Curtain falls on year of change
December 17, 2008
South Africa's Ricky Januarie is congratulated after scoring a last-gasp try in his side's historic 30-28 victory over New Zealand in Dunedin © Getty Images
This year will certainly go down as one to remember in Wales and Munster, perhaps even in New Zealand, but in the rest of the rugby world it is probably a year best forgotten.
Rugby revolves around World Cups these days so it was always going to be year of change but the merry-go-round in coaching regimes was unprecedented.
Jake White was always going to stand down as South Africa's coach after proving his point by winning the World Cup having made it clear he found his position untenable because of interference from politicians and France's Bernard Laporte had also decided to quit before the tournament began - in his case to become a politician.
Wales and Australia moved quickly to change coaches and direction after their respective failures whilst England, Ireland and New Zealand were all expected to wield the axe.
In the end Brian Ashton and Eddie O'Sullivan survived until the end of the Six Nations but, by May, six of the major rugby nations had changed their head coaches and just one had gone voluntarily.
Only Frank Hadden of Scotland and Graham Henry of New Zealand survived the cull. Hadden had taken Scotland from nowhere to boring respectability and, amazingly, Henry somehow won a reprieve at the 11th hour when everybody expected him to be dumped after New Zealand had failed to live up to their 'favourites' tag yet again.
Wales immediately decided they needed some hard headed southern hemisphere nous and interviewed Robbie Deans before he took the Australian job although they swore they knew Gatland was their man as soon as they spoke to him.
It proved an inspired choice. Not only did Wales win the Grand Slam but in the last month or so they have shown enough strength and flair to suggest that it was no flash in the pan unlike 2005 when they won by catching the other European nations on the hop. There is now much more substance to the pack.
But it might have been so different. If Huw Bennett had not dived in underneath Paul Sackey to stop him scoring just before half-time the score would have been at least 21-6 (could Wales have come back from that?) and if England had not collapsed in the second half of that opening match at Twickenham, conceding 20 points in 13 minutes it would have been a very different season and Brian Ashton might still be the England coach. If only!
Wales got stronger and stronger, England stuttered on and eventually, the inevitable happened; Ashton paid the price and Martin Johnson, World Cup winning captain and national hero was persuaded with a pot of gold to take the poisoned chalice.
Ireland limped on in a similar vein and O'Sullivan was forced to go with Declan Kidney appointed to succeed him.
But neither Johnson nor Kidney could take over immediately. The Englishman insisted he could not tour New Zealand because the arrival of his second child was imminent and the Irishman had unfinished business with his beloved Munster who duly went on to win the Heineken Cup for a second time in three years - a wonderful achievement. Not surprisingly England and Ireland under temporary management got trounced when they went down under - dithering never solves anything. But when the serious business got underway on the other side of the world it looked for a while as if the decision to stick with Henry was also going to be a disaster.
New South African coach, Peter de Villiers, might have been a political appointment but he showed he was no mug by taking his World Cup winners to Dunedin and beating New Zealand (with a thrilling late try from Ricky Januarie when they were down to 14 men) to end a 30 match unbeaten home run for the All Blacks.
When Australia had made an impressive start under Deans, who had been favoured by many to take over from Henry, and when they scored four tries to set up a 34-19 victory over New Zealand in Sydney two weeks later - the first time the All Blacks had lost consecutive Tests since 2004 - Henry's future looked bleak.
But there was no panic. New Zealand clawed their way back to win a fourth consecutive Tri-Nations and finished off the year in style with a Grand Slam against the Home Nations which is no mean feat when you have to play them on consecutive weekends!
So what is the state of the nations going into 2009? Back to normal I guess. New Zealand top of the heap once again with South Africa close behind and Wales challenging Australia for third best whatever the world rankings say.
Merry Christmas - then it's out with the old and in with the new. At least that's what they are hoping for in England, France and Ireland.