The highlights and lowlights of the 2023-24 rugby union season

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:South Africa;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">South Africa</a>’s lock Eben Etzebeth (bottom) is tackled during the World Cup quarter-final; it’s been quite a season for Toulouse and <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:France;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">France</a>’s Antoine Dupont; Courtney Lawes of Northampton raises the Premiership trophy; <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Ireland;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Ireland</a> flanker Jack Conan (left) tries to release the ball from a ruck during their World Cup quarter-final against <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:New Zealand;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">New Zealand</a>; the speed of Immanuel Feyi-Waboso is one of the qualities that has made the Exeter winger such an exciting player to watch (clockwise from top left).</span><span>Composite: AFP/Getty Images; Getty Images; ProSports/Shutterstock</span>

Best games

1=) Ireland 24-28 New Zealand; France 28-29 South Africa. World Cup quarter-finals, Stade de France, 14 and 15 October. Either game would have made an unforgettable final.

3) Bordeaux Bègles 41-42 Harlequins. Stade Chaban-Delmas, 13 April. Hard to imagine a more exhilarating game of club rugby.

Most memorable match-day experience

1) Ireland 13-8 South Africa, Stade de France, 23 September. World Cup pool stages. Still have Zombie by the Cranberries ringing in my head, in my head …

2) Leinster 22-31 Toulouse (aet) Champions Cup final, Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, 25 May. Amazing venue, a brilliant stage for big-time rugby.

3) England 23-22 Ireland, Twickenham, 9 March. The day the old cabbage patch got its groove back.

4) Heriot’s 39-21 Watsonians, Goldenacre, 22 April. A throwback to simpler times in the company of old student mates.

Men’s player of the season

1) Antoine Dupont

2) Antoine Dupont

3) Antoine Dupont

Women’s player of the season

1) Ellie Kildunne (England)

2) Sophie de Goede (Canada)

3) Romane Ménager (France)

Most inspiring rugby figures from either code

1) Rob Burrow

2) Ed Slater

3) Siya Kolisi

Champagne moments

1) Antoine Dupont (Toulouse) His rifle shot of a 50-22 during the Champions Cup final against Leinster was sheer class.

2) Tyrone Green (Harlequins) Was that Superman diving to score in the right corner for Harlequins against Newcastle Falcons?

3) Jack Dunne (Exeter) The Chiefs’ unlikely try-scoring match-winner against Munster at Sandy Park in December. “He got cheered [in the dressing room] for making his first catch of the season,” Rob Baxter, the Exeter director of rugby, said.

Most watchable players

1) Immanuel Feyi-Waboso (Exeter)

2) Finn Russell (Bath)

3) Alfie Barbeary (Bath)

Most influential Premiership players

1) Courtney Lawes (Northampton)

2) Alex Mitchell (Northampton)

3) Ben Spencer (Bath)

Players to watch in 2024-25

Fin Baxter (Harlequins); Billy Sela (Bath); Asher Opoku-Fordjour (Sale).

Coaches of the season

1) Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber (South Africa)

2) Andy Farrell (Ireland)

3) John Mitchell (England Women)

Unsung assistant coaches of the season

1) Lee Radford (Northampton)

2) Lee Blackett (Bath)

3) Ross McMillan (Exeter)

Upwardly mobile referees

1) Luke Pearce

2) Christophe Ridley

3) Hollie Davidson

Gone (to France) but not forgotten …

Owen Farrell; Courtney Lawes; Mako and Billy Vunipola; George North; Lewis Ludlam, et al.

Most deflating news

Mark Regan, Phil Vickery, Gavin Henson, Colin Charvis and Sean Lamont are among 295 former rugby union players suing the game’s ruling bodies over brain injuries. The passing of the Welsh legends Barry John and JPR Williams. And Jake Polledri’s premature retirement. A fine player for both Gloucester and Italy.

Rest in peace …

Barry John, JPR Williams, David Watkins, Lewis Jones, Charlie Faulkner, Malcolm Price, Derek Morgan, Tony O’Reilly, Mike Weston, Bob Hesford, Alain Estève, Sid Going, Billy Guyton, Hannes Strydom, Nick Köster, Syd Millar, Dennis Gethin.

Upcoming summer highlights

1) The closing stages of the Allianz Premier XVs and the United Rugby Championship.

2) Ireland’s heavy-duty Test series against the world champions, South Africa.

3) England’s first tour to New Zealand for 10 years.

4) The Antoine Dupont Show (aka the Olympic sevens in Paris).

It won’t be the same without them …

1) Johnny Sexton

2) Dan Biggar

3) Wayne Barnes

Never expected that …

1) Police having to taser Billy Vunipola twice in a nightclub in Palma: their first attempt allegedly hit his wallet.

2) Stuart Hogg being arrested by police outside his ex-wife’s house in Hawick.

3) Heading to the Six Nations launch in Dublin in bad weather and landing – eventually – in Belfast.

Quotes of the season

“The boys joke around and call him ‘the Martian’, like he’s not from Earth, he’s an alien” – Antoine Dupont is from another planet, according to Toulouse’s France forward Emmanuel Meafou.

“How many players go from back-row to second-row when they slow down? He’s going the other way. He’ll be playing in the centre at Brive” – Northampton’s director of rugby, Phil Dowson, pays tribute to the departing Courtney Lawes.

“You don’t get the nickname ‘the King’ if you’re an average player” – Jonathan Davies pays tribute to the late, great Barry John.

“Yeah, mate, the problem I have got now is that it looks like Austin [Healey] has instigated it, because we’re late, so I don’t want to talk about it, OK?” – a hot mic catches the television match official Stuart Terheege on the hop.

“Ronaldo is my favourite player. I wear his boxers and I dress like him. And I thought why not do his celebration as well” – the Wales wing Louis Rees-Zammit on copying Cristiano Ronaldo’s celebration after scoring against Portugal.

“I learned about it about an hour ago. There’s never a dull moment in Welsh rugby” – Warren Gatland reacts to Rees-Zammit’s abrupt decision to quit rugby to try his luck in American football.

“I don’t normally say too much about my son. What I probably would say is that the circus that has gone around all of this is absolutely disgusting. Disgusting” – Andy Farrell defends his son in the aftermath of Owen Farrell’s upgraded red card against Wales in a pre-World Cup warm-up Test.

“After that I probably deserved more, mate. They should be throwing baguettes, croissants at me. I deserve whatever I get” – Eddie Jones on the crowd reaction to the Wallabies’ modest display against Fiji at the World Cup.

“They are saying: ‘We know where you live, we’ll be waiting outside the kids’ school, we’re going to burn your house down with the kids in it.’ Of course it affects you” – Wayne Barnes on the pressures of being a high-profile referee in the modern era.

“We’re yet to find something he’s not good at but we’ll keep trying” – the England head coach, Steve Borthwick, after learning that his talented new winger Immanuel Feyi-Waboso is also a decent piano player.

“These aren’t just normal kids coming through our system at the moment … they’re pretty special. From 17 to 21 or 22, if they’re properly managed, we have what could be a generational team” – Conor O’Shea, the Rugby Football Union’s executive director of performance, on England’s talent pipeline.

“Cookies and saunas … why not, if it works? I like to think I’ve shown an alternative way of doing it, rather than protein and supplements every day” – Danny Care on the secrets of his career longevity.

“We need to stop changing the laws: 90% of the law changes are to redo things that have been created by other law changes. It’s madness” – Exeter’s Rob Baxter.

“Our rugby club is the heart and soul of the village. All the valley towns are the same. The pubs have closed, the banks have closed but the thing that remains is the rugby club” – Max Boyce, proud president of Glynneath RFC.

  • This is an extract taken from our weekly rugby union email, the Breakdown. To sign up, just visit this page and follow the instructions.