It was a big year in rugby, with plenty more on the horizon in 2016.
WALLABIES SHOCK THE RUGBY WORLD
After slumping to sixth in the rankings – their lowest standing since any official pecking order was introduced in 2003 – and being widely written off as genuine Webb Ellis Cup contenders on UK soil, the Wallabies rediscover their mojo to power all the way to the Rugby World Cup final. Humiliating arch rivals England along the way, by historically ousting the tournament hosts from the knockout stages, is a highlight of the memorable campaign that also features gritty wins over Wales, Scotland and Argentina.
MICHAEL CHEIKA THE MASTER MENTOR, MOTIVATOR AND MANAGER
After being handed what had become a poisoned chalice of Australian sport, Michael Cheika crowns his whirlwind 12 months in charge of the Wallabies with world coach of the year honours. Apart from setting himself apart as a motivator and strategist, the former Super Rugby and European Cup-winning coach’s influence at ARU HQ by having Test eligibility rules rewritten to include Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell at the global showpiece ultimately proves instrumental in Australia’s progression to a fourth World Cup final.
FULLTIME FOR JONAH LOMU
The death of Jonah Lomu is felt around the world as the All Blacks icon is farewelled at a memorial service at Auckland’s Eden Park, the spiritual home of New Zealand rugby. World Rugby chairman Bernard Lapasset made the 18,000-kilometre trip from France to pay his respects to a man he credits with transcending rugby and helping bring the sport into the professional era. A host of Wallabies legends including George Gregan, David Campese and Tim Horan are also among the thousands of mourners in attendance following Lomu’s passing at just 40 after a chronic kidney disease cut short the winger’s extraordinary career.
SHORING UP THE FUTURE
Having lost a host of stars to cash-up European and Japanese clubs, including World Cup linchpins Adam Ashley-Cooper, Will Genia and Sekope Kepu, not to mention the return to France of Drew Mitchell and Matt Giteau, the ARU must do everything in its power to retain the services of a raft of other big names off contract at the end of 2016. Champion back-rower David Pocock is the top target but other priority re-signings include Wallabies captain Stephen Moore, prop Scott Sio and flanker Liam Gill. Playmakers Christian Lealiifano and Kyle Godwin and rising forwards Jarrad Butler and Luke Jones are also key next generation Test stars that need to stay.
WINNING BACK THE BLEDISLOE
The Wallabies’ run to the World Cup final and the retirement of All Blacks greats Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu and Keven Mealamu and Tony Woodcock, who boast a total of more than 700 Tests of experience, has fuelled hopes that the Bledisloe Cup could finally be returning to Australian shores after 13 long years in New Zealand. The Wallabies may well be losing a few stars too but their relative youth and newfound depth – not to mention belief after a breakthrough Rugby Championship triumph in 2015 – are other reasons for fans to believe.
CHEIKA V JONES
As if an Ashes-like series between Australia and England isn’t already enough to look forward to, former Randwick teammates Michael Cheika and Eddie Jones matching their coaching wits provides added spice to the three-Test showdown next winter. Jones, who guided the Wallabies to the 2003 World Cup final and then helped Jake White plot South Africa’s 2007 glory, secured the plumb job as Stuart Lancaster’s successor with another starring role at the 2015 edition when he masterminded Japan’s stunning pool win over the Springboks. Cheika says his longstanding friendship with Jones will go on hold. “There’s no such thing as friends when the game’s on, brother.”
SUPER RUGBY ENTERS ASIA AND ARGENTINA
The introduction in 2016 of Argentina, a Tokyo-based Japanese outfit and South Africa’s Kings will transform Super Rugby yet again into a four-conference, 18-team competition featuring sides from Asia and all four southern hemisphere World Cup semi-finalists. The Brumbies host the reigning champion Hurricanes in Canberra on the opening night on February 26, with the tournament climaxing after a three-week finals series on August 6.
AUSTRALIA DREAMING OF OLYMPICS SEVENS HEAVEN
Quade Cooper is talking the talk but the Thunderbolts are walking the walk after giving Australia a men’s team to join the women’s gold medal hopefuls at the Rio Olympics. Without even playing a sevens game, Cooper attracted all the attention in 2016 but is no guarantee for a walk-up start despite his new French club Toulon agreeing to release the enigmatic playmaker for the August Games. Cooper would be an exciting addition, no doubt, but the fifth-ranked Thunderbolts will challenge for a medal regardless after sealing their Rio berth by thrashing Tonga 50-0 in the Oceania qualifying final.