Review of the year: The obvious variation is to hire a hungry New Zealander
Sunday 28 December 2008
Football has its odd-numbered years, bereft of major championships; in rugby it's the other way round. Without a World Cup or a Lions tour, hardly anything happened. Unless you count a Welsh Grand Slam, a New Zealand Grand Slam, the firing and hiring at Twickenham, the continuing success story of Munster, the financial panic spreading through the clubs, and three little letters which got everyone hot under the scrumcap: ELV.
You might not have known it by the hysteria, but the Experimental Law Variations had been around since January 2004, when administrators, players and – most influentially – coachesbegan banging rocks together at a conference in Auckland. The original idea was to make the game's labyrinthine lawbook more intelligible; it mutated into a batch of tweaks and rip-it-up-and-start-again changes which pleased nobody all of the time. When the 13 global ELVs were introduced for a season-long trial on 1 August 2008 they prompted fly-halves in England to kick the ball a lot. Wow.
England's Brian Ashton was jettisoned after years of mediocrity in the Six Nations but a World Cup final in 2007. An abject defeat by Scotland at Murrayfield cost Ashton dearly; the interregnum during which he had to bite his tongue while Martin Johnson was courted cost the Rugby Football Union much respect.
Sir Clive Woodward implied that Ashton's replacement was a mere pawn when it came to "playing chess" as a Test manager. England were beaten by Australia (28-14), New Zealand (42-6) and South Africa (32-6) at Twickenham, while the kingly Graham Henry's All Blacks won the Tri-Nations and a clean sweep of the home unions in the autumn. And they did it without a dozen top players, who had left for big bucks in Europe and Japan. The New Zealand union, alarmed, gave Dan Carter a six- month "sabbatical" in Perpignan to preserve his long-term availability.
Munster's Kiwi backs Doug Howlett, Lifeimi Mafi and Rua Tipoki helped land a second Heineken Cup against Toulouse in a warriors' final. Warren Gatland, a New Zealander, masterminded Wales's second Grand Slam in four years. The dancing Shane Williams was the world's best player – Strictly beckons.
The continental drift of players to a lucky few, rich northern- hemisphere clubs had the IRB pondering ways to make internationals more meaningful. But the huge numbers of fans suggested they found both club and country meaningful enough.
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