Monday, December 16, 2013

2014 Top 10 Test Matches of the Year

Ireland was so close to making history in 2013 
2013 was a year of highs and lows for most rugby nations. For New Zealand it was one of highs and extreme highs in which the national team, the All Blacks, could have lost a number of matches but showed tremendous will power to come out on top in every fixture. Many of the most commented matches this year indeed were matches in which New Zealand won but there were also some outstanding games featuring other Tier One nations as well as members of rugby´s Tier Two and Tier Three. 


10. USA v Ireland, Houston
With the British and Irish Lions playing in Australia there were opportunities for tour and give caps to fringe players. In the case of Wales this led to a loss against Japan while Ireland was pushed to the limit by the USA Eagles in a match played in front of a record attendance for a rugby match in the country. The USA took on Ireland up front and withstood the Irish attack but with neither side scoring a try the Europeans won thanks to goalkicking. It was a match that underlined the potential that exists for the USA to have an increasingly competitive team and also on to expand the market. It was further underlined in November when a sold out PPL Park in Philadelphia witnessed the almost defeating the Maori All Blacks in a non-international. 


9. Wales v Australia, Cardiff
The final test match of November saw Australia yet again playing an end of year test match against Wales in Cardiff. With the WRU paying the ARU an appearance fee the fixture has occurred every year at the Millennium Stadium since 2005. Wales has won two and drawn one of these fixtures with only one match not having seen the two sides compete in an even contest. The 2012 fixture saw Australia win on full time and save Argentina from a place in the Pool of Death for Rugby World Cup 2015 while in 2013 the Wallabies overcame a dreadful start to take control only for Wales to fight back and just come up short. 


8. Romania v Tonga, Bucharest
Romania is a shadow of the team that the country had during communism. The Oaks defeated the likes of France and Italy on numerous occassions and would have been a contender for the Rugby World Cup Quarter Finals had there been World Cups before the 1980s. But with the end of communism and events in the following decades not providing the same support or funding to rugby in the country the national team has been unable to repeat its performances of the past. November 2013 offered optimism for Romania though as Romania´s highly successful home internationals saw Romania win two out of three tests against higher ranked visiting sides. Romania´s win over Tonga was an upset. It is not every day that Romania can say it defeated the team selected to play against the host nation to open the previous World Cup. In addition to defeating Tonga the Eastern Europeans also defeated Canada in Bucharest in a match in which Canada left its supporterd frustrated. Another match of note involving the Canadians was the 20-18 home victory in Ottawa over Fiji in the Pacific Nations Cup. 


7. Georgia v Samoa, Tbilisi
The biggest upset of the year was arguably not Romania´s win over Tonga nor Japan´s over Wales but, rather, Georgia´s home win over Samoa in November. It came just seven days after the USA had upset Georgia with a last gasp 25-23 victory in the Georgian capital. When Georgia had met Samoa in Rugby World Cup 2003 the Pacific Islanders were far too strong and won by 47-9 in Perth. Ten years later Samoa had a stronger team but so did Georgia as the Eastern Europeans continue to push for greater recogition and a future place in the Six Nations. The win over Samoa in November was noted with Ireland set to host Georgia in November 2014. Before then Georgia will complete its Rugby World Cup 2015 qualification process. Currently the Lelos are on target to qualify as Europe 1 which would see them play against Argentina, New Zealand, Tonga and either the USA or Uruguay.


6. Scotland v Italy, Pretoria
Neither Scotland nor Italy had the best of years as despite both avoiding the Six Nations wooden spoon neither side was able to deliver thereafter as both sides left their supporters frustrated. Both had a unique opportunity in June to win away from home with tests against each other in addition to Samoa and South Africa. But neither side was able to defeat the Samoans or Springboks but Scotland had been on verge of a win at one point. Scotland´s only win in November was against Japan in a match in which it was given a wake up call as the Japanese played some good rugby. The match in Pretoria though was a lucky escape as it came on full time after Italy appeared to have secured the result. It should have been an Italian victory and had it eventuated then 2013 could have been a year of far greater significance to Italian rugby. Indeed, Italy was impressive in the Six Nations as the central Europeans defeated Ireland 22-15 and France 23-18 in Rome and kept England tryless. Italy´s November home matches were a let down with a vulnerable Argentine side winning while Australia marched to a dominant vitory which left Italy´s win over Fiji as just its third win of the year. 


5. Solomon Islands v Tahiti, Port Moresby
The 2013 Oceania Cup hosted by Papua New Guinea doubled as the continent´s qualification for Rugby World Cup 2015. Competing were the host nation, Cook Islands, Solomon Islands and Tahiti. The winning side would secure a place in the final against Fiji in July 2014 with the winner qualifying for England & Wales 2015 as Oceania 1 and having the honor of playing in the opening match of the World Cup. The tournament produced some inspiring rugby as lesser known Polynesian and Melanesian nations showed that they have the same spirit that drives Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. The Cook Islands came out on top of a tournament which saw some highly competitive matches such as Tahiti´s two losses against the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea by scores of 23-22 and 39-32. Sri Lanka v Poland was another extraordinary match in which the Asian nation completed a one point victory while Uruguay defeated Spain by one point. 


4. Australia 21-23 Lions, Brisbane
The three test match British and Irish Lions tour  of Australia saw the home unions compete their first series win since 1997. The two-one series result saw players and supporters embrace the concept that some have questioned in recent times. The Lions next tour will in in 2017 against the All Blacks and the visitors will be going to win. The series win in Australia did not come without problems. The first test could have gone either way as Australia had an opportunity to win but failed to do so due to Kurtley Beale slipping over upon attempting a kick at goal. 


3. South Africa v New Zealand, Johannesburg
At the time the general opinion was that South African v New Zealand was the match of the year but the reality is that neither team had their reliable defensive strategies in play. Lazy defence from both sides enabled tries to be scored and a higher rate than normal which resulted in a roller coaster match being played out in Ellis Park. Both sides had the chance of winning but, as in other games this year, New Zealand played the better rugby in the final quarter to seal victory. 


2. France v New Zealand, Paris
Considering how badly France had played against New Zealand in June and in the 2013 Six Nations the Europeans were not given much of an opportunity of doing what nobody else had been able to all year - defeat the All Blacks. France finished last in the Six Nations and could not lay claim to have deserved the wooden spoon following dire performances as few players achieved their potential. It saw consequences with a number of players missing out France´s remaining fixtures for the year. France´s poor year hardly got any better in November as a win over Tonga was followed by a loss against South Africa but before facing Tonga France pushed the All Blacks to the limit and was on the verge of completing a timeless victory.


1. Ireland v New Zealand, Dublin
After winning at the Stade de France the All Blacks crossed the channel to face England and then ended the year with a match against Ireland in Dublin. New Zealand´s 30-22 win over England was solid but far from impressive as it appeared as if the high tackle count against France had left its mark. Ireland was coming off a poor performance against Australia in which the Wallabies had powered to an impressive victory. Ireland was therefore not given much of a chance at defeating the number one team in global rugby but the Irish were in firm control early after scoring multiple tries in the opening quarter. The All Blacks, though, got it together and mounted a come back but into the final minute Ireland apepared to have victory secured only for New Zealand to find a way though and even the scored with a try near the touch line. Aaron Cruden missed the conversion making it a 22 all final scored only for the referee to allow Cruden a second chance due to Ireland not challenging the kick correctly. The 24-22 final score was a heartbreak for Ireland and arguably the best game of 2013. 

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