Gerry Thornley's 2015: Highs and lows of a remarkable rugby year
From Roey Kockott’s kick to a legend felled – it was year never to be forgotten
Amid the prevailing end-of-year doom and gloom, lest we forget that was the year that produced the greatest World Cup ever – as well as Super Saturday, the greatest day in the history of the Six Nations.
It’s a fickle world for sure, yet it’s almost hard to credit that all of this happened in 2015, and even harder to credit that it was only 11 weeks ago that Ireland were beating France in their World Cup pool decider. But since the ensuing quarter-final defeat to Argentina the deflationary mood has been quite extraordinary.
Rewinding through some of Super Saturday and the World Cup, is therefore therapeutic.
Favourite moment of the year: Rory Kockott kicking the ball dead in Twickenham. Moments before, with France losing 55-35 at the end of that breathtaking day and England hammering at the French line for the converted try that would take the title from Ireland, Nigel Owens’s whistle in overtime signalled a French penalty. Kockott punched the air with both fists in celebration, as thousands of Irish fans cavorted in Murrayfield. But, hey, what’s this? Why are they still playing? It transpired that Yoann Huget tapped and went from his own line, with a nod from Thierry Dusautoir. France were playing for themselves, not for Ireland. But from the final turnover, Kockott freed the ball from the ruck and hoofed it dead. Irish rugby’s Honorary Irishman of the Year.
World Player of the Year: Dan Carter. Cruelly denied his place in a home World Cup win four years previously, he overcame more injuries and benefited from a time-out to rediscover his imperious best. In the two biggest games of his stellar career, he rolled back the years to guide the All Blacks to World Cup glory. Those semi-final and final drop goals were the defining moments of the tournament. He and Richie McCaw, the two greatest players of the professional age, couldn’t have scripted a better ending. Wonderful, humble and respectful ambassadors of the game too.
Irish Player of the Year: Paul O’Connell. Some lock. Some player. Some leader. Verily, we will never see his like again, not least as the neglected club game is what helped form him and his generation. The void he has left was felt from week one, that quarter-final. Honourable mention to Rory Best. Gets better with each passing year and probably Ireland’s player of the World Cup, as well as unwavering leader-from-the-front for Ulster.
Try of the Year: Gareth Davies. As Welsh backs dropped like flies, they entered the last 10 minutes against England seven points adrift. Battered and bruised, but not beaten, they conjured an overlap for Lloyd Williams (a scrumhalf on the wing) to crosskick infield as English defenders converged on him like a scene from a playground for their actual scrumhalf, Davies, to gather on the run and score under the posts. Cue Dan Biggar’s conversion and penalty, and England’s decision to go to the corner. Welsh grit and instinctive rugby flair at its best.
Hardest endgame to watch: France, all too predictably, finished their ignominious World Cup like a rabble, utterly unable to live with the almighty All Blacks in Cardiff. Their saddest day and sad to behold.
Shock of the Year, and of any Year: Japan beating South Africa within 24 hours of the World Cup opening up for business. Five times they fell behind, but kept coming back, through a try by their warrior captain Michael Leitch and 24 points from fullback Ayumu Goromaru, including the strike move of the tournament, before Leitch eschewed a draw by opting for a five-metre scrum with the game’s last play. Going wide right, they went wide left, where a fend and pass from replacement backrower Amanaki Mafi put replacement winger Karne Hesketh over in the corner. The Brave Blossoms indeed. It was the game and the moment which set the tournament alight.
Irish try of the Year: Robbie Henshaw v England. Intense 15-man pressure, culminating in Conor Murray using a penalty advantage to deftly loft the ball into the in-goal area, where Robbie Henshaw beat Alex Goode in the air and touched down with a few centimetres to spare.
Book of the year: Richard Escot’s Rugby and Art is drawn from interviews with the iconic French openside/captain turned artist, Jean-Pierre Rives. Translated into English. Different and very engaging.
Saddest moment of the Year: Paul O’Connell being stretchered off at half-time against France. It should never have ended like that.
Boo-boo of the Year: Craig Joubert running from the Twickenham pitch after signalling full-time having, moments earlier, awarded Australia their controversial match-winning penalty in their quarter-final against Scotland. Eh, it didn’t exactly look very good. Closely followed by World Rugby hanging him out to dry days later.
Impact replacement of the Year (and any other Year): Sonny Bill Williams.
Most generous gift of the Year: Sonny Bill Williams giving his World Cup winners’ medal to a young pitch invader.
Quote of the Year: “He [Heyneke Meyer] has been very, very complimentary. He has just about killed us with kindness. But we know they really want to rip our heads off.” – Steve Hansen’s response to Heyneke Meyer’s charm offensive prior to their titanic semi-final arm wrestle.