It has been a fascinating year largely because a new order is being established on the international scene. England entered 2004 as world champions, but although they still have the title they soon lost possession of the aura that should go with it.
We should not be surprised at that. The resignation of Clive Woodward, the retirement of stalwarts and the injury to Jonny Wilkinson removed too many of the elements that made them great. They remain a team not to be trifled with, but the renewal still has a long way to go. Considering they spent the year without the vital hub that Wilkinson provides they are not in bad shape.
But the international rehabilitation of the year must be that of South Africa. There has not been a better coaching achievement than that of Jake White. When you think of the state they were in after the World Cup, you couldn't imagine how a mighty rugby nation could be so down and out. White turned them around so quickly it was astounding. He took a disorganised and shabby side and restored so much pride back in the jersey that they won the Tri-Nations in some style.
He brought on a crop of younger players, and when they arrived here for the autumn internationals they were geared up for a grand slam. It didn't happen, of course. They scraped a win over Wales but lost to Ireland and England. It was a rude awakening to the reality that there are a few teams here jostling for improvement, and they ran into some well-prepared opposition - none more so than the England coach, Andy Robinson. He made the most of his immense forward strength and shattered South Africa's blitz defence. But that shouldn't detract from the improvement White has forged. He has built a base that is going to make the Springboks great again.
Under Graham Henry's new regime, New Zealand are still feeling their way, but one of the performances of the year was their demolition of France. There had been questions over their front five, but they did the business there.
And the All Blacks took part in one of the best games of the year when narrowly defeating Wales at the Millennium Stadium. With the roof closed, the atmosphere was incredible, and both teams res-ponded. In the end the only difference was the individual brilliance of Joe Rokocoko, and the game demonstrated how far Wales have progressed under Mike Ruddock.
The other two games that impressed me most were in the Heineken Cup last season. Both involved Wasps. The only game they lost on their way to the title was at home against Celtic Warriors.
It was played in dreadful conditions and the Warriors, to whom no one had given a chance, put their bodies on the line to gain a fantastic 14-9 victory. It turned out to be the Welsh region's last hurrah under Lyn Howells, who is now in Italy. They were sent into oblivion at the end of the season after a chapter of events that still rankles as the rugby tragedy of the year.
The third of the year's best games had to be Wasps' semi-final win over Munster at Lansdowne Road. It was an intense, ferocious game which Wasps won 37-32 after a last- minute try by Trevor Leota.
Wasps went on to beat Toulouse in the final, and des- ervedly so. They are going to have to go some to repeat the domination this season, but I wouldn't write Wasps off yet.
Last week, I rated Gavin Henson as the most improved player of the year, but my player of the year is New Zealand's stand-off Daniel Carter, who is destined to keep Andy Mehrtens and Carlos Spencer out of the No 10 shirt.
My referee of the year is Chris White of England, and what gives him the edge over some very good rivals from Down Under is that he referees the tackle area, the most difficult area in rugby to control. In the southern hemisphere, they don't bother.
The best development of the year has been stopping the clock during the game so that everyone knows when the 80 minutes are up - adding on stoppage time at the end is so confusing. They should standardise this and do the refs, and the rest of us, a favour.Reuse content