These past 12 months have had it all when it comes to rugby. We have seen the resurgence of some, and the tailing off of others. But in all, the rugby has been outstanding and all eyes now point to a dazzling 2022. Here are my moments and takeaways from the year.
Best rugby I’ve ever seen
The month of June saw the Premiership Rugby play-offs take place amid a season dogged by Covid-19 and they didn’t disappoint. The semi-final between Bristol Bears and Harlequins and the final between Quins and Exeter Chiefs showed off the very best of rugby.
It was fast, intense, high-scoring, and simply enjoyable.
Quins are one of the turnaround teams of 2021, too. They began the year in turmoil with head of rugby Paul Gustard leaving amid a poor period for the club. From there they climbed up the table, and snuck fourth place – enough for a spot in the play-offs.
I love watching them play and their No8, 9 and 10 axes of Alex Dombrandt, Danny Care and Marcus Smith is always a joy to watch. The lads look like they’re really enjoying their rugby at the moment – which is half the formula when you’re looking to win.
We all thought they were down and out in that semi at 28-0 but to battle back and take it to extra time – and ultimately win – just showed the strength in their character.
Their win at Twickenham was most unexpected, too – and the highest scoring final in Premiership history.
This season they have seen a string of sell outs, proving that they’re a team people really want to watch – the buzz around the club must be incredible to be part of.
I can’t sit and natter on about great rugby without mentioning the French, though. Their national team are thriving on a spine of youthful talent pulling the strings, their domestic league is competitive and physical, and Toulouse continue to reap the rewards of their outstanding academy and recruitment as they won their fifth Champions Cup in 2021.
It spoke volumes to see five of the eight quarter-finalists in top-flight Europe coming from France, and three of the semi-finalists too. Montpellier got in on the action and toppled Leicester Tigers in the Challenge Cup – a vintage year for the French.
Luck of the… Welsh
Yes they won the Six Nations and yes they beat Australia this year but oh how Wales have been saved by cards.
They’re a great set of lads with some really exciting talent, but take away the two Six Nations cards their opponents – Scotland and Ireland – got and would they have won those games? I doubt it.
Fiji gave Wales a run for their money despite being down to 13 at one point, while Wales needed an Australian card to help them in the Autumn.
Of course the discipline of the opposition can be called into question here, and fair to say those cards were deserved, but to have so many advantageous decisions go your way throughout one season is extraordinary and probably why the rugby gods didn’t send off All Black Beauden Barrett against them – got to level it up somehow.
I’m not sure they’re as good as some say they are, and 2022 will need to be a stellar year for them to make me think otherwise. I look forward to seeing it.
Harlequins’ turnaround is one thing but Leicester Tigers’ table U-turn makes Quins’ look like child’s play.
Leicester were down and out not too long ago, and it’s taken Steve Borthwick – still my favourite for the England job post Eddie Jones – just a few seasons to turn them around.
He helped the Tigers rise to sixth in the table at the end of last season after a year of lingering in the relegation battle places. This season, however, they look unstoppable.
They’re 10 from 10 in the league and unbeaten in Europe and the Cup – a dream start on the field.
Off it, however, it’s not so rosy. It’s said that the club are being investigated for potential breaches of the salary cap relating to a now closed imaging company – but that’s a conversation for another time.
Leicester have won pretty and won ugly on the field, something that will no doubt impress Borthwick. They’ve been lucky against the likes of Saracens and Bristol but when the table is updated at the end of each weekend, all that matters is where you are.
“Leicester are first.” That’s not something I’d have predicted at the start of the year.
Rugby farce of the year
It’s difficult to look past Rassie Erasmus for the craziest thing to have happened in rugby this year.
The South African director of rugby is currently facing a ban from the sport as punishment for an hour long video following the first Lions Test in which criticised the officiating team in detail and length.
Plain and simple, it ruined the Lions tour for me.
The first Test wasn’t a woeful officiating performance, in fact it was pretty standard – sure Nic Berry may have missed some stuff for both sides but which referee doesn’t. They’re human, after all.
The video definitely turned the tide for me and all Erasmus got was a wrap on the knuckle months after the event. World Rugby had the chance to set an example of such behaviour and instead chose to wait it out. Farce.
2022: The year of the caterpillar
While 2022 may not actually be the year of the Caterpillar – it’s the year of the Tiger, I’ll have you know – it is something I am hoping to see less of next year.
The caterpillar ruck is spoiling the game. It’s ugly and just slows the game down far too much.
World Rugby claim to want a developing, speedy game of rugby and have looked to do that with drop outs and 50:22’s, but this monstrosity needs to change.
Even worse, the sport’s governing body have moved to stop workarounds against the move, like Saracens’ crab, but haven’t moved to ban the ruck itself.
If there’s something 2022 can bring me besides some more incredible rugby, it’s a press release stating the death of the caterpillar ruck.
Former England Sevens captain Ollie Phillips is the founder of Optimist Performance, experts in leadership development and behavioural change. Follow Ollie on Twitter and on LinkedIn.