It may not have been England’s year at the Rugby World Cup as Eddie Jones’s side came up one hurdle short, but 2019 still proved a fairy tale for the Springboks as captain Siya Kolisi captured the imagination not just of a nation, but of the eyes of the world.
For six absorbing weeks, Japan Rugby stole the headlines as 20 nations battled it out for the right to be crowned world champions – and for the first time in a dozen years not only did New Zealand fail to lift the Webb Ellis Cup, but the final featured two sides not even named the All Blacks.
Instead, it was England and South Africa who met in a repeat of the 2007 World Cup final, and unfortunately for Owen Farrell’s side, the result followed suit.
Despite the magnitude of Kolisi hoisting the Webb Ellis Cup into the air, 24 years after Nelson Mandela and Francois Pienaar created a similarly unforgettable moment, the final from an English point of view fell significantly flat.
From the euphoric high the week before in defeating the All Blacks in an astonishingly convincing fashion, England went into the final as heavy favourites, yet failed to fire off a shot as they were comprehensively out-scrummaged, out-fought and out-scored in a 32-12 defeat.
Having copped so much criticism for the way they ground out victory over Wales in the semi-final, South Africa silenced the doubters in style with a combination of brute strength and clinical execution, scoring the only two tries of the final through the devastating wings Cheslin Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi.
The way England folded in Yokohama proved much more of a disappointment given how the tournament had panned out to that point. Having been given the task of reaching the semi-finals, they did so in flying colours by coasting through the pool stage and convincingly seeing off the Wallabies and All Blacks. With such a large disappointment now once again on their shoulders, the jury remains out on how Jones will regenerate the side to go again in the Six Nations in February.
One positive for England is that they will hope to face a Wales side going through the biggest change they’ve experienced in 12 years. The Warren Gatland era drew to a fitting close this year, beginning with a dominant Six Nations Grand Slam triumph that gave the Kiwi coach his third such success, with the victory on an absorbing affair in Cardiff against England proving on of the decisive games of the entire year.
The Slam filled the nation with cautious optimism heading to Japan, but the sadly the script read the same as 2015 when injuries took a stranglehold of Gatland’s squad. Taulupe Faletau was the first to fall, then Gareth Anscombe and Cory Hill followed, with Josh Navidi and Liam Williams not far behind them. By the time they came up against the Springboks in the last four – undoubtedly the most physical side currently in world rugby – the walking wounded fell agonisingly short at reaching their first ever final, setting up a third-place play-off against a wounded All Blacks side that proved akin to sending lambs to the slaughter.
That said, 2019 still proved a journey to remember for the Welsh, the same of which cannot be said for Ireland or Scotland. Their Six Nations struggles proved a sign of things to come for Joe Schimdt’s side, as their defeats against England and Wales started to expose the cracks among them that would rapidly open in Japan.
In the fallout that has emerged over the last eight weeks, it has transpired that Schmidt lost confidence in the methods that took Ireland to their dominant 2018, which ultimately led to the Six Nations flop, the humiliating record defeat against England in the World Cup warm-ups and the dream-ending losses to Japan and New Zealand that once more ensured Ireland remain without a single World Cup knockout victory to their name.
But at least they made it that far. Scotland, on the other hand, found themselves the victim of Japan’s arrival on the big stage, with their Yokohama Pool A decider going down in history as one of great miracles of the sport – for significantly more than one reason.
As Japan took the World Cup by storm, marching through their pool unbeaten, they did so with something that no other side could draw upon: raw emotion. For the first time, the Rugby World Cup found itself at the mercy of a typhoon, in this case the 19th of the season being the aptly named Hagibis – speed in Filipino. The tropical cyclone left dozens dead and more missing, and resulted in the cancellation of games at a World Cup for the first time in history.
Yet miraculously officials managed to get Japan’s deciding pool match to go ahead just hours after Hagibis had passed through Yokohama, resulting in a cauldron of emotion that fuelled the hosts to their greatest victory on home soil.
It brings us neatly to the real story of 2019 – Japan. Never has a nation previously regarded as a ‘tier two’ club member given so much to the sport of rugby union, both as a tournament host and as a competing nation. What Japan achieved in 2019 proved nothing short of groundbreaking, with the potential to completely shake up the international landscape in a way that the sport has not seen before, with the ultimate goal of destroying the tier one-two divide now closer than ever before.
Where England failed in the Six Nations, the women’s side made no mistake as they breezed to a Grand Slam triumph that fully exposed the alarming gap that has formed between the Red Roses and France to the rest of the championship. Simon Middleton’s side put more than 50 points past Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy, and even managed to add 41 against the French that should raise serious concerns about the competitive standing of the tournament.
That said, they also came up agonisingly short in the summer Super Series, losing the showdown against New Zealand to once again confirm the Black Ferns’ place at the top of the international game.
At club level, success was very much a familiar thing – at least it was until the World Cup ended. Saracens clinched their second Premiership and European Cup double, beating Leinster in Newcastle in a clash of the titans before edging Exeter Chiefs in arguably the greatest Premiership final of all time. Meanwhile the Crusaders clinched their third consecutive Super Rugby title and unprecedented 10th in total, triggering ambitious hopes for a north versus south face-off that would pit two giants of the game against one and other.
Only talk of such an event came crashing down with the news that Saracens had been hit with the biggest sanction seen in the game for breaching the Premiership salary cap. The reigning English champions were docked 35 points, immediately putting them in a dogfight to avoid relegation, and fined an eyewatering £5.3m that in a sport where barely any clubs worldwide boast an annual profit, could prove crippling in the long term.
It is a true shame that such a fantastic year of rugby should end on such a sour note, but the beauty of sport is that it goes on. Saracens have accepted their fate, the punishment taken and what lies ahead in 2020 is one of the most unique fights for survival sport on the whole has ever seen. The Six Nations will come around as if it had never been away, and England will return to Japan in the summer to bring memories of the World Cup flooding back – the good and the bad. 2019 was far from smooth, but the bumps along the way helped morph it into a year like no other in the 24 years of professionalism and hopefully in two decades’ time it’ll be these 12 months that are spoken of as being the ones that changed the face of the game for the better.