‘Tis officially the season to be jolly and ‘tis also now the season to be reflective, as the Australian rugby year winds down for the summer.
And the crazy thing to consider at this point is that Round 1 of the inaugural season of Super Rugby Pacific – pending no changes, admittedly – is just eleven weeks away!
But quickly putting that tidbit of madness behind us, I wanted to kick off a couple of reflective weeks to end the rugby year by naming the great moments of the season for the game in Australia.
Top five is the go-to format for this kind of exercise, and the five I’ve come up with very happily cover the full year.
I’ll be intrigued to see what you guys come with yourselves; these things always kick off some really interesting discussions, plus the format is broad enough that you can make pretty much anything fit if you’re willing to make the argument.
So here’s mine, I look forward to reading yours.
5. Record Australian Super Rugby crowd
This was one of those rare moments when you were happy to let Queenslanders have their lot, with the Reds finishing the Super Rugby AU season in top spot and earning hosting rights for the Final in early May.
And once the Brumbies overcame the Western Force 21-9 in the semi-final, Australian rugby had the box office game it was looking for in exactly the right stadium. Hopes that something north of forty thousand was on offer were confirmed around a week out, when the Reds were announcing ticket sales were already in the high thirties.
Ultimately, the number came in at 41,637, which made it comfortably the biggest Australian derby crowd in 15 years or so, but six hundred short of the record, which was for a Queensland-NSW clash in Brisbane in 2004.
And it capped what had been a thoroughly enjoyable Australian series. The Reds were able to exact revenge on the Brumbies after falling short in the 2020 series, which will ensure their rivalry continues to build into the future. And collectively, the Reds and Brumbies set a benchmark for the other sides to get to, which if they can, will only be a good thing for the state of the local game.
As for what the future holds for Super Rugby AU, well, only time will tell. There is still a strong train of thought that moving it to the back end of the year makes plenty of sense, playing it without the Wallabies squad members but calling up the best club players around the country.
Fingers crossed the series still has a future. And one that doesn’t involve a hasty resurrection early next year in the face of ongoing international border closures.
4. The welcome return of trans-Tasman rugby
Sure, the results went pretty south pretty quickly, and it’s forced a significant change of approach for all the Australian sides heading into the inaugural season of Super Rugby Pacific next year, but it was fantastic to be able to play trans-Tasman rugby again in 2021.
The season couldn’t be confirmed until only a few weeks out from the scheduled first week, and the rapidly deteriorating situation in Sydney and Melbourne popped the trans-Tasman travel bubble in no time at all, but it also forced the argumentative toddlers of Rugby Australia and New Zealand Rugby to work together for resolutions that could ensure the six-week cross-ditch add-on tournament could be completed.
Of course, those toddlers weren’t quite done for the year, when the whole Bledisloe Cup scheduling debacle blew up, but there was thankfully enough goodwill to be salvaged to complete the arrangements for Super Rugby Pacific surprisingly ahead of time.
And again, fingers crossed it can all happen next season as scheduled, and not forced back into conferences.
3. Quade Cooper’s unexpected comeback in Gold
As far as unexpected surprises go, Dave Rennie’s admission that Quade Cooper travelling to New Zealand with the Wallabies before the first Bledisloe Tests might open the door for him to play for Australia again was pretty big.
Prior to that, his addition to the squad, we were told, was more about being a mentor and training partner for young playmaker Noah Lolesio. But, as time went on, and as another Bledisloe series disappeared, the questions around Cooper actually playing again gained volume and frequency.
And sure enough, Rennie named him for the first South Africa match, dropping the proverbial “he’s been training the house down” line to try and quell any idea of this being a risk. Cooper, we’d learn, had been doing the forward scout on opposition for the Wallabies, and essentially ran the All Blacks attacking patterns on the training field.
The more we heard how deeply he’d been involved, the more sense it started making that he would play through The Rugby Championship. And of course, we all know how that turned out.
Where he fits into future plans already looms as one of the biggest Wallabies questions into the 2023 World Cup.
2. The dogged, but well-deserved series win over France
I want to say something that I feel has been forgotten or glossed over among the Spring Tour post-mortems: The Wallabies series win over France was excellent and deserves more credit than it’s being given at the moment.
And it’s worth remembering the little details, too: the series was played over the course of ten days, with the first match moved from Sydney to Brisbane only a few days out, and with just four days between the series-levelling second match and the series deciding third.
France not selecting players from the Toulouse or La Rochelle squads that featured in the Top 14 Final is almost immaterial now too, because as we came to learn down the track, this wasn’t the strongest Wallabies side selected in 2021, either.
The Wallabies’ 2-1 series win was their first since knocking over France back in 2014, and the three matches were decided by just seven points: two-point margins in the first two Tests, and Noah Lolesio’s winning penalty goal in the third.
After being towelled up at the breakdown in the loss in Melbourne, the Wallabies found a way to turn it all around in Brisbane four days later.
“The Brisbane win needs to be applauded for the triumph of the one-percenters. The little things that don’t mean much in isolation, but collectively add up to so much more. A hundred little butterfly effects in a match,” I wrote.
All of the Wallabies wins subsequently can be traced back to the France series, and the belief it gave a young side. That’s not something we should be watering down.
1. Twin wins over the World Champions
I’ve still not made up my mind as to which of the two wins over the Springboks this year was the better one.
The 28-26 win on the Gold Coast was incredible, but not just for the way Cooper slotted the winning penalty goal after the ‘Boks were penalised in the final minute of play, and in his first Test Match since 2017.
It was also incredible for the fact they turned around a 17-point loss to New Zealand the week before into a two-point win over the current Rugby World Cup holders still fizzing after triumphing in a hotly contested and even more hotly scrutinised series win over the British and Irish Lions.
Then, a week later, when everyone expected a South African bounce-back, they blew the Boks away in a four-tries-to-one, 30-17 win full of class in Brisbane.
The first was great for the way Cooper and Samu Kerevi instantly clicked, whereas the second was excellent for the way the young players stepped up: Darcy Swain, Angus Bell, Len Ikitau were all great, and Taniela Tupou and Marika Koroibete both turned in stormers too.
There were linkages made at the time that those twin wins over South Africa were as good as the back-to-back wins over England and Wales at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, but as I wrote at the time, I don’t know how anyone can readily quantify that.
The best I could offer was that they were the best wins in recent memory.
And together, they were comfortably the highlight of 2021.