O'Driscoll's skill presents case for the defence

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There was an extraordinary, unprecedented diversity to rugby union this year, and those of a mind to could use or abuse the sport in every debate from cheating to drugs to violence to homosexuality to the free market and all points in between. That the game continued the trend of drawing the largest crowds in its history in its club and international forms meant that either Joe Public didn't give a stuff about the dodgy headlines or those who cared did so much more than was previously understood.

The most pressing problem never made it on to the TV news and it existed long before 2009. The disappearance of boot-on-body rucking on specious grounds of health and safety had created a ticking bomb, which was how to ensure both a free flow and a fair contest for the ball at the breakdown. The experimental law variations would only ever be an inadequate answer and most of them were ditched when the reckoning came last summer. We were left with a game gone backwards into too much kicking and a field day for defenders.

Maybe it needed less tinkering by the lawmakers, not more. Light-touch regulation, if that's not a rude expression. In other aspects rugby's version of the credit crunch suffered a dearth of prescient statesmen. Everyone had been aware – either by rumour or with first-hand knowledge – of the relevant issues in the fake-blood furore at Harlequins, cocaine-taking at Bath and Gareth Thomas' public announcement that he was gay. In the absence of a better plan, events were allowed to unfold as they may, claiming victims along the way.

Dean Richards, Harlequins' director of rugby, had grown accustomed to bending the blood substitution rule until it blew up in Tom Williams's dye-spattered face. Richards tried a cover-up and copped a three-year ban. It led some commentators to accuse rugby of being tainted by winning at all costs.

The only possible retort was that for every gouge of an eye or chomp on a capsule of dye, hundreds of matches were played with honest endeavour. Even at the rarefied level of Ireland's first Grand Slam since 1948 or Leinster's capture of the Heineken Cup, the only unequal enhancement was the skills of Brian O'Driscoll.

The Ireland captain and centre went looking for a unique hat-trick on the British and Irish Lions' tour to South Africa, and with two Welsh pillars of Hercules alongside him in Mike Phillips and Jamie Roberts, the Dubliner made and exploited space like no other. But Ronan O'Gara's marginal mistake at the last knockings of a brutal battle in Pretoria gave the Springboks a series-winning 2-0 lead. The Lion of Lions Ian McGeechan cried copious tears.

In Pretoria and elsewhere, O'Driscoll defended to the edge of destruction, staggering around as if brained by one of Vic and Bob's saucepans, only one made of real steel. Tests and cup matches and even mundane mid-season league games saw body after body crashing into each other in a muscled-up stock market trading in the winning points.

Martin Johnson wrestled for respect as England manager, waylaid by an autumn of injuries, most of them to Lions. Discounted tickets helped Harlequins and Saracens draw huge attendances to Twickenham and Wembley. To the South Africans went the Tri-Nations but in November they bent the knee to the Irish in Dublin.

The players must remember that it is they who make and shape the game. Forget the negative images if you can. The symbol of 2009 was a shamrock, held proudly aloft by the iron fist within a velvet glove of O'Driscoll.

Three to watch

Chris Ashton: Crowd-pleasing Northampton wing with a try-scoring gift can lift England if they have the bottle to pick him.

Dan Biggar: A changing of the fly-half guard is nigh throughout the home unions, and the Osprey should be Wales' choice.

Alex Corbisiero: Time for the London Irishman to forge ahead of Dan Cole and Matt Mullan in queue of young English props.

Hugh Godwin

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