Kieran Read of New Zealand with the Bledisloe Cup after winning the Bledisloe Cup.
Kieran Read of New Zealand with the Bledisloe Cup after winning the Bledisloe Cup. Anthony Au-Yeung

Year in review: Rio gold shades Bledisloe wipeout

Brilliant Brumbies

AUSTRALIA's most successful Super Rugby side was knocked out in the quarter-finals.

The expanded competition included the Sunwolves (Japan) and Jaguares (Argentina) for the first time, as well as the return of South African side the Southern Kings.

The finals series featured an expansion of the previous system, with the top team from each of three conferences and the next three top-performing sides making the cut.

In 2016, the Super Rugby season featured two regional groups (Australasian and African), each of which split into two conferences - Australian, New Zealand and two African conferences.

The top-ranked team in each of the four conferences qualified, along with the next three best Australasian and one African team.

The ACT Brumbies qualified for the finals by virtue of being the top-ranked team in the Australian conference. Based on results, they were seventh-best of the 18 teams.

A closely fought battle with the Highlanders ended in a 15-9 loss for the Brumbies, which also marked the end of Stephen Moore's time in Canberra.

That loss aside, the Brumbies won 10 of their 15 regular season games to finish three points ahead of the NSW Waratahs.

Lealiifano's battle

THE most heart-breaking aspect of not only the Brumbies' but the Australian rugby union season was Christian Lealiifano's leukemia diagnosis.

The 28-year-old flyhalf had 117 Super Rugby games and 19 Wallabies caps to his name when his battle was made public in early August.

Lealiifano's news not only shocked his Brumbies and Wallabies teammates, but shook the Australian rugby community.

The start of chemotherapy signalled a sudden halt to his rugby career, but even then the accolades continued to come.

A month after his announcement he was named the Brumbies' Players' Player and best back at their annual awards.

The global rugby community stands by Lealiifano during his treatment.

Super let-down

WHILE the Brumbies flew the flag for Australia in the Super Rugby finals, the other four teams disappointed.

The Waratahs finished just three competition points behind the Brumbies to narrowly miss out on a finals berth, but the Queensland Reds, Western Force and Melbourne Rebels failed miserably.

Australian teams filled four of the bottom five teams in the Australasian group, leaving fans to question whether there is enough home-grown talent for five clubs.

Overall, the Reds and Force finished above only the returning Kings and Sunwolves, who were in their first season of Super Rugby.

The Force underperformed again, this time winning only two games to be 16th overall.

It marked the sixth time in seven years it finished outside the top 10 and is still yet to reach the finals.

The Reds finished just one place above their western counterparts, but continued a slide uninterrupted since their 2011 premiership.

The Reds have slipped each year, and can only improve from this point.

Melbourne are yet to finish in the top 10 but showed showed signs of consistency this season, while the Waratahs slumped from a semi-final appearance to 10th.

Promising Wallabies

BLEDISLOE Cup floggings have become an annual Australian tradition.

While there is always hope the Wallabies are primed to turn history on its head, the all-conquering All Blacks swiftly stomp any dreams of success to dust.

When it comes to our trans-Tasman neighbours, there does not appear to be anything the Wallabies can do to stem the tide.

The Wallabies last held the Bledisloe Cup when George Gregan hoisted the trophy in 2002 after a series-levelling 16-14 win at the then-named Stadium Australia to retain the title.

New Zealand has won every year since. In fact, as of 2016 the All Blacks have won the Bledisloe Cup on 44 occasions to Australia's 12.

The drought continued as the Kiwis whitewashed Australia 3-0, courtesy of 42-8, 29-9 and 37-10 victories.

Given two of those fixtures count towards the Rugby Championship, the All Blacks also claimed that title, and won each of their six games.

Australia finished second.

That disappointment aside, the Wallabies' European tour brought some success with wins over Wales, Scotland and France.

Dreams of a grand slam were dashed by the Irish before England rubbed salt into their fresh wounds.

All Blacks' streak

IT IS impossible to go through a year of rugby union without mentioning the exploits of international rugby's best side.

New Zealand has held the top ranking since November 2009 and does not appear to be loosening its grip on the position.

As if the All Blacks were not already imposing enough, they went on an 18-game winning streak in 2015-16 (a Tier 1 record), which was broken by Ireland in Chicago. They still maintain the best the record at home with 45 straight Test wins.

Luck of the Irish

IRELAND won six games in 2016, but the men in green's November 5 triumph stood above all else.

In front of 62,300 fans at Chicago's Soldier Field, Ireland recorded its first win over New Zealand.

The 40-29 win was its first victory in 29 games against the All Blacks, spanning 111 years. It also ended the All Blacks' record winning streak at 18 games.

While New Zealand avenged the loss a fortnight later, Ireland stamped itself as the producer one of the year's sporting fairytales.

A hard-fought 27-24 win over the Wallabies cemented Ireland's place as the fourth-ranked team in world rugby.

 

England's Australian coach Eddie Jones.
England's Australian coach Eddie Jones. DEAN LEWINS

English pride

WAS this England's most successful year since Jonny Wilkinson inspired the Old Dart to World Cup glory in 2003?

It is a near-impossible comparison, but England's 100% winning rate from 13 games is New Zealand-esque.

In 2003, England won all but one game - a one-point loss to France - on its way to a memorable World Cup win over Australia at Stadium Australia.

This year the English plundered all before them.

Four wins against Australia, three of which were at Australian grounds, as well as an undefeated run in the Six Nations paved the way for England to reach second in world rugby's rankings.

 

The Australian women's rugby sevens team during the medal ceremony in Rio.
The Australian women's rugby sevens team during the medal ceremony in Rio. Themba Hadebe

Golden girls

ARGUABLY the highlight of Australian rugby this year, the women's sevens Olympic gold medal win captured the country's attention, and acted a springboard for the women's game.

Women's rugby has been around for years but shot to prominence courtesy of the efforts of Charlotte Caslick, Sharni Williams, Emma Tonegato and their Olympic teammates.

This was rugby sevens' first appearance at the Olympics and Australia was expected to feature prominently in both the men's and women's competitions.

The men were knocked out in the quarter-finals, but the women reached a thrilling final against New Zealand.

As expected, the trans-Tasman rivals threw everything at the encounter.

New Zealand's Portia Woodman perhaps threw too much into her effort and was yellow-carded.

Her absence allowed only one Australian try, but the damage to her teammates' energy levels was done.

Australia held a 19-point lead with four minutes to play but two late tries, including one to Woodman, cut the winning score to 24-17.

Not only did the gold medal propel the women's rugby side to the front and back pages, it has inspired a new generation of athletes and opened the door to young female players.

The success sparked new sevens competitions in regional areas, and the focus on the women's game will only grow in 2017.

In-Tens future

RUGBY union will welcome a novel pre-season competition in the new year.

The Brisbane Global Tens, which will be held at Suncorp Stadium on February 11 and 12, will feature 14 teams competing for the inaugural title.

The 10 Super Rugby franchises from Australia and New Zealand will be involved, along with four invitational teams from across the world.

In 2017, those will be Samoa, French side Toulon, South Africa's Bulls and Japan's Panasonic Wild Knights.

The format has teams of 10 players competing in a 10-minutes-per-half, knockout competition.

The teams are split into four pools, play each other once, and the top two progress to finals.

Each team is allowed a wildcard player, with former Australian fullback and winger Chris Latham already confirmed for the Queensland Reds.



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