Maybe it was because 2020 was so miserable that 2021 felt like a cathartic time in rugby.
But for three very notable contests in the middle of the year, the game was played everywhere with a freedom and verve as it emerged from the Covid bunker.
Comebacks and last minute scores (many well beyond the last minute) happened all over the place. There were more ‘WOW’ moments in 2021 than any season I can remember in 25 years covering the sport.
There’s still reason to not be over-optimistic. Not least as the game finally confronts the early on-set dementia crisis caused, you have to believe, by an excess of physical contact we all feared might be doing our young men and women harm.
But it just felt like you saw players (of all sizes) running with freedom in space more than at any time in 20 years. It’s a clear pointer to where our game’s future lies, even if my team of the year almost make a point of bucking the trend…
Team of the Year
Ah, the pleasure/pain principle. There is so much to admire about the present South African team, and also to deplore at the same time.
Their style of play is simply dreadful to watch at a time the game is opening out; a bludgeoning forward pack and endless box-kicks, forcing knock-ons and loose ball.
They’re incredibly good at it. Virtually all their backs tries come from broken play counters of mis-fielded kicks. But that doesn’t make it any better to watch for the neutral.
The three worst games I saw in the year, at any level, were the three Lions tests. Finn Russell’s cameo in the third test only served to illustrate how dire the rest was.
The Boks won that series. They wrestled the All Blacks to a stalemate. In the final matches of a gruelling year, they probably should have beaten England.
They actually lost five tests in 2021 – Ireland had the best year by pure results – but you still feel the Boks were the most notable team.
To admire? Eben Etzebeth. Two class front rows. Lukhanyo Am, Damien De Allende, Makazone Mapimpi and of course Cheslin Kolbe. The class of Sila Kolisi. The sheer cussedness of ‘this is how we play, deal with it’.
You just hope it’s a different team next year.
Game of the year
Four games involving France – their Six Nations matches with Wales and Scotland, their third test in Australia and the epic against New Zealand, the last international of the year.
I have an inkling for the incredible Gallagher Premiership semi-final between Bristol and Harlequins. `Quins (having dumped their coach) changed the narrative of the season in the final few weeks. The result was the rise of Marcus Smith and after this free-scoring epic and another in the final against Exeter, the title.
But the winner has to be France-New Zealand. I don’t see it as a changing of the guard; the ABs have simply picked a good time (midway through a World Cup cycle) to be relatively “struggling”.
Really only a late intercept try made the final 40-25 scoreline look a bit lop-sided. I am confident, this, not the Lions tests, is the future of international rugby.
Scotland game of the year
1⃣9⃣8⃣3⃣: First win over England at Twickenham in 38 years.
1⃣9⃣9⃣9⃣: First win over France in Paris in 22 years.
— Planet Rugby (@PlanetRugby) March 26, 2021
When Scotland last won at Twickenham, I was still in my teens. I was in my third year as The Courier’s rugby correspondent when they last won in Paris. I despaired of seeing either happen again in my lifetime.
Wouldn’t you know, they both came in the space of six weeks.
I think we have to give the nod to Paris as the greater achievement. Better opposition, massive resilience required with a rescheduled date at short notice, a depleted squad. And those final circumstances (see below).
Scotland would have lost that game at any time over the previous 20 years. Which gives one real hope – bolstered by the Wallabies game in November – that this current side are cut from a very different cloth.
Try of the year
Cheslin Kolbe showcased his sublime skills to finish off this brilliant Springbok try against the British & Irish Lions, one of 10 nominees for the 2021 SA Rugby Try of the Year award. https://t.co/8ZK0JkK6gE
— SA Rugby magazine (@SARugbymag) December 11, 2021
Cheslin Kolbe’s crucial score in the third Lions test illustrated the Bok pain/pleasure principle in full; a contested box kick guddled, a swift counter, and the wing’s brilliance. In terms of significance, it was probably the try of the year.
But the play of the year was Romain N’Tamack’s counter from behind his own line against New Zealand.
It didn’t result in a try but was just as pivotal as Kolbe’s actual score. Ardie Savea killing the ball at the other end saved a score but cost the ABs a yellow card to their best player with the score at 27-25.
The sheer audacity reminded one of the legendary Philippe St-Andre try at Twickenham 30 years ago. Just because it didn’t end in a score, doesn’t detract from the memory.
Scotland try of the year
Even though Scotland score pretty freely these days, there’s really no contest for this. 20 phases, deep into “red time” to win in France for the first time in 22 years. Duhan van der Merwe stepping inside two defenders to score (and to surpass Brian O’Driscoll’s record of defenders beaten in a single Six Nations).
Even if Scotland revert to frustrating type in 2022, this will be a fond memory forever.
Pro team games of the year
It would be obvious to pick both sides’ last European games, Edinburgh at Saracens and Glasgow over Exeter. I’ll certainly take the Warriors win, a fulfilment of Danny Wilson’s tenure, even if a lot of spoiled Glasgow fans simply refused to be convinced by their head coach.
For Edinburgh, however, I’ll take their win over Scarlets at their debut at their new base, the DAM Health Stadium.
The win at Saracens was incredible, but this game in September felt properly transformative. A new coach in Mike Blair, a new home, and a new attitude.