July 2009. Brett is an international and Super Rugby commentator for ABC Grandstand radio, has commentated on the Australian Under-20s Championships and National Rugby Championship live stream coverage, and has written for magazines and websites in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the UK. He tweets from @BMcSport.

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    The Crowd Says (66)

    • December 31st 2015 @ 5:34am
      Alan said | December 31st 2015 @ 5:34am | ! Report

      Awesome summary. Happy New Year.

    • December 31st 2015 @ 7:16am
      marfu said | December 31st 2015 @ 7:16am | ! Report

      Thanks for the memories.

    • December 31st 2015 @ 7:44am
      ben said | December 31st 2015 @ 7:44am | ! Report

      Just a small point brett…this year was the first time wellington has ever hosted a super rugby final.
      The fog bound final that the canes last participated in was in christchurch..not wellington

      • Columnist

        December 31st 2015 @ 12:40pm
        Brett McKay said | December 31st 2015 @ 12:40pm | ! Report

        Cheers Ben. Seems the memory is fog-affected, too..

      • January 3rd 2016 @ 6:51pm
        The V Man said | January 3rd 2016 @ 6:51pm | ! Report

        Well done ben!

    • Columnist

      December 31st 2015 @ 8:56am
      Brett McKay said | December 31st 2015 @ 8:56am | ! Report

      The gongs keep rolling in for the All Blacks – all six retiring stars today were named on the NZ Honours List, with McCaw admitted the to the Order of New Zealand..

      • December 31st 2015 @ 9:13am
        ben said | December 31st 2015 @ 9:13am | ! Report

        Yeah read that. Not sure if he turned down the “sir” or not.
        Also Hansen seems to be missing on the gong list.

        • December 31st 2015 @ 9:46am
          Muzzo said | December 31st 2015 @ 9:46am | ! Report

          Yeh ben, Richie made a statement, that he felt honored to receive the the Order of New Zealand, & felt uncomfortable with any of the other proposed awards. So in truth, I think he wanted a New Zealand award for his achievements, not an English one, which was his choice, as a person that is proud of his heritage & where he came from

          • December 31st 2015 @ 11:45am
            Council said | December 31st 2015 @ 11:45am | ! Report

            Not at all Muzzo. Lord McCaw turned down a knighthood due to feeling having a title at his age wouldn’t be appropriate and isn’t in his nature.

            • January 1st 2016 @ 11:05am
              Muzzo said | January 1st 2016 @ 11:05am | ! Report

              If Anything Council, Richie, still did accept New Zealand’s highest award, & not the English award. You seem to forget, the likes of Richard Hadlee, who was in his thirties when he was handed his English title. Cheers.

          • Roar Guru

            December 31st 2015 @ 12:01pm
            Machooka said | December 31st 2015 @ 12:01pm | ! Report

            Damnit Muzzo… I was so SO sure ‘we’ would have a Sir Richie!

            Anyways, it’s a true testament to the real man that he is, was, and no doubt will continue to be.

            So Happy New Year buddy… and let’s hope it’s better than last year for your beloved Kiwi Rugby.

            Only a third RWC, a Bledisloe retained, a Super15 title for your no-name Zoolanders but, alas, no RC title as that went to your little baby bro. Bugger eh 🙂

            Hence… now looking forward to next season with great anticipation. Should be a fascinating year with many new faces, teams, and so much to play for again!?

            • January 1st 2016 @ 11:20am
              Muzzo said | January 1st 2016 @ 11:20am | ! Report

              Geeez Chook, how was your New Year mate? Anyway all the best,to you & your Whanau, & so looking forward to what will be in front of us this year. Last year, was a great year, overall,,so hopefully, with so many new players stepping up into the international arena, this year, it’s going to make it even more interesting. Even the mighty Highlanders will have a few new faces. I can’t think of their names off hand!!!! lol….. But anyway, what are names?…….
              Quite chuffed with Richie though, showing his great Otago, upbringing, & being so supportive of New Zealand & the game he loved.
              So cheers Bro, as I’m sure we will be involved in a few “thoughts”, this coming year.

        • December 31st 2015 @ 11:07am
          pete and paul said | December 31st 2015 @ 11:07am | ! Report

          Because he remains the Coach, maybe or definitely he will get a SIR when he finally retires…

        • December 31st 2015 @ 5:16pm
          cuw said | December 31st 2015 @ 5:16pm | ! Report

          hansen will get his when he stops coaching the all blacks.

          if u notice, all the guys given honors have retired from the MIB team.

    • December 31st 2015 @ 10:13am
      Tim Reynolds said | December 31st 2015 @ 10:13am | ! Report

      South Africa had little trouble with Wales in the Quarter Final!!!? They just won in the last few minutes.

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