- Reeling in the years

26 December 2007, 10:25 am
By Huw Richards

As part of our 10th birthday celebrations we take a look back at the highs and lows on the international stage in the last decade.
Back in 1997 when started, South Africa were the reigning world champions, France had won the Five Nations and New Zealand the Tri-Nations.
A decade on…. Plus ca change, it might seem, give or take the addition of Italy to make it six nations instead of five, but you could hardly say that the international game has gone in a straight line to reach a familiar conclusion.

Not least among the paradoxes of the past decade has been that while France and New Zealand have dominated the regional competitions – the All Blacks winning six titles and the French five, the most recent without really paying full attention – they have had to watch as teams they routinely beat in those competitions take the World Cup.

Not least of New Zealand’s frustrations has been that they are the only one of the Tri-Nations not to have won the World Cup in this period.

In consequence the two outstanding players of the decade have had contrasting fortunes.

Australia’s John Eales, the best player of the first half of the decade, retired from the game in 2001 as a reigning World and Tri-Nations champion who had also led his nation to triumph against the British Lions.

Richie McCaw, the best player of the last five years, has the Lions and the Tri-Nations but has still to play a World Cup final – although he is still young enough to have serious hopes of winning at home in 2011.

We also saw a shift in regional balance, even if there has been some displacement back towards the south since 2003.

Clive Woodward’s team probably peaked slightly before their World Cup campaign with a Grand Slam-clinching victory over Ireland that was the outstanding Six Nations display of the decade, followed by their wins on consecutive weekends away to New Zealand and Australia, but it should also remembered that their triumph came in the wake of a period when they were the first European team since the First World War to have a sustained run at the top of the (retrospectively calculated) world rankings.

The World Cup won by Australia in 1999 will be remembered, even though Wales was the nominal host, for an extraordinary semi-final weekend at Twickenham in which perhaps the best remembered match of the decade – France’s extraordinary victory over the All Blacks, followed perhaps the most unjustly forgotten, Australia’s titanic heavyweight clash with South Africa.

If the final and Jonny’s drop goal overlay all other memories – at least for English fans – from 2003, the tournament played earlier this year offers a wider range of recall in which England’s resurrection to reach the final will jostle with South Africa’s consistent excellence, Argentina’s breakthrough to the very top rank, Fiji and Tonga reaching new levels of quality and Portugal and Georgia, scarcely thought of as rugby forces a decade ago, making a real impact.

It may just be that future historians will regard the IRB’s announcement of its elite development programme for second and third rank nations in 2005 as an event outweighing any of the World Cups in importance.

If Georgia and Portugal were outstanding for upward mobility among developing countries, Ireland – whose performances in the 1990s were amongst the worst in the history of the Five-Six Nations – have fulfilled much the same role among the established.

Five runners-up places in seven seasons speak of consistency both in competitiveness and in coming unstuck in one match per season, usually against France.

It was sadly typical that their hammering of England on that day of massive symbolism at Croke Park earlier this season should have counted for so little – Triple Crowns having become more or less routine for the Irish – because they had earlier been undone by the French, also at Croke Park.

It remains one of the oddities of the decade that Ireland’s 30 victories should not have brought them a single championship while Scotland (16) and Wales (19) should each have one, both highlighted by extraordinary halves in Paris.

Scotland in 1999 clinched the last ever Five Nations with a burst of five tries in 18 minutes at the Stade de France, while Wales’s 2005 triumph was founded on perhaps the most impressive comeback of the decade – at least outside the special category reserved for France v New Zealand World Cup matches - striking back to beat the French after a first half in which it would hardly have been unjust if France had led by 40 points instead of 12.

A further consequence was that, in a decade of so many titles, France did not take the title in the season that saw perhaps their best displays, notably yet another Dublin destruction of Irish ambitions.

England’s successes were grouped in the middle of the decade, even if Grand Slams escaped them until that remarkable day in 2003 at Lansdowne Road. Martin Johnson and Jonny Wilkinson compete with Brian O’Driscoll for the title of the best European players of the period.

Italy’s misfortune was that they joined the Five Nations just as their outstanding 1990s generation, who had made them at times perhaps the third best team in the northern hemisphere, grew old.

At least there have been signs of steady progress in the last couple of years, although there were worrying signs of regression in the 2007 World Cup.

In the south it is perhaps inevitable that the years in which New Zealand did not dominate were most memorable – South Africa’s clean sweep under Nick Mallett in 1998 was followed by Australian triumphs in 2000 and 2001.

The first was achieved in spite of defeat in one of the wildest tests in history, going down 39-35 to the All Blacks in the opening match of the tournament – and the second highlighted by the late comeback for a 29-26 defeat of the New Zealanders that allowed John Eales to leave the international game as a winner.

Outside the major competitions Romania continue to battle against poverty and political instability, Argentina await their long-overdue admission to regular competition and the south sea islands have gone on giving the strong impression that rugby is really a Polynesian game accidentally discovered by the British.

Lions tours continued to delight smaller communities in New Zealand and Australia by bringing international rugby their way, to attract followers in their thousands and be regarded by those chosen as a supreme honour.

Defeating the Lions in 2001 also completed a spectacular career for Rod MacQueen, who has some claim to be the coach of the decade.

Defeat in New Zealand in 2005 correspondingly damages the claims of his main rival, Clive Woodward, but a look at England’s performance before and after his time in charge makes Sir Clive – for all that he did screw up with the Lions – the winner in this particular category.

At the other end of the scale Scotland wins the title for consistently self-destructive behaviour, even if the appointment of Frank Hadden showed a sudden access of sanity, but cannot match the level set by Wales, as it lost Grand Slam winning coach Mike Ruddock less than a year after that remarkable peak was reached, in the single devastating cock-up category.

The two combined in 2007 to produce perhaps the worst international match seen by this writer during the decade, with the South Africa – Australia World Cup semi-final of 1999 at the happier end of the scale.