A year worth remembering
December 31, 2009
It is unlikely that the newly-knighted Ian McGeechan has waved goodbye to the Lions © Getty Images
Declan Kidney Ian McGeechan Karl Mullen Paul O'Connell Brian O'Driscoll Jamie Roberts John Smit Gareth Thomas
It was a year of controversy. The ill-judged programme of Experimental Law variations kept us all occupied for months and as soon as that saga was over 'Bloodgate' and other disciplinary problems grabbed centre stage. So much so that 2009 will be remembered for all the wrong reasons by many rugby followers who will be happy to consign it to the dustbin of history and move on.
But, for me, three events - make that four, I've just heard about Ian McGeechan's Knighthood - made it a year worth remembering.
The first was Ireland winning the Grand Slam. I still don't believe they have been given enough credit for pulling it off for only the second time in their history. Karl Mullen, the captain of the only other Irish side to achieve the feat in 1948 was a wonderful character and I remember talking with him long and late about it in the early 80s.
To him it was a glorious adventure, an improbable bonus ( he once described the essence of Irish rugby as 'very simple - boots, bollocks and bite') and after the really strong Irish sides of the late 60s and early 70s failed to emulate the class of 1948 he confessed it was something he thought Ireland would probably never achieve again.
For him it was a simple question of numbers - England and France were growing stronger and stronger and had a much bigger pool of players. He died a month after the boys of 2009 proved him wrong and I can think of no grander send-off for one of the great rugby men of Ireland.
Key to that success against all the odds - Mullen was right, the playing pool in Ireland is tiny - was Brian O'Driscoll who should have been Player of the Year. His contribution was phenomenal as a player and a captain. Whenever they were in trouble in defence or attack he was the man to come to the rescue and, for me, was certainly the outstanding back of the Noughties.
Credit too, to Declan Kidney, the coach who saw the bigger picture as soon as he was appointed coach and resisted the temptation to base everything around the Munster men he knew and loved so well.
My second outstanding memory of 2009 was the Lions Tour. Why O'Driscoll was not captain I shall never understand. Paul O'Connell had a pretty ordinary tour as a player and the extra load of captaincy, particularly knowing his hugely successful national captain was in the ranks, might just have affected him. O'Driscoll buckled down superbly and forged a superb centre partnership with Jamie Roberts so there were no negative side effects; it just didn't make sense.
But the tour as a whole showed the Lions' concept is alive and well. They were wonderfully competitive and as 'Sir' Ian himself said after the second Test, 'the one scenario I couldn't see was 2-0 down. 2-0 up, a bit fanciful, 1-1 or even 1-0 down, yes, but 2-0 down - never.'
South Africa's, skipper, John Smit complained afterwards that the Lions behaved as if they had won the series. He is probably right but he doesn't understand that the whole future of the Lions was under threat after the debacle in New Zealand in 2005.
Now we have our own 'Sir Ian' and nobody deserves it more. Our international careers crossed over - just - and he was very underrated as a player. People tend to forget he played all the Tests for the unbeaten 1974 Lions and then three more in 1977. But it was as a coach that he really excelled. I was privileged to be the executive producer for 'Living with Lions' the fly-on-the-wall documentary which told the story of how the 1997 Lions beat South Africa and that is when I really got to know him well.
He was inspirational. You hear about Sir Alex Ferguson's famous rants and see coaches in all sports losing their cool but never McGeechan. He occasionally swears to add emphasis but it is his sincerity that shines through. He works out his strategy and then makes his players' believe.
I still believe he has one more Lions task to fulfil - expect an announcement that he will manage the 2013 Lions sometime during 2010.
And the final thing that made 2009 memorable was Gareth Thomas feeling confident enough to admit his homosexuality. It has been an open secret for years but it is still a courageous decision, simply because no major star has ever done it before and there have certainly been some prominent gay rugby players down the years.
It ruined the lives of at least two international players I knew and it was terribly sad to see them living a lie. It's great to think that we now live in an age when even rugby, which revels in its macho image, is able to accept that being gay is just a normal part of life.
But we should not be that surprised. Commentators from outside the game still like to portray rugby as all about booze, birds and lewd songs but that was coarse rugby, the game as a whole has always been much more multi-dimensional.
Rugby fans tend to drink too much but they rarely fight, there is little racism in the game and over the years I have never found significant homophobia so I am sure Alfie will not regret his decision.
Blwyddyn Newydd Dda
John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and a regular contributor to ESPNscrum.com