Back in January, with sevens set to debut at the Olympic Games in Rio and global participation at record highs, out-going World Rugby Chairman Bernard Lapasset predicted another bright year for the game in 2016. And he wasn’t wrong, was he?
In the first part of our review of the year, we look back at a period when HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series titles and Rugby World Cup 2019 dreams were on the line and history was made in the Pacific Islands.
World Rugby confirms that a number of competitions around the world have been selected to trial new laws, including six points for a try instead of the usual five, while all kicks will be worth two points.
The HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series resumes at the end of the month in Wellington, New Zealand, and it’s the host nation who take the title after an amazing 24-21 comeback win against South Africa in the Cup final. Two errors from series debutant Sonny Bill Williams gives South Africa a 21-7 lead halfway through the second half at Westpac Stadium, but Gordon Tietjens’ side roar back and snatch victory – and a third-straight Wellington title – thanks to Joe Webber’s last-gasp try. Despite the defeat, South Africa moves to the top of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2015–16 standings, two points ahead of Fiji.
For the second tournament in a row, New Zealand come from behind to win a thrilling final against hosts Australia in Sydney. This time it’s teenage sensation Rieko Ioane (pictured) who comes up with the match-winning score, touching down after the hooter sounds to break Australian hearts.
Meanwhile, in the HSBC World Rugby Women's Sevens Series, Australia go back-to-back by adding the Sao Paulo title to the Dubai crown they won in December with victory over Canada in the pouring rain. No amount of rain, however, could dampen the spirits of the Brazilian fans who fully embrace the tournament, giving a hint of the party atmosphere to come at the Olympic Games in Rio.
The inaugural Americas Rugby Championship (ARC) kicks off with the top six teams in the North and South battling for the trophy over five gruelling weekends of cross-continental rugby. At the end of the month, after three wins follow a thrilling opening day 35-35 draw with USA, Argentina XV are on the verge of claiming the title. The tide turns in Argentina XV’s favour in round three when they beat Uruguay 24-21 thanks to a late penalty from Pedro Mercerat and Brazil dent USA’s hopes with an historic 24-23 victory in Sao Paulo.
In the Six Nations, England end the month with a perfect record of three wins from three under new head coach Eddie Jones as they look to put the disappointment of their RWC 2015 pool exit behind them. Scotland are downed 15-9 at Murrayfield as Jones’ reign begins on a winning note before Jonathan Joseph’s second-half hat-trick eases England home in Rome, 40-9 against Italy. England then beat Ireland 21-10 in their first game back at Twickenham since their RWC 2015 loss to Australia. Wales are the best-placed team to challenge England for the title following a 16-16 draw away to Ireland first up and home wins over Scotland (27-23) and France (19-10).
Georgia continue to hold sway in the European Nations Cup Division 1A with wins against Germany, Portugal and Spain putting them within touching distance of a sixth straight title.
Official rankings come into play for the first time in women’s rugby as the Women’s Six Nations kicks off with three straight wins for England, the highest-ranked of the European nations in the World Rugby Women's Rankings. New Zealand are ranked as the world’s number one team after a comprehensive process of obtaining and analysing every result from the first official women's international matches dating back to 1987 and are based on the same criteria as the men's rankings.
Wales take command of the U20 Six Nations with victories over Ireland, Scotland and France putting them on course for the Grand Slam.
On a desperately sad note, the world of rugby mourns the passing of Jean-Luc Barthes, World Rugby’s Services Manager for Africa.
England complete their first Six Nations Grand Slam since 2003 with victories over Wales (25-21) and France (31-21). Wales settle for second place after finishing on a high with a 67-14 victory against Italy, who pick up the wooden spoon for the second time in three years.
A first-ever victory on English soil for Wales U20s means they are just one win away from a first clean sweep since 2005. After a nervy start against Italy in the finale in Colwyn Bay, Jason Strange’s side pull clear to win 35-6 at Parc Eirias. A 17-12 victory over England, meanwhile, sees France claim the Women’s Six Nations title.
As much as England want to put the Rugby World Cup in the past, thoughts have already turned to the next tournament as qualification for Japan 2019 begins in the Caribbean on the first weekend of March, with Jamaica making short work of hosts, St Vincent and the Grenadines, in the Rugby Americas North Championship opener refereed by RWC 2015 final referee Nigel Owens.
Georgia live up to expectations and bag themselves a sixth-straight title. But there’s a dramatic finish at the foot of the ENC Division 1A standings between rapidly-improving Germany and Portugal. With the teams tied on points heading into the final round, a 17-17 draw against Spain is enough for Germany to retain their top tier status as Os Lobos lose heavily at home to Russia to succumb to relegation.
Meanwhile, Argentina XV secure the win they need against Brazil to make certain of the inaugural ARC title. Elsewhere, the World Rugby Pacific Challenge kicks off in cyclone-hit Fiji. The Fiji Warriors bring some relief by winning their sixth title at this level. Samoa A finishes second ahead of Tonga A and Junior Japan, although the latter did secure their first win in 15 attempts – over Tonga A in the pool stages.
A two-tournament stopover in North America in the men’s sevens series results in wins for Fiji and New Zealand. In another dramatic turnaround in Las Vegas, Fiji score 21 unanswered points in the second half to beat an Australian side that led 15-0 at half-time.
By winning in Vancouver, at the inaugural HSBC Canada Sevens, the sixth round on the series, New Zealand pocket their third Cup title after a 19-14 win over South Africa. It proves to be the last title of Tietjens’ illustrious 22-year reign in charge of the team.
World Rugby announces record female rugby participation numbers to mark International Women’s Day (8 March). with more than two million women and girls now playing the game worldwide.
Defending men's series champions Fiji increase their lead at the top of the standings to five points with a 16th Hong Kong Sevens title. Trailing 7-0 to New Zealand, their opponents a year before, Fiji storm back in the rain to claim a 21-7 victory thanks to tries by Jerry Tuwai, Kitione Taliga and Semi Kunatani. Japan beat hosts Hong Kong in a dramatic qualifier final to book their place as a core team on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2016-17.
To confirm the increased competitiveness of sevens, Kenya stun Fiji to win the Singapore Sevens title seven days later in the second part of the Asian double-header – their first series Cup title. The east Africans, who had twice finished runner-up in tournaments, blow the Fijians off the park with six tries in the first half, including two by Collins Injera who takes his career tally to 228 touchdowns. He goes on to break the all-time series record in London the following month, his four tries on the opening day at Twickenham taking him past Santiago Gomez Cora's previous milestone of 230.
Meanwhile, Australia bounce back from an opening match loss to England – their first defeat of the season – to win their third straight tournament as the women’s sevens series moves on to Atlanta, USA, beating New Zealand 24-19 in a closely-fought final. Langford in Canada is the next stop on the series, where England break Australia’s monopoly by claiming their first title since 2013. Heather Fisher scores twice as New Zealand are downed 31-14.
A thrilling World Rugby U20 Trophy comes to a fittingly dramatic end in Harare, Zimbabwe, as Samoa edge tournament debutants Spain thanks to a try from replacement winger Tivoli Masaga in sudden-death extra-time. As the Spanish players drop to their knees in despair, the jubilant Samoans celebrate the title and promotion back to the top-tier World Rugby U20 Championship. Earlier on finals day, Hong Kong create history as they register their first-ever win at this level, withstanding a second-half fight-back from the host nation to win 44-40 in a match typical of the entertaining fare on offer over the 12 days.
Off the field, World Rugby announces the election of Bill Beaumont and Agustín Pichot to the positions of Chairman and Vice-Chairman. Both World Rugby Hall of Fame inductees, the pair succeed Chairman Bernard Lapasset and Vice-Chairman Oregan Hoskins, who previously announced they would not seek re-election. World Rugby also welcomes Georgia, Romania and the USA on to an expanded Council on an historic day for the international federation, while World Rugby’s membership grows to 121 nations as Guatemala and Slovakia come on board as associate members.
France impress on home turf at the Paris Sevens, marching into the Cup semi-finals, but it is Samoa who claim the big prize, and their first tournament title for four years, with a 29-26 victory over Pacific rivals and series leaders Fiji. Captain Fa'alemiga Selesele scores the all-important try, his 50th on the series.
The men’s series concludes in London, where, once again, there is a new name on the Cup, Scotland becoming the sixth different winners over the course of a superb season following their thrilling 27-26 comeback win against the Blitzboks. Fiji do enough to claim their second-straight series title by finishing fourth in Twickenham. South Africa end the series as runners-up and New Zealand are third.
AUSTRALIA - Your 2015-16 World Rugby Women's Sevens Series Champions! pic.twitter.com/V5Ifwdtq6h— Aussie 7s (@Aussie7s) May 29, 2016
Victory in the fifth and final round of the women’s series in Clermont-Ferrand, France, sees Canada clinch third-place overall, with Australia, the team they beat 29-19 in the final, winning their first series title. New Zealand hae to settle for second having won the three previous series titles.
Away from sevens, the well-travelled Webb Ellis Cup is on the move again, visiting Uzbekistan as the Asian qualification process for Rugby World Cup 2019 begins with the Asia Rugby Division 2 Championship. United Arab Emirates win to go through to the next stage of the Asian process.
RWC 2019 in Japan has a hard act to follow with the news that its predecessor was the most economically successful tournament ever, with nearly £2.3 billion generated in economic output. Meanwhile, Japan are in good shape on the pitch as they kick off the Asia Rugby Championship Top 3 with a 59-17 win over Hong Kong in Tokyo.
Hong Kong bounce back with a home win against Korea as a busy month of international rugby gets underway with four matches on the opening weekend. Kenya stroll to a comfortable 48-10 win in the Elgon Cup, away to Uganda, Argentina beat Chile 87-12 in the Sudamerica A Championship and the latest RWC 2019 qualifier ends in a 30-13 home win for Bermuda against the Bahamas in the Rugby Americas North (RAN) Championship. The regional qualifiers continue throughout the month as Mexico and the Cayman Islands make good progress in the north and south sections of the RAN Championship, while in the Africa Cup Division 1B, Tunisia and Senegal top their respective pools.
Broadcast to more than 111 countries, the eyes of the world are also on Manchester in June as England hosts the World Rugby U20 Championship 2016. New Zealand, South Africa and England impress on day one, while Wales, the U20 Six Nations Grand Slam winners, come out on the wrong side of a 26-25 scoreline in a ding-dong battle against Ireland.
Ireland pull off one of the biggest shocks in the competition’s history by beating New Zealand and, at the end of round two, only themselves, England and Argentina have perfect records. Argentina are the first team to book their place in the semi-finals with a 39-20 win over Japan to top Pool C. Ireland overcome 14-man Georgia to finish top of Pool A, while England confirm their last-four place as Pool B winners thanks to a hard-fought 17-13 win over Australia at the AJ Bell Stadium. Meanwhile, South Africa claim a bonus-point win against France to deny New Zealand the best runners-up spot – the first time the defending champions have failed to qualify for the semi-finals.
As the overcast skies clear over Manchester on semi-finals day, Ireland see off Argentina 37-7 to reach their first-ever final, while England are even more ruthless, producing an almost perfect half of rugby to blow 2012 champions South Africa off the park and lead 31-3 at the break. South Africa manage to stage a rally but England ease home 39-17.
The final is equally one-sided as England rise to the occasion in front of a sell-out crowd and win 45-21, young Harry Mallinder leading the way with a 23-point, man-of-the-match performance.
It makes for a special day for English rugby as the senior team completed a 3-0 series whitewash of Australia earlier in the day. Wales, however, are on the wrong end of a 3-0 series defeat to the seemingly unstoppable All Blacks and Ireland have to settle for a 2-1 series loss at the hands of the Springboks having taken a 1-0 lead with victory in Cape Town. Scotland emerge from a tour of Japan with two victories to their name.
Georgia are history-makers in June as they tour the Pacific Islands and come home unbeaten after a draw with Samoa and wins over Tonga and Fiji. At the same time, the World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup is up and running, with results over 2016 and 2017 to determine qualifiers for RWC 2019. Fiji come from behind in both of their matches to take the title and head the standings from Samoa and Tonga going into 2017. The Fiji v Tonga game is officiated by Nigel Owens, who, in taking charge of his 71st test, takes over from South Africa's Jonathan Kaplan as the world’s most-experienced test referee.
The World Rugby Nations Cup stays in Romanian hands, after the Oaks only concede two tries and 16 points across their three matches, culminating in a 20-8 victory against Argentina XV in the all-important final game.
June ends with Spain celebrating qualification for both the men’s and women’s Olympic rugby sevens competitions in Rio de Janeiro. The men stun favourites Samoa in Monaco while, in a battle between the two top seeds, the Spanish women beat Russia 19-12 at UCD Bowl in Dublin.
What a half-year of rugby that was! But the second half more than lives up to it. Read our review on Wednesday.
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