It has been an eventful year, as tends to be the case when the Rugby World Cup comes around. New Zealand were the deserved winners of course, I don't think there's any doubting that despite some indifferent performances during the tournament. Elsewhere, it's easy to forget that Martin Johnson led the English national team, now seemingly in self induced turmoil after a disastrous World Cup and leaked criticism, to a Six Nations championship back in the spring.
Leinster retained their Heineken Cup trophy in the summer whilst the Queensland Reds played spectacular rugby down under to take the Super Rugby title. Meanwhile back in the Northern hemisphere. Munster, Saracens and Toulouse were crowned champions in their respective domestic competitions. Safe to assume fans of those clubs will be amongst the most content rugby supporters worldwide. But individually we will all have highlights from the last year, whether our clubs won honours or not. With no silverware to speak of at Ulster, I've picked out five highlights which made 2011 a year to remember. Talking Rugby Union would love to hear from you too. What are your favourite moments from the year?
5. Shane Williams plays his last game for Wales
One of a handful of high profile international retirements in recent months, Shane Williams was given an emotional send-off as Wales took on Australia in a one of test match at the Millennium Stadium. A prolific winger, Williams has crossed the whitewash more times than any other Welshman whilst his quick feet and blistering pace were always a joy to watch. An uncanny ability to make something out of nothing was his greatest attribute. Throughout his career the diminutive Williams would have spectators shifting to the edge of their seats in anticipation of a moment of magic.
The result of this particular fixture was insignificant from the off, this day was for Shane. Fitting then that Williams would score with the last play of the match. It was a typically clinical try from the Ospreys winger as he skipped around the outside of an Australian defender crossing the line to the delight of the crowd, a truly special moment. The Wallabies were already out of sight but his try sparked emotional scenes at the final whistle, with Williams along with tens of thousands of Welsh supporters inside the Millennium Stadium struggling to hold back the tears.
4. Leinster come back to stun Northampton in the Heineken Cup
Northampton Saints had all but secured their second Heineken Cup trophy by half-time at the Millennium stadium back in May. They led a misfiring Leinster side by twenty-two points to six scoring three tries in the opening period. The final appeared to be done and dusted. But this was far from the case, what followed in the second half was remarkable.
Leinster simply refused to accept to defeat, despite their perilous situation. Northampton failed to add any further points in the second forty whilst the Dubliners crossed the whitewash three times. Johnny Sexton scored two tries, amassing a total of twenty-eight points in what surely must rank amongst his best performances in a blue shirt. Nathan Hines scored the other as Leinster retained their title and confirmed their deserved status as the best side in Europe.
3. Richie McCaw at the World Cup
Watching from afar you could sense the nervousness of a nation waiting for their beloved All Blacks to 'choke' on the biggest stage once more. The loss of Daniel Carter mid-tournament wasn't ideal but ultimately their greatest fears were never realised. New Zealand narrowly defeated France in the final to secure the Webb Ellis trophy for the first time since 1987. To win a World Cup requires a strong squad. The All Blacks certainly had that. But one man has consistently stood up amongst the star studded talent, Richie McCaw.
Despite struggling for fitness throughout the All Blacks captain played a pivotal role in leading his men to victory. It's true the All Blacks never performed at their very best during the tournament but they did enough to get over the line. And that is due in large part to McCaw, as much for his inspirational leadership off the field as his performances on it. Receiving the Webb Ellis trophy, McCaw realised his destiny. It obviously meant a great deal to him, and as he lifted the famous trophy you could sense a weight of expectation lift with it. New Zealanders collectively breathed one huge sigh of relief.
2. A European quarter-final at Milton Keynes
With just a few minutes to play Ulster were tied with Biarritz at six points apiece in their crunch fifth round encounter at Ravenhill. The Belfast based side looked to be heading out of Europe in the pool stages, again. It had been a credible performance in awful conditions but victory looked out of reach until Nigel Owens handed the Ulstermen a reprieve, a penalty on halfway. Ian Humphreys sent it over the posts, Ravenhill erupted and Ulster supporters to began to believe again.
The following weekend Ulster confirmed their place in the top eight with a five point win against Aironi in Italy, and secured a quarter-final fixture against in-form Northampton to be played in Milton Keynes. It was a long wait for quarter-final weekend, and a formidable opponent were waiting but Ulster went over with genuine hopes of causing the upset of the weekend. Unfortunately, despite their best efforts Ulster fell just short at a roasting hot MK Stadium.
Initial disappointment plagued the return journey home through Wales to the ferry. However, whilst the rugby was lost I look back at moments from that weekend fondly. The atmosphere in and about Northampton, and on match day itself at the stadium, was comfortably the best that I have experienced. Supporters mixed freely, sharing the occasion (and a few too many pints) with one another regardless of the colour of their shirt. It was a remarkable welcome the Ulster travelling folk received and I know there are many supporters who would echo that sentiment.
1. Irish rules over Aussies
For many rugby fans Ireland's defeat of Australia gave a much needed boost to the tournament as it threatened to go the distance without providing a surprise result of significant measure (we weren't to know an inspired Tongan performance would sink Les Bleus of course). The contest in Auckland failed to provide a single try, yet that mattered little given the intensity of the fixture and the ferocity of an Irish defensive effort that will long live in the memory. Try as they may Australia could not break their line. It was a historic victory for Ireland, and well earned.
The match also provided two stand-out highlights from the World Cup. The first came off the back of a retreating Australian scrum inside the forty metre mark. Will Genia retrieved the ball, only to find himself in the arms of an Ulsterman, Stephen Ferris. Ferris picked up the comparatively lightweight scrumhalf then, in an immense show of brute force, proceeded to carry Genia inside his twenty-two where he conceded possession. The scores were tied coming up to half-time, but in that one moment Ireland gained a significant advantage. There was no looking back.
Yet the result could still have gone either way, with Australia getting closer to a try that would turn the tie. With just about three minutes left to play, and Ireland leading by 15-6, Australia looked certain to make for a thrilling end to the contest. The wallabies were camped in the Irish twenty-two, they surely had to score. But the Irish defence continued to stand its ground, despite the growing anxiety of Irish fans in New Zealand and those watching at home. And then it was all over.
In a frantic passage of play Quade Cooper managed to scupper an overlap with an outrageous pass which Tommy Bowe anticipated to perfection just five metres from his own line. Bowe ran the length of the field, screaming (and failing) Irish voices wiling him all the way to the line. The adopted Ospreys winger was just unable to finish in the corner thanks to an excellent cover tackle by James O'Connor. That mattered little with Australia now needing to score from behind their line. The game was finished.
And that was 2011.