Peter Bills: Highlights of a momentous year in rugby

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The Independent Online

2009 has been some year for rugby union.

Ireland won their first Grand Slam for 61 years, South Africa their first Tri-Nations title since 2004. In doing so, the Springboks beat their greatest rivals, the New Zealand All Blacks, three times in a single season.

The Lions chose the wrong captain and lost the Test series in South Africa. But the year ended with New Zealand again reminding us of their terrific power and quality in demolishing France in Marseille.

So before you all disappear into a wine or beer bottle or whatever your favourite tipple might be at Christmas, here is this column's (albeit, slightly tongue-in-cheek) highlights of the rugby year.

1. Funniest moment of the year: The singing of the South African national anthem in Toulouse before the start of the Test match against France last month. Durban born reggae singer Ras Dumisani had a 36,000 crowd groaning with laughter – Springbok coach Peter de Villiers excepted. "South Africa was insulted - who chose this man to do that to our anthem?" he fumed. Er, the South African Embassy, the French team manager replied next day. Dumisani said "Everybody told me they liked my singing." See what you think on this link.

2. Saddest injury of the year: Dan Carter snapping an achilles tendon during Perpignan's match against Stade Francais at the Stade de France in January. It ended Carter's Perpignan playing days although ironically without him, the Catalan club went on to win their first French Championship title since 1954.

3. Shakiest moment of the year: the millions of Irish men and women holding their breaths as a last minute penalty kick from Wales outside half Stephen Jones in Cardiff threatened to deny Ireland their first Grand Slam for 61 years. It dropped a metre short of the crossbar and all Ireland celebrated.

4. Worst substitution of the year: Ronan O’Gara's late cameo for the British & Irish Lions against South Africa in the 2nd Test at Pretoria. First, O'Gara missed tackling Jaque Fourie as he dived into the corner to score a try. Then the Irishman took out a Springbok player in the air as he caught the ball, giving Morne Steyn the chance to win the Test series from the penalty. He succeeded.

5. Worst advice of the year: French club Montauban had missed three drop goal attempts late in their Top 14 match against Clermont-Auvergne. The Montauban full-back caught a long drop out just inside his own half and lined up another left-footed drop attempt. "No, no, no, don't be a mug" yelled your correspondent, from Row X in the crowd. The ball left his boot like an arrow and soared between the posts from 55 metres, for a 19-19 draw.

6. Most predictable sacking of the year? Ewen McKenzie of Stade Francais. His fellow Australians Bob Dwyer (at Racing Metro) and John Connolly (at Stade) had failed in Paris. Neither spoke French. McKenzie struggled with the language too and was duly fired early this season.

7. Most wounding quote of the year: "If the referee is not accurate we've got to put our hand up. We need to educate that referee and get him better because that scrummaging on Saturday was not up to international standard." IRB refereeing co-ordinator Paddy O'Brien's put-down to Australian official Stuart Dickinson after his hopeless efforts in the Italy v New Zealand Test in Milan in November.

8. Most threatening quote of the year: "Oh,it's you: I read that piece you wrote criticising me"... New Zealander Jerry Collins after a club match for Toulon, upon meeting your correspondent. But he's such a gentleman he then did a long interview.

9. Loveliest quote of the year: "I feel my role is over stated, I haven't made a tackle all year." Ireland coach Declan Kidney greets the news that he has been made IRB Coach of the year.

10. Best performance of the year: New Zealand's 5 tries to nil, 39-12 demolition of France in Marseille in November. It was superlative stuff, many of the scores originating from inside the All Blacks own 22.

11. Most stupid quote of the year: "You can't play the game under these laws." England's Rob Andrew pleads with the IRB to change the laws, despite New Zealand's supreme display in France.

12. Coldest occasion of the year: Ireland v South Africa in the freezing fog at Croke Park, Dublin, in November.

13/ Most compelling game of the year: Munster v Leinster at Croke Park, Dublin in the Heineken Cup semi-final in May. Elsom and O'Driscoll's phenomenal physicality, Quinlan's disastrous act, Cheika's cool command – it had everything.

14. Biggest fake of the year: Harlequins wing Tom Williams biting on a blood capsule in the Heineken Cup quarter final against Leinster, to enable a substitution to be made.

15. Saddest quote of the year: "They have taken my career away from me." Harlequins' Director of Rugby Dean Richards after hearing he had been banned from the sport for three years for instigating the so-called "Bloodgate".

16. Weakest, most pathetic act of the year by rugby officials: ERC's refusal to ban Harlequins from the Heineken Cup for the "Bloodgate" affair.

17. Weirdest decision of the year by rugby officials: Choosing New Zealander Richie McCaw ahead of Brian O'Driscoll and Fourie du Preez as "Player of the Year" when he had missed the first half of the season through injury.

18. Cruellest defeat of the year: Cardiff losing their Heineken Cup semi-final to Leicester on penalties, flanker Martin Williams missing the crucial kick, after a 26-26 draw at the Millenium stadium.

19. Saddest sight of the year: The Barbarians choosing only one British or Irish player for their team to play a New Zealand 2nd XV at Twickenham earlier this month. The Ba-baas won but when they beat the All Blacks in that famous game in 1973, they had 15 players from the British Isles/Ireland.

20. Most disturbing trend of the year: The plethora of injuries which have hit players. Injury rates have leapt up, testimony to the huge physical demands of the game these days. It is a worrying development.

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