Brendan Cole surveys 2013 and picks out the 21 moments, both on and off the field, positive and negative, that shaped and defined the rugby year.
1 Larissa Muldoon kicks the ball off the field against Italy
Ireland had played perfect rugby against England in a previous match, but they had to grind out a win against an Italian side that put in a serious performance in the final match of their historic campaign.
Italy went ahead on a muddy surface that severely restricted Ireland’s capacity to play the free-flowing rugby that had brought them to within touching distance of the slam. But two Niamh Briggs penalties put Ireland 6-3 up with 30 minutes left.
A key turnover inside the 22, a missed kick by Italian out-half Veronica Schiavon and some massive defence in a frantic finale were enough to see Ireland home. Ireland scrum-half Larissa Muldoon finally booted the ball of the park and the final whistle blew. Cue pandemonium.
2 Ireland lead 22-7 against New Zealand
In retrospect, the first 34 minutes or so were almost dreamlike. Ireland got the jump on New Zealand in the intensity stakes, and had the game plan to match.
With unbelievable performances from players across the pitch, Conor Murray and Rory Best scored relatively simple tries. New Zealand began to make errors as they looked to force the game, and a dropped pass on the halfway line by Israel Dagg gave Rob Kearney an interception try to put Ireland 22-7 up against the only team in world rugby they had never beaten.
The spell seemed to break soon after; from that moment on, Ireland began counting down the minutes, while the All Blacks emptied their bench and got to work.
3 Alison Miller’s hat-trick as Ireland Women beat England 25-8
The Grand Slam was historic, but Ireland’s demolition of an England side which had dominated European and world rugby was arguably the most satisfying performance of the year
England had lost only one match in the Championship in the previous seven renewals.
Ireland’s attacking ambition, particularly in the outside channels, was to the fore as the powerful and athletic wing, Alison Miller, grabbed the headlines with a brilliant trio of tries.
Miller would go on to finish as the competition’s top try-scorer.
4 O’Driscoll and Zebo’s skills shine as Ireland beat Wales
The Six Nations would end up being a disastrous campaign, but it got off to a quite magnificent start as an amped-up Ireland ripped in to eventual champions Wales.
Two Irish backs supplied the highlight reel moments. First, Brian O’Driscoll delivered a sublimely timed pass, bamboozling three Welsh defenders, to give Zebo an easy try.
Soon after, a superb piece of improvisation by Zebo saw him flick a ball, that looked to be going to ground behind him, into his hands to keep an Ireland attack going.
The winger was unable to finish the score himself, but Cian Healy rumbled over a couple of phases later to give Zebo’s outrageous piece of skill the finish it deserved.
5 Ireland Women come back to beat France in Ashbourne
Ireland had the perfect game against England, but they showed real character to beat a France side that boasted a supremely powerful pack at a mist-shrouded Ashbourne.
Niamh Briggs got the opening try, but Ireland went in behind at half-time. But they had an excellent lineout performance over the course of the match and it yielded a try, via a maul, scored by Ailis Egan.
A conversion and a penalty by Niamh Briggs saw the Irish home in front of a home crowd that played a vital role.
6 Connacht go to Toulouse and win
An antidote of sorts to the overpowering disappointment of New Zealand and one in which Robbie Henshaw truly came of age and gave flesh to the bones of the rumours of a great talent beginning to flourish out west.
Toulouse were shell-shocked by the accuracy and power of Connacht’s hitting on the gain line, and completely unprepared for their attacking ambition as well.
7 Brian O’Driscoll is dropped by the Lions ahead of the third Test
Of all the off-field events of 2013, this had the biggest ripples of all, at least in the bubble of super-committed rugby fandom and the media.
As everyone knows, with the series on the line, Warren Gatland opted to select Welshman Jon Davies ahead of Brian O’Driscoll at outside centre. Gatland had already shown a willingness to take hard decisions by leaving England captain Chris Robshaw out of the touring side.
The O’Driscoll decision was at least equally ruthless and, in the eyes of many, wrong on rugby grounds as well. But it had been determined that the Lions would succeed by playing in the Welsh style from an early stage and in light of that, Gatland’s decision to field the powerful young centre is just about defensible, for all that it felt like a blow to the Lions concept.
Can the Lions continue to thrive in the professional era? Sponsors and fans remain enamoured, and the series win ended a lengthy streak. Overall, though, the 2013 series was a disappointment.
8 Munster beat Harlequins in the Heineken Cup
An underlying trend of 2013 was the extent to which it became apparent that game plan is everything. No side can afford to stand still either, and Munster, through a combination of luck and judgement, changed their approach at exactly the right time to catch Harlequins cold.
The men in red recaptured the spirit of old, rampaging through the London club and into the semi-final where they performed with great credit against Clermont.
9 Ireland lose to New Zealand in the last play
A moment all of its own. Ireland had not played out the perfect end game but they were within a phase – two at most – of victory when Jack McGrath was penalised at a barely contested ruck by Nigel Owens.
Playing at pace, and trusting their skills to the utmost, New Zealand began marching down the pitch.
Key offloads and decisions worked out, Kieran Read, with a trademark offload, released Ben Smith into the 22; a hard carry by Liam Messam pierced Ireland’s defence on the right, Dane Coles and Ryan Crotty combined to do the rest and score the tying try, before Aaron Cruden landed the winning conversion at the second attempt.
10 Gillian Bourke’s try in the final minutes against Wales
Before the first game of the campaign, there was an awareness that Ireland might be able to do something in the Six Nations.
The chance looked set to evaporate in the first match until Gillian Bourke got on the end of a flowing team movement to score a late try that gave Ireland a 12-10 win in Aberavon.
11 South Africa v New Zealand at Ellis Park
A true classic that saw a great New Zealand side show the character that would eventually power them to 14 wins in 14 matches to comprehensively beat a quality Springbok side that threw everything they had into the game in front of fanatical home crowd.
Momentum looked to be going South Africa’s way when Jean De Villiers barged over the top of Beauden Barrett to give the Boks the lead.
The All Blacks had other ideas, and minutes later Barrett stood De Villiers up with a superb piece of open field running to score the decisive try.
New Zealand, if not the greatest side ever then surely the greatest try-scorers the game has ever seen, eventually won by eight.
12 Toulon (somehow) beat Clermont in the Heineken Cup final
Was it due to Brock James' failings at out-half or the sheer bloody mindedness of Toulon’s corps of veterans?
It’s still not entirely clear how they managed it, but somehow a Toulon side that was completely outplayed in virtually every aspect of the game managed to beat Clermont to win the Heineken Cup.
13 Kurtley Beale slips to hand the Lions victory in the first Test
Australia almost took a 1-0 lead in the series despite apparently being outplayed in the first Test but Kurtley Beale slipped at the vital moment to hand the Lions the lead in the series.
The Wallabies subsequently won a match they should have lost in the second Test, before capitulating totally in the final quarter of the third to lose the series.
14 Jonathan Sexton announces he will join Racing Metro
Rumours had circulated about high-profile players and their links with French clubs for years, usually in the lead-up to contract deals.
The famously stubborn Sexton characteristically became the first high-profile Irishman to actually make the move in January 2013.
15 The English clubs threaten to pull out of Europe
In August, on one of the stranger days of the year, the English clubs went public with what was to prove a difficult and divisive campaign aimed at reshaping European rugby.
The rights and wrongs are still being debated, and while it is not yet quite clear if things are truly changed forever, the Anglo-French power play was undoubtedly the major political development of 2013.
16 Joe Schmidt becomes Ireland coach
Many were discussed but in the end, rightly and inevitably, Joe Schmidt was chosen.The new manager’s regime got off to a bad start with a disheartening defeat to an Australia side many had underestimated in his second match, but hope flared anew after a sensational performance against New Zealand.
Declan Kidney might point out that he coached an Ireland side to just as narrow a defeat, and on New Zealand soil, but for now at least, the new coach has built up plenty of credit with the rugby public ahead of the 2014 Six Nations.
17 Ireland lose to Italy in the Six Nations
Ireland had built up a habit of beating Italy in the Six Nations, so much so that analysts regularly felt the need to remind that they posed a real threat. ‘Yeah right’ was the typical muttered response. Italy had a decent scrum and Sergio Parisse, but no high quality backs.
Ireland usually beat Italy with ease, but this time the Azzuri finally managed to put in a good enough performance. For their part, Ireland performed poorly and suffered two sickening concussions to Brian O’Driscoll and Luke Marshall.
As in the case of Smith, O’Driscoll was controversially returned to the field.
18 Leinster beat Ulster win the RaboDirect Pro12
A final flourish that put the right gloss on the end of the Schmidt era, with Leinster outclassing a determined Ulster on a sun- speckled day at the RDS.
Schmidt, Sexton and Isa Nacewa were the most high-profile departures, and one of the enduring memories from the day is watching an almost dejected looking Sexton trudging off the field and towards Parisse in his bare feet.
19 Declan Kidney’s contract is terminated by the IRFU
Kidney had delivered Ireland’s first Grand Slam in over 60 years, and a stunning victory over Australia at RWC 2011.
However, a perceptible decline year-on-year in the bread and butter of the Six Nations persuaded the IRFU that the Corkman, the most successful Irish manager/coach of the professional era, had to go.
20 Ronan O’Gara retires and becomes kicking coach at Racing Metro
The end of O’Gara’s playing career came via a decision to omit him from a 32-man training squad. But the event that caused a mini-explosion in social media, and one that prompted plenty of debate about O’Gara’s real motivations, was his decision to follow former nemesis Jonathan Sexton to Paris to become the kicking coach at Racing Metro.
That the arrangement apparently came into being following a chance meeting with Racing owner Jackie Lorenzetti and was entered into without Sexton’s knowledge gave a bizarre and conspiratorial tinge to the story.
Could it be that the Corkman simply wanted the chance to work in what, at the time, looked like one of the most exciting projects in world rugby?
21 An apparently concussed George Smith is brought back on against the Lions
Alongside the European Cup, concussion has been the biggest problem for the game this year. The sickening clash of heads between Wales hooker Richard Hibbard and George Smith brought the issue in sharp relief. The impact forced Smith off the field, apparently gone for the match.
To the shock and, in many cases, dismay, of most observers he was brought back on again. Predictably, he played like a man who had recently been hit hard on the head.
A justifiable outcry followed. There is still plenty of work for the IRB and others to do on maximising player safety at every level of the game.