The highlights and lowlights of what was an annus horribilis for rugby ... again
Tackle time ... Quade Cooper. Photo: Anthony Johnson
While Australian rugby's traditional stronghold crumbled further on its foundations in Sydney's east, an ancient power rumbled back to life three hours' west. The Brumbies' Super Rugby resurrection under Jake White and Laurie Fisher was the good news story of the year. For a while it looked as if the season would disappoint. Last year's stars the Reds battled injury and a championship hangover while the Waratahs's first loss to Queensland, after the bell at ANZ Stadium, foretold the woe to come. But in Canberra a simple plan began to bear fruit: take talented but little-known players, add them to an experienced base, put them all through the most comprehensive and uninterrupted pre-season possible, and the games - and the critics - are yours for the taking. In the end it was that naive malleability that caused their season to end prematurely. They had one eye on the finals when they met New Zealand wooden spooners the Blues in the final round of the regular season at Canberra Stadium. The fairytale ended with a 14-point loss. But there is always next year, and the formula is a winning one.
Bath time ... Moore and Sharpe celebrate.
There was never a more galling moment in rugby this year than the few minutes it took the former poster boy for the new-generation razzle-dazzle Wallabies to take a torch to his team on live television three months ago. That Quade Cooper's on-air dummy spit was the product of a frustrating return from injury, sincere gripes about his role as Wallabies playmaker and simple nerves are important footnotes. But if there are two things rugby fans and players alike cannot abide, it is a cavalier attitude to the gold jersey and the faintest whiff of hubris. The two in tandem make a prelude to a fall. A $40,000 fall in Cooper's case, and a long crawl back into the hearts of all but the most diehard Reds fans. The year closes with some hope on the horizon in the form of a two-year ARU deal locked away - the $750,000-a-year contract should help ease the pain of the $40,000 fine - and a solid pre-season available to a player who is yet to scale the heights of which he is capable.
The superstar: Nathan Sharpe
There has been much written about the Wallabies' veteran second-rower this year but he deserves a final mention for being the unconventional superstar. In a year when many of the traditional crowd-pleasers - James O'Connor, Digby Ioane and Cooper - went missing due to injury, rugby found its way back to core values. This year the players left standing were the real superstars. The solid backs such as Berrick Barnes, the versatile performers such as Adam Ashley-Cooper, the front-rowers such as Benn Robinson, Ben Alexander and the loose forwards who were asked to give more than ever before. The Dave Dennises, the Wycliff Palus. And the giant among them, Nathan Sharpe, who was there every time his coach asked him to play on.
The issue: Robbie Deans
It was never going to be an easy year for Deans. The ARU rankled sections of the rugby-loving public with a two-year extension to the five-time Super Rugby title-winning coach's contract before a Rugby World Cup ball had been kicked last year. The Wallabies's performance there - notably their loss to Ireland and Quade Cooper's struggles in the No.10 jersey - did little to placate the naysayers. Before the season started this year, Deans lost his captain James Horwill and a succession of potential replacements for an injured Cooper. What followed was a season of tumult. The loss of two more captains - David Pocock and Will Genia - and a handful of key players came amid a season that made the French team look like the most settled in world rugby. With each disappointment - Scotland, the Bledisloe, France, slipping to third in the world - came a clamour for the coach's head. But just when momentum seemed to swing against Deans, the Wallabies pulled a face-saving win out of the hat. It was the story of their year, and any logical conclusions about his or the team's performance was clouded by the injuries issue. Who could say for sure another coach could have done as well, let alone better, under the same circumstances? Deans's tight demeanour and refusal to court public approval continued to perplex fans who seem willing to settle for hand-on-heart parochialism if they can't have the Bledisloe.
Honourable mention: The Waratahs
Lost a coach, a manager, 12 games and another few hundred fans. Michael Cheika, Michael Hooper and Israel Folau are good additions to the team. They have some work to do.
What's next?: Lions
There isn't time to properly digest Australian rugby's annus horribilis - the British and Irish Lions are coming. The once-in-12-years tour means all eyes will be on Super Rugby from the first round. Deans will be watching for returning stars - Pocock, Horwill, O'Connor, Cooper, Horne, McCabe - and smokies, while Lions coach Warren Gatland surveys the Six Nations competition in the northern hemisphere to pick his talent. The tour is a big deal for the provinces too, who will each host midweek games. Their challenge? To light a fire under comparatively laidback Australian fans and get Suncorp, ANZ and Etihad glittering in gold across the three Test matches. The lessons of 11 years ago, when Lions supporters turned the Gabba red and helped inspire the touring team to a 29-13 victory over the Wallabies in the first Test, must be put to the right use next year.
''I feel that that environment is destroying me as a person and as a player, so that I can't do the best that I can do to represent my country and my family and my friends, to the best of my ability.'' - Quade Cooper on life in the gold jersey.Fox Sports Rugby Club, September 27.
A photo of Stephen Moore and Nathan Sharpe, in an ice bath in the bowels of Twickenham Stadium, drinking beer from the Cook Cup after the Wallabies' 20-14 win over England on the spring tour. Moore, the publisher of the photo, deleted it in the days following for fear of it being used in the wrong context.