Phil Gifford lists seven talking points from the year in rugby.
A comeback for the ages
The All Blacks under Ian Foster had to suffer three winters of discontent in 2020/21/22 before being spanked 35-7 by South Africa at Twickenham this year on the way to the World Cup in France.
At various times Foster was called “befuddled” by one mainstream media critic, and “among the worst All Black coaches in history” by another.
To then lose the World Cup final by just one point to the Springboks, to be that close to a comeback Lazarus would have been impressed by, ranks as one of the greatest recoveries in All Black history.
And if one conversion or one extra penalty goal had gone over, you could guarantee that in the New Year’s Honours list the name Ian Douglas Foster would be in the section labelled “knighthoods”.
Most deserved award of 2023
Ardie Savea is basically everything you could ask for in a rugby player.
Decent and friendly off the field, when the whistle blows he becomes a one-man wrecking ball, who basically refuses to be stopped when he runs the ball until two, three, or four opponents have combined to tackle him.
His award as World Rugby’s 15s men’s player of the year was hugely appropriate.
Rising Kiwi stars
Jorja Miller, a 19-year-old from Timaru, who won her first national title in highland dancing, is shaping up as the next household name in sevens rugby. She’s fearless, fast, and has the sort of self-belief when running with the ball that comes with being young and hugely talented.
In the men’s game, Mark Telea shone on the wing for the Blues at the start of the year. His ability to slip tackles with ease in Super Rugby was then replicated when he got a real shot at test rugby in the World Cup. He turns 27 on Friday, a fair age for a flying three-quarter, but his potential on the big stage looks limitless.
Weirdest situation of the year
It wasn’t fair on either Ian Foster, or Scott Robertson, for Foster to have to head to France as a coach on borrowed time.
The announcement in March that win or lose at the Cup, Foster would be replaced by Robertson as All Black coach was at once a huge vote of no confidence in Foster, and a reminder that New Zealand Rugby had lost its nerve when it was planning to replace Foster with Robertson in 2022.
Especially considering the rebuilding Robertson will now have to do, the support he gets from NZR needs to be unequivocal.
Who hurt the most?
Until the tournament in France there had never been a Cup where teams who were ranked both first (Ireland) and third (France) in the world were eliminated in the quarter-finals.
As a Kiwi, of course the All Blacks’ loss in the final stung, but in hindsight the group I feel for the most are the estimated 40,000 Irish fans who sat shattered by the titanic 28-24 All Black victory in the first round of the knockout games in Paris. It’s not being sentimental or patronising to say that for generations the most likeable and well-behaved rugby fans in world rugby have been Irish supporters. Goal kickers at tests in Dublin are treated with silent respect, not whistles and jeering.
Quote of the year
When Eddie Jones dumped the likes of Michael Hooper in favour of a Wallabies squad of fresh-faced kids for the World Cup, Sydney rugby writer, Iain Payten, presciently wrote, “There’s rolling the dice as a coach. Then there’s remortgaging your house, selling everything in the shed, and taking all your cash to the casino for a one-off punt on red or black.”
Locally Justin Marshall perfectly summed up how surreal the sight of Jordie Barrett hitting the upright when attempting a straight in front conversion for the Hurricanes in their Super match in Wellington against the Blues in March was: “I just saw a unicorn behind the goalposts too.”
“Ho, ho, ho,” laughed Santa
A year ago in a Herald column I made three wishes for rugby in 2023.
1) For the rolling maul to be banned.
2) That referees would speed up the setting of scrums in test matches.
3) That the World Cup would be won by tries, not penalty goals.
I’m not a six-year-old any more, so I won’t sulk. But even getting just one out of three would have been nice.