It’s that time of year again; sorting through highlights and lowlights, talking points and head-scratchers, in what was a typically busy rugby year.
COVID once again wreaked havoc, with the globetrotting sevens circuit grinding to a halt, and elite women’s competitions, and club and school’s rugby, being hammered. To their great credit, while not always agreeing, administrators in Australia and New Zealand worked overtime to deliver meaningful Super Rugby and international seasons.
It may have come about accidentally, but Super Rugby AU proved to be a revelation; the burgeoning Brumbies and Reds rivalry only decided when James O’Connor found the try-line in the 85th minute of a thrilling final.
Euphoria was short-lived, when the all-too-familiar domination of New Zealand franchises kicked in during the cross-over rounds. To be fair, the intense structure of this phase of the competition – ‘bang, bang, bang’, as opposed to spreading the trans-Tasman contests across a whole three-month competition – did the Australian sides no favours. But they’ll need to be better in 2022.
Ongoing travel restrictions and quarantine requirements in New Zealand and Western Australia have thrown a spanner into next season’s draw, although Rugby Australia CEO Andy Marinos suggested on Friday that an announcement is likely this week; one that will probably see New Zealand franchises base themselves in Australia for the initial competition phase, before playing the derby rounds in their respective countries.
As for finals, that’s pretty much a wait and see. Any business model reliant upon Ms Jacinda Ardern and Mr Mark McGowan’s largesse automatically has an inherent fragility built into it. You know… the science and all that.
2021 was also the year of Stan, as Australian rugby finally broke free of a 25-year relationship with Fox Sports. Overnight, rugby virtually ceased to exist as a sport in the News Corp press; unless an opportunity presented itself to remind readers how broke Rugby Australia is, or how poorly the Israel Folau affair had been handled.
Stan/Nine can feel well pleased with their debut effort, the coverage having a notably more enthusiastic feel to it, and the ‘one-stop shop’ approach of housing club, franchise and international rugby from around the world in a single location, going down well with fans.
One black mark was the ridiculous, ‘if we pretend it never happened, it never happened’ approach, when no explanation or apology was offered after a failed streaming service deprived viewers of watching the Force-Chiefs match.
It was suggested to me by someone close to the action that Michael Cheika took on the role of expert commentator for Stan Rugby for no reason other than to disprove a perception held by some in the rugby community that he was a bit of an idiot.
Cheika was a revelation, displaying superior rugby intellect and generously sharing astute observations with the audience in a straightforward, unpretentious manner. Too many commentators tell viewers what they can see for themselves, and don’t add value. Not so, Cheika.
The Olympics sevens may have lacked crowds but it wasn’t short on thrills. Argentina winning the men’s bronze medal a player down lives in the memory, while New Zealand’s Gayle Broughton revisited TJ Perenara’s try of the 2019 World Cup; planting the ball down in exactly the same the corner, at the very same stadium, her body also hanging well over the touchline, to score a vital try in the final against France.
When we think of unexpected entertainment, it’s usually in the context of Nana having a couple of sherries too many and bursting into an old Frank Sinatra number over Christmas pudding. But this year, that prize goes to the English Premiership, which threw up consistently positive, entertaining rugby, culminating in a thrilling final, won 40-38 by Harlequins.
The Hurricanes’ James Blackwell was an early contender for rugby’s ‘Darwin Award’ when, after being thrust into the role of on-field captain, and winning the toss in sudden-death extra time against the Crusaders, he inexplicably chose to play into a strong wind, and gave away the kick-off.
It didn’t take long for a David Havili drop goal to teach Blackwell and the Canes a harsh lesson.
The Highlanders’ Billy Harmon went one better, calling a captain’s challenge for foul play in a match against the Hurricanes. When the replay revealed he was actually the transgressor, Harmon – not even the captain – had earned himself a yellow card for rank stupidity, and a lifetime ban from his coach from speaking to the referee.
Blackwell and Harmon weren’t in the same stadium however, as Wallaroos coach Dwayne Nestor and his assistant Matt Tink, who made career-ending derogatory and obscene comments about players and left them overlaid on video sent to those players for review.
This was unbelievable on many counts; it’s 2021, not 1971, and they stupidly allowed their comments to be recorded. Most of all, why would you talk about players under your care, in the way they did?
Thankfully, Australian sevens coaches John Manenti and Tim Walsh set the record straight at Friday’s presser following the announcement that they were to swap jobs, heading into 2022. Both men acknowledged the different learning requirements of the respective female and male players, and how that requires a slightly different communication style. The bottom line was simple; use your common sense and treat everybody with respect.
If Nestor and Tink thought they had ‘video of the year’ wrapped up, they were sadly mistaken, when 62 minutes of friendly advice for referee Nic Berry was kindly cobbled together by Springbok waterboy, Rassie Erasmus, and dropped on the rugby world with the precision of Lorena Bobbitt wielding a carving knife.
The overriding feeling to come out of the Lions-South Africa series was how the weight of expectation, and the desire to win, ultimately proved too heavy for the players – and the coaches – to overcome. With stakes unbearably high and the occasion proving too much, the rugby was dire, and the shenanigans kicked into overdrive.
World Rugby took far too long to assert rugby’s values, and in the process, only made rich lawyers even richer; all to deliver what amounted to little more than a one-match suspension for Erasmus. On the bright side, dragging matters out for so long afforded us the privilege of enjoying South African rugby writer Mark Keohane’s perceptive and nuanced analysis for even longer.
It came as no surprise to see two hookers pick up awards; Dane Coles nominating Johnny Sexton for the ‘mouthy c***’ award, but winning it himself, for saying it in the first place.
More endearing was Ash Dixon who, in an interview following the Highlanders’ upset win against the Crusaders, excitedly told the world of the resilience shown by his side to overcome the odds, given that the Highlanders training facility only had two shitters, and one of them had been blocked all week.
No doubt the shitter at Blues HQ got a good workout, too, the day the addition of Moana Pasifika to Super Rugby was announced. It’s right about now when the Blues begin to discover how much of their membership base will be evaporating in the direction of Mt Smart Stadium.
Three memories endure from the Rugby Championships. Vision of happy players from all teams intermingled on a charter flight from Townsville told the story of a sport that, while it frustratingly adopts some of professionalism’s worst aspects, simultaneously retains and displays the pure values of comradeship that makes rugby special.
Shame that wasn’t in evidence when the four, sorry three, team captains, gathered for a promotional photo opportunity. Publication of the photo without Julian Montoya was disrespectful and, no matter who was ultimately responsible for his no show, it was symptomatic of how ragged things are for the Pumas right now.
There was no bigger story however than the return of newly minted Aussie, Quade Cooper.
At 33, Cooper has found peace with his place in the world, and played an assured hand in Australia’s double strike against the Springboks. Anyone who tells you they predicted Cooper would be back in a Wallabies’ jumper, kicking the winning goal after the siren against the World Cup champions, is either a bald-faced liar or a genius.
It was another tough year for the much-ridiculed World Rugby rankings. The best advice is to ignore them and trust your own eyes. There are eight teams hovering around the top, some on the way down, some on the way up, and others not quite knowing which direction they’re headed.
For now, it’s Ireland and France (and England’s women) who will enjoy their Xmas dinner the most, along with Fiji, Tonga and Samoa, buoyed by changes to World Rugby’s regulation nine. Meanwhile, Argentina, Italy, Japan and Ian Foster all have some soul searching to do.
Mercifully, 2021 was a much quieter year for Australian rugby politics. Nothing quells a ten ex-captain revolt faster than inviting one of the ringleaders onto the gravy train, and the appointment of Phil Kearns to head up Australia’s 2027 World Cup bid and now, delivery, was a master-stroke.
The far-sighted will have already figured that a successful World Cup will be the forerunner to Kearns stepping into the chairman’s role in 2028. Those six years will fly by, so rugby fans in Western Australia and Victoria shouldn’t waste the opportunity to enjoy things now, while they can.
As always, we close off the year with ‘The Wrap’ music awards; and with apologies to Tony H, who is an actual expert at this sort of thing, there was a strong selection of albums that emerged this year, out of the COVID fog.
Australia’s Martha Marlow is the voice of the Qantas ‘Feels like Home’ advertising campaign. Her album ‘Medicine Man’ is chock-full of mature song-writing, lush, sophisticated arrangements, and beautifully pure singing.
Prolific Cuban pianist Omar Sosa never disappoints. This year he dropped two albums, ‘An East African Journey’ and ‘Suba’; both of them, high quality.
Austin-based Bob Schneider delivered the beautifully named ‘In a Roomful of Blood with a Sleeping Tiger’. Search out ‘American Jesus’, a standout love song for the ages.
Another Austin regular, James McMurty, delivered the solid ‘The Horses and the Hounds’; and no, it doesn’t feature Julia Roberts or Hugh Grant.
Across a 23-album career, veteran American bluesman Eric Bibb has sometimes been criticised for ‘doing an AC/DC’; making the same album over and over again. No-one can accuse Bibb of dialling it in on ‘Dear America’. If tasteful musicianship, train metaphors and judicious, understated commentary on the state of the great nation are up your alley, then this is worth multiple listens.
Robert Plant and Alison Krauss once again showed they go together like Andrew Kellaway and Test rugby, on the delightful ‘Raise the Roof’. At 73, Plant’s top end has long gone, but he has an impressively firm handle on his considerable ability, and a sharp eye for a song.
It was always going to be tough ask for The War on Drugs to follow up 2018’s Grammy award winning album ‘A Deeper Understanding’. The product of three painstaking years, ‘I Don’t Live Here Anymore’ has the same anthemic qualities and feel; albeit via shorter songs that are all the more powerful for being so.
The influences are unmistakeable; Tom Petty, Dylan, and the chiming guitars and power-synth of 80s staple, Simple Minds, all come together under the masterful production of front-man Adam Granduciel and engineer Shawn Everett. The way they wash piano through the track ‘Change’ is enough on its own, to win this ‘album of the year’.
Quade Cooper, Rassie Erasmus, The War on Drugs… you know it makes sense.
So what shook your boots in 20211, good or bad? Enjoy Xmas folks; let’s do it all again in a few weeks.