Gerry Thornley’s 2021 winners and losers

Memorable victory over New Zealand was one of the best-ever Ireland displays

Bundee Aki and Finlay Bealham celebrate Ireland’s victory over the All Blacks during the Autumn Nations Series at the  Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

Bundee Aki and Finlay Bealham celebrate Ireland’s victory over the All Blacks during the Autumn Nations Series at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

 

Irish Team of the Year

The men’s international team. They started the year with a 21-16 defeat by Wales after Peter O’Mahony’s 14th-minute red card and then, in addition to his suspension, lost James Ryan, Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton in the build-up to a 15-13 defeat by France.

But since then, they have won eight in a row, first securing a top-half finish in the Six Nations for the eighth year running (no other country has done this in that time) with wins over Italy, Scotland and England, then recording July wins over Japan and the USA with a young side before completing an unbeaten Autumn Series with wins over Japan, New Zealand and Argentina.

In those eight wins a subtly-rebuilt side, both in personnel and playing style, has scored 44 tries and conceded 15. Many good judges regarded the performance against New Zealand as the best they’d witnessed by an Irish side, with the All Blacks scarcely allowed come up for air.

Tadhg Furlong: enjoyed another outstanding personal year both for Ireland and the Lions. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Tadhg Furlong: enjoyed another outstanding personal year both for Ireland and the Lions. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Player of the Year: Tadhg Furlong

It’s perhaps not entirely coincidental that he was on the way back from injury and on the bench for those opening losses against Wales and France before starting the remaining Six Nations games and all the November Tests either side of starting all three Lions Tests for the second series running.

Aside from his set-piece excellence and strength on both sides of the ball, Furlong is practically reinventing the role of the tight-head with playmaking skills which are akin to a midfield back.

Losers of the Year

Irish women’s rugby, the Lions brand and the Heineken Champions Cup.

Rassie Erasmus: showed such poor sportsmanship with with an hour-plus video rant, incorporating 26 perceived refereeing injustices in response to South Africa’s First Test defeat by the Lions. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Rassie Erasmus: showed such poor sportsmanship with with an hour-plus video rant, incorporating 26 perceived refereeing injustices in response to South Africa’s First Test defeat by the Lions. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Sore loser of the Year: Rassie Erasmus

The South African director of rugby cum Springboks’ water boy issued an hour-plus video rant, incorporating 26 perceived refereeing injustices in response to his side’s First Test defeat by the Lions.

Never mind that several of the 26 were highly questionable, the argument that he was serving the greater good of the game by highlighting the flaws in rugby’s laws and the way it is officiated would be altogether easier to accept if he had also highlighted the erroneous decisions against the Lions.

But not only was it entirely one-eyed, it was disingenuous in the extreme to wonder aloud where his rant might be going. “Everywhere” is the word you were looking for Rassie.

It also polarised opinion, mostly between South Africa and the rest of the world, brought the game into disrepute on so many levels, led to an hour-long first-half in the Second Test when the officials were paralysed by his analysis and, most of all, damaged the referee Nic Berry, whose wife is South African. Anyone who has seen him officiate since would subscribe to that.

The sense of entitlement was also staggering. Seemingly, when you are the world champions you have a divine right to then beat the Lions as well.

Match of the Year

France v New Zealand, Stade de France, November 20th.

Romain Ntamack: provided a moment to remember with a memorable break from behind his own try line in the November victory over New Zealand at the Stade de France. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Romain Ntamack: provided a moment to remember with a memorable break from behind his own try line in the November victory over New Zealand at the Stade de France. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Moment of the Year

Romain Ntamack, France v New Zealand, Stade de France, November 20th

The All Blacks had stormed back to trail 27-25. The hour was just up. Ntamack was behind his own try line when gathering a kick ahead by Jordie Barrett and facing his own end goal line. Pretty much any player would have just touched it down or kicked it dead. Instead he veered 180 degrees, turning past Brad Webber, fending Richie Mo’unga and accelerating around Jordie Barrett before advancing to the 22 and giving a no look pass to Melvyn Jaminet.

Ntamack wasn’t done. Off the recycle he flung a long pass to Cameron Woki who straightened when perhaps he should have passed with two on his outside before being tackled short of the line. A penalty ensued. Melvyn Jaminet made it 30-25 and, revived, France went on to win.

Tries of the Year

3 Sevu Reece, New Zealand v Wales, Principality Stadium, October 30th

Beauden Barrett gathers a Welsh touchfinder inside his own 10- metre line and, with no chase from a wilting home side, takes a quick throw to Will Jordan who swiftly transfers to Jordan Barrett, whose chip finds grass inside the opposition 10-metre line. Sevu Reece chases hard and beats two Welsh players to the bouncing ball, offloading to Rieko Ioane as he falls to the ground. But Reece also bounces to his feet, gathers the return offload and pops the ball one-handed to Ardie Savea. The flanker makes ground up the left touchline before taking out three cornerflagging defenders by, likewise, popping the ball in a basketball-like exchange back to Reece who, with his third involvement in almost the blink of an eye, touches down to complete the 60-metre try.

2 Pierre-Louis Barassi, France v Australia, Third Test, Lang Park, Brisbane

It’s 20-20 seven minutes into the second half of the series decider and the Lyon scrumhalf Baptiste Couilloud feeds a French scrum about 10 metres from their own line. Everybody, perhaps including the Wallabies, anticipates a routine one or two-phase exit. But Couilloud, recognising that Australian winger Filipo Daugunu is sitting deep on his right touchline to cover a kick, scoops the ball from between his near flanker and number eight to break on the blindside, thus creating a two-on-one with the retreating Wallabies scrumhalf Tate McDermott. Couilloud passes to left-winger Teddy Thomas who drops the ball onto his foot and chips Daugunu from inside his 10-metre line, regathers over the halfway line and takes out three defenders by flicking the ball inside to Couilloud. He finds outhalf Antoine Hastoy who skip passes to Barassi for the 30-metre finish. Not quite from the end of the earth but not far of it either. Alas, a French C team were eventually beaten 33-30 by an 80th minute penalty. So French.

France’s Damian Penaud scores the try of the year against Scotland despite the best efforts of Scotland’s Ali Price. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
France’s Damian Penaud scores the try of the year against Scotland despite the best efforts of Scotland’s Ali Price. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

1 Damian Penaud, France v Scotland, Six Nations, Stade de France

It’s hard to disagree with the choice of the International Rugby Players. Brice Dulin gathers an overcooked box kick by Ali Price unchallenged 15 metres from his own line and 15 metres from the left touchline, and calls for a mark. Recognising there’s a poor chase and that Stuart Hogg has been sinbinned, Dulin taps the mark to himself and weaves infield, taking out Sam Johnson with a final step and offloading for Romain Ntamack to accelerate on to the ball, who in turn offloads for Anthony Jelonch to carry on to halfway. From the recycle, Antoine Dupont skip passes to Virimi Vakatawa. Crucially, he takes out Zander Fagerson with a left-handed fend and Hamish Watson by flicking a right-handed offload out the back to Penaud. The winger chips Finn Russell, covering fullback, on the run and then deftly cushions the ball over the try line under pressure from Price before diving on it to complete the 85 metre try. Alas, playing on for over a minute after the 80-minute mark when leading 23-20 and with no chance of clinching the title, led to Duhan van der Merwe’s 86th-minute winning try. So very French.

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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