Right hooks, black sheep and moments of pure joy

Disciplinary issues and talented misfits played central roles in another memorable season
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One day in the not-too-distant future, when players' names appear as their Twitter addresses on spectators' matchday tablets and coaches are represented at press conferences by holograms pleading "we wuz robbed" or admitting "it's a fair Robocop, guv", we may reflect on these first few seasons of the open era as rugby union's best of times.

Some say they are already passed. Lawrence Dallaglio, a marquee performer before the term had ever been coined for the soon-to-be superstar exclusions from the Premiership salary cap, was inducted into the Rugby Players' Association Hall of Fame at a dinner the other evening. "I take my hat off to today's players. They have a lot of fun," said Dallaglio. "But I can tell you, it was a lot more fun a few years ago."

Reviewing a season spent mainly on the Aviva Premiership, Heineken Cup and England beats, there were indeed long spells when a smile was hard to come by. Whole weeks would pass when every headline was a disciplinary case, a tedious argument among administrators which only journalists and the administrators themselves had any interest in, or the latest faux pas by those marginal misfits, Danny Cipriani and Gavin Henson.

The latter pair's struggles to find a place in their chosen profession were not insignificant. They threw light on the strengths and weaknesses of this ultimate in team sports. "It's an emotional game, not just a technical one," as Dallaglio put it. "It's about you as a person, and all the people in the changing room." When the top-earning "marquee" players arrive the season after next, let us hope they don't need a tent to house their egos.

The Premiership semi-final between Leicester and Northampton was an exemplar for the age. Huge, muscle-bound brutes bouncing into and off each other; tackles usually much higher than the hips, battering at shoulder joints not designed for the impact. And that was just the backs. A grand try scored by Alesana Tuilagi embraced all of the game's power and surprise subtlety, but it was lost in the publicity over a punch by his teenaged brother Manu that was just one of many acts of petulant retaliation. If allowed to grow unchecked, they could drag the sport down to a terrible squabble of push and shove and "he said that, you did that".

But rest assured, there was joy to be found, and the heart lifts at the memory of shivering in Castres as Northampton completed six Heineken Cup pool wins out of six, or watching Wasps rain tries on Leicester in the September sun. Right from the off, Exeter Chiefs arrived in the Aviva with their daftly infectious "Tomahawk Chop" song and a win over Gloucester. The epitome of the promoted club's brilliantly simple game-plan was the flanker Tom Johnson. It is so good to see him reach season's end in England colours today.

Another flanker, Tom Wood, was outstanding in a hybrid role in a homogenous back row that was favoured by many top clubs and by England at the cost of a traditional openside fetcher. Coaches, whose guiding principle is the win-loss ratio not a mark for artistic merit, pointed to the law interpretations which came in towards the end of the previous season as demanding force over finesse in the second man arriving after the tackle. The fly-half is more likely to be making the first big hit. Considering the same law tweaks rid us of the fear-based kicking that blighted the previous year, it was a trade-off we could live with, temporarily at least.

Saracens' voluble director of rugby, Brendan Venter, warned that referees from different countries and leagues would have different approaches. When his side lost to Leinster in a Heineken Cup pool match at Wembley that was dominated by the Irish side's defence, the South African said "told you so" at great length.

Venter's grumble would have been better coming from a winner, and Leinster came top of a very tough pool and went on to take the cup, deservedly so. The carpe diem displays in the second half of the Cardiff final by Jonny Sexton, Brian O'Driscoll and Sean O'Brien were thrilling. Shane Jennings' contribution as a No 7 bucked the trend.

Saracens had attacked with abandon in Europe, secretly appreciating perhaps that competing on two fronts might be beyond them. The English season could benefit from a chop, tomahawk or otherwise, because quantity is hammering at quality like a Manu right-hander. When Sarries adopted a less flashy style it had its reward in winning yesterday's Premiership final.

But there was truth in what Venter said. And though it is true that a referee may give a different decision from one minute to the next, never mind across continents and competitions, the International Rugby Board must present a clear refereeing diktat for the World Cup before it all kicks off in New Zealand in September.

The mess at the scrum knows no borders. What started as a means of preserving the contest from the clutches of health and safety has become an unfunny joke under the aegis of crouch, touch, pause, engage.

That Leinster were pointed in a winning direction by three New Zealand coaches may or may not be a prediction of the World Cup outcome. The first question on everyone's lips is who on earth can stop the All Blacks? The second question is how much of a treat we will have in finding out.

Australia and South Africa are ever-present dangers, though the smooth class of the All Blacks' Richie McCaw and Dan Carter – as shown last autumn when England were beaten at home by both New Zealand and South Africa – has no equal.

England went on to take the Six Nations title for the first time in eight years but, not quite yet an impressive sum of the parts of Ben Foden, Courtney Lawes and Ben Youngs, they were well beaten in the final match against Ireland. Deprived of two captains by injury – which is another sign of the times – they lifted the trophy as losers in Dublin with a qualified smile.

And that was the way of it. Chris Ashton's wide grin as he ran and ran for a stadium-shaking try against Australia sat with Gloucester's chuck-it-around score by Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu against Newcastle, and Jonny Bentley's rip-it-up abandon for the Cornish Pirates in the Championship final at Worcester: wondrous cameos of a game that is at its best when it remembers how to have fun.

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