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Opinion

The Wrap: 2019’s rugby highlights, lowlights and wish list for 2020

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5 days ago
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It’s been one heck of year. And with Super Rugby starting on the indecently early date of 31 January next year – smack bang in the middle of what used to be cricket season – it’s time to pull up stumps for a few weeks and refresh.

But not before recapping what caught the eye in 2019 – good and bad.

The World Cup in Japan obviously dominated the year and provided some outstanding highlights, not the least the way the Japanese public embraced both the event itself and their own team.

A first-ever quarter-finals appearance was the minimum they deserved, the side exhibiting a huge personality blended with some exhilarating attacking play and a surprisingly powerful scrum.

My personal World Cup highlight was the night it all came together in their final pool match, less than 24 hours after Typhoon Hagibis had swept through Yokohama, when there were genuine fears about a game being held at all.

A group of hardy volunteers spent a rough night under the stands so that they could get started early in the morning to restore the ground to playable condition and not stymie their side’s clean sweep of pool A.

I couldn’t tell you how many games of rugby I’ve seen in my lifetime, but I know I’ve never been at one with such an exuberant atmosphere and where the sense of anticipation was matched by the outcome: Japan’s brilliant first half stunned Scotland and sent the nation into raptures.

It’s interesting to note how rugby administrators in Japan oversee a game there that is in a far more tenuous state than in Australia, yet none of this prevents fans and media getting behind their team without the feeling need to complain and argue.

It just goes to show what winning can do, particularly if it is done with dash and style.

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Other highlights from the World Cup? Siya Kolisi’s life story taking a detour from an impoverished township upbringing to World Cup-winning captain, Cheslin Kolbe proving that there’s still a place in the modern game for the little bloke, England’s near-perfect performance against the All Blacks, and Uruguay, admittedly advantaged by fixturing, ambushing Fiji in Kamaishi for a historic upset victory.

Japan celebrate their win over Scotland

(Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Super Rugby was again dominated by the Crusaders – nothing new there – but the big story in 2019 was the coming of age of the Jaguares.

Entering their eighth year in the competition, the time was right for them to perform with more consistency. They didn’t disappoint, emerging atop a hellishly competitive South African conference to make a determined push for the title that only fell short at the last hurdle.

Another stunning highlight came in Suva, which never fails to deliver in terms of thrilling rugby played in front of a raucous, appreciative crowd.

Down 20-0 to the Crusaders, the Chiefs, needing to mount a late run to make the play-offs, found the magic to win, quite brilliantly, 40-27, in the process reminding everyone that at its best Super Rugby offers rugby of the highest order.

The World Cup curtailed my NRC viewing this year, but I did enjoy watching Tasman march through New Zealand’s Mitre 10 Cup – genuine 15-man rugby built off a strong forward foundation, pace on the outsides and all players keen and willing to back up and put themselves in the play at every opportunity.

The Wallabies and 60,000 people had a night out to remember at Optus Stadium in Perth, a record 47-26 win in a pulsating match that will surely see more big internationals taken westward.

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Yes, Scott Barrett was sent off and the Wallabies played half the match with a man advantage, but this was already their night, and while it was disappointing that the side regressed in Japan, there was enough promise shown here for fans to believe that under a more cohesive and aware coaching structure, helmed by Dave Rennie, there is indeed a way forward.

Reece Hodge makes a break

(AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

That Jordan Petaia, playing only 10 per cent of the season, makes the highlights list is both good (he’s a pleasure to watch), and bad (where are his 14 mates?).

Cheetahs player Nico Lee heads the shame file, suspended in February for 13 weeks after thinking he was Newcastle winger Sinoti Sinoti, emptying the contents of his nose over Colby Fainga’a during a match against Connacht.

Rugby turning professional has demonstrated that you can make players richer, stronger, faster and fitter but not necessarily smarter. Or more hygienic.

South African referee Egon Seconds raised eyebrows during Super Rugby, helping turn a 33-5 lead to the Rebels over the Lions – away in Johannesburg – into a 36-33 defeat.

Seconds found a penalty count of 20-1 against the visitors and, watching the match live, while it was clear that the Rebels got a lot of things wrong as they came under pressure in the second half, even so…

In March it was announced that the Sunwolves would be withdrawn from Super Rugby after the 2020 season, a decision that led to scorn being heaped upon an already ‘on the nose’ SANZAAR, reinforced later in the year by Jamie Joseph when he credited Super Rugby for playing a crucial role in the rise of the Japan national team.

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It did emerge, however, that the decision in large part fulfilled the wish of the Japan Rugby Football Union to focus on development of their club competition, anticipated to evolve beyond the confines of the current company team model.

With Japan poised to be added to SANZAAR’s Rugby Championship roster, regardless of whatever forces are working against the Sunwolves, it is incongruent and frustrating for fans to see these organisations draw closer together at one level and further apart at another.

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Despite the glowing success of the World Cup, the tournament contained lowlights too.

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Scotland’s petulant and insensitive behaviour over Typhoon Hagibis and the prospect of their final pool game being cancelled was an appalling misjudgment.

French lock Sebastien Vaahamahina proved that a team is only as strong as its weakest link, and Italian front-rowers Andrea Lovotti and Nicola Quaglio proved that two boofheads are no better than one.

And while we’re on that, a black mark for the World Rugby judiciary panel who determined that the Italians’ lifting of Springbok Duane Vermeulen until he was vertical, upside down, then slamming his head into the turf was worthy of a piffling three-match suspension.

With Sydney’s stadia in various states of disarray, the Waratahs returning to the Sydney Cricket Ground was another low.

With its concave nature, and stands sited at obtuse angles to the pitch, has there ever been a ground so ill-suited to rugby? There’s a hint, by the way, in the name of the stadium.

And while we’re on rugby grounds, there must surely be a decibel level at which the person responsible for blasting music out from the top tier of the Mal Meninga stand at Canberra’s GIO Stadium is breaking the law.

It was the top tier too of the Yokohama Stadium stand where I happened upon ex-Argentina centre Juan-Martin Hernandez before the Ireland-Scotland pool match.

That I was only able to nod and politely say hello without apologising for him not making the list of ‘The Roar’s top 50 World Cup players’ was a regrettable oversight.

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The Wallabies’ quarter-final exit wasn’t unexpected, but the fact that they arrived at Oita for the elimination match against England after five years under Michael Cheika still having no firm idea as to who their best backline and loose forward combinations were was an unforgivable low mark.

Michael Cheika

(Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

So what does a wish list for 2020 look like?

Israel Folau and Rugby Australia negotiating a settlement would be nice, and one that results in Folau not only returning to the Wallabies but coming back to his preferred position as captain, allowing him to show off his superior communication skills and ability to bring people together.

Failing that, some honesty from those who eagerly jumped in to do Folau’s bidding to serve their own agendas – Martyn Iles, Alan Jones and others – as to whether they honestly believe that Rugby Australia could realistically stand idly by while Folau conflated whatever causes he chose, whenever he wanted to, without it reflecting poorly on their organisation and subjecting it to unreasonable commercial risk would be nice.

But I won’t be holding my breath.

Nor is it likely that some media commentators will wake up to themselves and wonder, if they continue to talk the game down at every opportunity, at what point do their self-fulfilling prophecies become more of a problem for the game that the supposed grievances they incessantly shout about?

There is a difference between holding people and institutions in the game to account and running relentless, calculated hate campaigns that paint a false, negative-only narrative for a sport that, while it faces significant challenges, is thriving in many places around the world and is by no means as dead in Australia as some people would have us believe.

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One such illustration was the atmosphere at the Australia-Wales pool match in Tokyo, where thousands of Wallabies fans, proudly kitted out in gold, took on the Welsh fans in barracking and gave them a decent smacking.

It is a rare day indeed when a Welsh crowd is out-sung, and it poses an intriguing challenge for Rugby Australia.

With the possible exception of the 2003 World Cup final, I have never experienced such an atmosphere for a Wallabies home Test match.

How can Rugby Australia bottle the magic that was inside Tokyo Stadium that day and replicate it at domestic Test matches?

Wallabies players celebrate

(David Ramos – World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

On the field, here’s hoping for another competitive Super Rugby competition with plenty of unpredictable results no matter the damage that does to a tipster’s credibility.

Following the customary exodus of players post-World Cup – not as damaging as what it might have been – look for the emergence of new stars in all three conferences.

And look too for further general improvement from the Australian sides, notwithstanding that the next few months pose a huge test for new coach Rob Penny and NSW Waratahs fans.

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The new year should bring clarity with respect to the NRC and what guise it will take from next season, assuming that plans aren’t caught up in the broadcasting rights speculation that so publicly played out last week.

Which in turn adds another one to the wish list: how about we let those very complex rights negotiations play out in closed boardrooms and without pointless speculation? Speculation that invariably has little basis in fact and serves no purpose during an ongoing, fluid process?

Across the Tasman there is curious despair at the prospect of having to settle for the next All Blacks coach being one of a relatively inexperienced, breakdancing larrikin who has won Super Rugby titles with a team that anyone’s nana could have coached or an apparently humourless bloke who has the dubious distinction of being an assistant coach and selector during the most successful reign of any international rugby team ever.

Oh, to be faced with such a depressing outcome.

I don’t really mind who New Zealand Rugby picks, as long as we get to enjoy the next phase in the continuing development of the Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett 10/15 combination.

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To finish, and the annual ‘Wrap’ music awards, where it was a delight back in April to see the exquisite Sarah Jarosz, Sara Watkins and Aoife O’Donovan perform in the Melbourne Recital Centre – they comfortably take out ‘gig of the year’ for 2019.

Album of the year – yes, there are still people who both make and listen to albums – was a tight affair, old stager and long-time E Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren dropping the rollicking Blue for Lou, which includes five songs co-written with Lou Reed before his death in 2015.

As good as Lofgren is, Wilco’s 11th album, Ode To Joy, has taken root over the last month – a stripped-back slow burner that gradually reveals its riches with repeated listening.

What odds Time magazine announcing person of the year for 2019 a tie between Jeff Tweedy and Jamie Joseph?