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  • Ben Nurse

Top Moments of 2023

The rugby viewership was treated to a veritable feast of drama, action, heartbreak, and

elation throughout the past year.


From off-field antics to the on-field circus, the 10th edition of the Rugby World Cup was the icing

on the cake after stunning European Champions Cup, English Premiership, Top 14 and URC

seasons, among others.


It was the year of the relative underdog, as, against all odds, South Africa became back-to-

back World Champions, following in the footsteps of the humble Southern French sea-side

town of La Rochelle, who slayed Irish giants Leinster for the second year running to lift the

European Champions Cup again. Over in the URC, no one could have predicted

Munster’s meteoric and fairytale run to glory.


Do these three moments make the list?


8. Eddie Jones says he will stay in Australia


Starting on a semi-comedic note before seven emotional entries. In all seriousness, rugby

needs more Eddie Jones’. If every coach in World Rugby was a bizarre clone of Eddie Jones,

all with overlapping feuds and history like a corny 1990S WWE storyline, rugby might just be

a much better sport.


Whether he means it or not, Eddie is hilarious and can’t keep himself out of the news. Love him or

loathe him, he gets people talking and anything that keeps people recycling the

monotonous and embarrassing slandering of referee decisions is a step in the right

direction.


With over 20 years as a head coach on the international scene, Eddie has had some

infamous clashes and has argued or directed a passive aggressive quote towards just about

every coach in the world. So it comes with no hyperbole to say that this was his all-time best

quote.


Sitting in front of a collection of Australia’s finest journalists, each representing a national

publication and marred by rumours he had been interviewed by the Japanese Rugby Union,

just MONTHS after signing with Australia and saying that he could win them the World Cup,

Eddie delivered the fateful line, “I’m not leaving mate”. Throughout a disastrous campaign

in which Australia crashed out in the World Cup group stages for the first time in history,

being battered by Wales along the way, Eddie would go on to double down on his quote

and ensure that his future was in Australia, FIVE MORE TIMES!


As we all know, Eddie would resign as Australia Head Coach, just TWO WEEKS after first

promising that he would stay and before the World Cup had even finished. He would then

sign with Japan just over a month later. Oh Eddie…..never change.


7. Ntamack delivers


There is simply nothing in sport more beautiful than a youngster with bags of hype and

potential delivering on those whispers and predictions of what they could achieve.


These moments are beautiful because we see far more hyped youngsters flop and crumble

under the pressure than we see deliver, that group of legends is reserved for the very best

and most elite physical and mentally superior athletes.


Step up, Romain Ntamack. Since the very day he was born, as the son of French legend

Emile Ntamack, Romain has held the weight of the world on his shoulders, with greatness

beckoning exponentially more feverishly as he ascended through the French age groups.

Though his day in a France shirt may still be to come, after a crushing semi-final loss to

Castres the year before, Romain delivered the ‘Bouclier de Brennus’ to his hometown club

with one of the greatest tries ever scored in a Grand Final.


With just over two minutes left in the game and La Rochelle up by four points, Ntamack

catches a loose pass inside his own half and embarks on a mazy, brazen that only he and a

handful of players in the whole world would have the bravery and skill to even think about

producing. The Toulouse ten beat four defenders with speed and dived over to frenzied

celebration with barely a finger laid on him. Game, set, match, Toulouse are 22-time French

Champions.


6. Munster slay the Stormers


When the 2022/23 URC season kicked off no one gave Munster a shred of hope of being

crowned champions, much less so when they lost five of their first seven league games.


Graham Rowntree’s men staged a remarkable mid-season turnaround to finish sixth in the

league. Munster made the playoffs and, after easing past Glasgow in the quarter finals, secured a

famous victory over local rivals and competition favourites, Leinster, to win a place in the

final. The men in red showed grit and attitude to stick in the fight up against the seemingly

unbreakable Leinster juggernaut, before young Jack Crowley slotted the winning drop goal

in the 77th minute to seal one of the biggest playoff upsets in the tournament’s history.

The Stormers were the final challenge and again Munster were branded the plucky

underdogs, up against the team who finished second in the regular season.


A gritty and agitated grand final would see both teams trade blows and the scores locked at

two tries apiece in the dying minutes before John Hodnett’s try secured another consecutive

upset and etched Munster’s name onto a trophy for the first time since 2011.


The playoffs are a beautiful thing, one team can dominate the league from week one until

the very end and have their whole season destroyed in front of their eyes in one cruel

swoop.


Munster transformed themselves from mid-table mediocrity to league-conquerors in the

space of three weeks and achieved something that may never be achieved again in the URC,

winning the tournament from sixth place. A fairytale finish for the boys from Limerick and

doing over their noisy neighbours along the way was just the icing on the cake.


5. Curtain-raiser sets the bar for an electric World Cup


I don’t know about anyone else, but Friday the 8th of September was the longest day of the

year. From the minute I woke up I was overwhelmed by agitated excitement and overcome

with anticipation.


After four years of waiting, it was finally Rugby World Cup time again and this edition’s

curtain-raiser was an absolute barn-stormer.


As the minutes until kick-off ticked down and a bizarre opening ceremony ran its course…for

a bit too long, the only thing more overwhelming than my excitement was the fear that the

contest would not deliver, that a cagey and nervous match would unfold and the

exhilaration would quickly fizzle out, despite the reputation of the two competitors.


No sooner than these thoughts had come to my head were they spectacularly obliterated

with Mark Telea gathering a Barrett crossfield kick for a try inside the first two minutes.


Stade de France was ignited, and the tussle continued to burn more brightly with every

passing second. The phrase, ‘that game had it all’ is thrown around a lot these days but this

game really did have it all. Ferocious collisions, silky skills, shrewd mind-games, diligent pace

and an engrossing tactical battle. A feverish crowd at full pitch screaming for both sides?

Check. A back-and-forth battle with the result hanging in the balance until the dying

minutes? Check. A number eight creating a try from a chip over the top? Yep, that happened

too.


The best thing about this game? It wasn’t even the best game of the tournament, it simply

acted as a tasty appetiser for the fun that was to follow in the coming weeks. There was no

better way to set the tone for an unbelievable tournament and the perfect advert for a

French World Cup.


4. Boks beat the All Blacks and go back-to-back

Predicting the winners of a World Cup used to be so easy. In 2003 England were a safe bet

months before the tournament started and in 2011 and 2015 there was no way you could

look past the utter dominance of the All Blacks, who had one hand on the trophy before a

ball was kicked.


However, this year was different, this year saw a captivating four horse race with no racer

blinking until the pivotal moment. Meanwhile, we at home were left to sit eagerly waiting

for a favourite to emerge while desperately guessing at who might have the upper hand.


In the end it was more than obvious who the winners would be, the same team who had

brutally swept aside every other nation at the same tournament four years before.


Winning a World Cup isn’t easy, it takes meticulous planning, preparation, and physical and

mental superiority over the course of four years all with the aim of peaking in every facet at

the precise moment. A crescendo of effort which is almost impossible to recreate.


For a team to do this twice, at back-to-back tournaments, shows a lot more than good

preparation, it shows supremacy and dominance over the competition and one thing this

Boks team will be remembered for as the players grow old and retire, is dominance.


Even for those who don’t like the Boks (and there are many), seeing Kolisi lifting the trophy

for the second time, with much of the same team who many had written off as too old or

past their peak, brought a wry smile to the face of just about everyone who loves sport.


3. Tiny city turned twice crowned continental champions


75,000. That’s the population of La Rochelle. About 3.7% the population of Paris and about

0.8% the population of London. Nevertheless, the devoted supporters of the picturesque

coastal city somehow sold out their 16,000-seater stadium for 78 games in a row recently,

that’s right, about 21% of every single person in the whole city, in their stadium, every

week.


After being promoted from Pro D2 as early as 2014 La Rochelle have become a veritable

global rugby powerhouse and one of everyone’s favourite ‘second teams’, wowing neutrals

with their adventurous and entertaining style of play and in turn attracting global stars.

So, when they won the European Champions Cup last season, defeating strong favourites

Leinster, there was no shortage of celebration back home, creating the viral social media

clip of a massive crowd of seemingly every person in the city toasting the miraculous

achievement.


A small city of 75,000 with little previous rugby success, coming up from the second tier in

2014 and being crowned Champions of Europe just eight years later, it felt like no one could

ever achieve anything as impressive. Until they did it again a year later. And against the

same team.


La Rochelle’s double European ruling reign may never be topped and everyone not from

Dublin was willing them to win and cracking more than a wry smile when they did it.

Just imagine if they did it again this year….


2. Two of the best matches of all time – in two days


Very much cheating on this one as it is not a ‘moment’ but two days of the best rugby of all

time.


When Ardie Savea’s New Zealand heroically shocked the whole world by eliminating the

repressively dominant, Ireland, surely destined for the final, people were rightly calling it

one of the best Rugby World Cup matches of all time. With extraordinary levels of

physicality combined with freakish skill, speed and flair and intensely gripping drama going

well past the 80-minute mark, with Ireland hunting a winner, it was an unforgettable

contest.


With many touting it the game of the year, no one could have possibly perceived that a

better game of rugby would unfold in the same tournament, let alone less than 24 hours

later.


France vs South Africa was never going to be boring but what we were treated to was quite

possibly the best game of rugby of all time. When Kurt-Lee Arendse scored in the 8th minute,

cancelling out an outrageously good try from Cyril Baille just minutes earlier, we knew we

were in for a cracker and all we could do was watch in stunned silence and marvel at the

physical and tactical masterclass.


Seven tries were scored, people were smashed, 26 guys emptied absolutely everything they

had and pushed their bodies, will-power and passion and pride for their nation to their

absolute limit.


Only after both games had finished, the victors with their arms in the air, the losers strewn

distraught all over the field, we finally had chance to draw breathe, pick up our jaws and

realise what we had just watched.


It was everything great about rugby and a fantastic way to remember a great tournament.


1. Portugal make history


No words are needed for this one.


Plucky Portugal, their team filled with part-time rugby players, mostly playing club rugby in

Portugal, arrived at the World Cup in a cloud of doubt. They had qualified spectacularly by

defeating perennial World Cup contenders, USA, with a dramatic penalty in the last kick of

the game and no one rated them, expecting the minnows to act as whipping boys and lose

heavily to everyone in their group.


Through inspired and passionate performances versus Wales, Australia and Georgia, earning

an unexpected draw in the latter, Portugal won the hearts of the world, and the hype began

to grow.


They played exciting rugby with each player clearly playing with immense joy and it worked.

However, no one could have possibly foreseen what would happen next. With Portugal

already out of the World Cup and Fiji all but through to the quarter final, their final group

game appeared to be a dead rubber. Portugal were surely happy enough with their draw

and Fiji had just beaten Australia, they were a serious team.


When the scores were locked 3-3 at half time, many started to believe it could happen and

many more when Storti crossed in the 45th minute.


Fiji fought back, however and then led 23-17 with just two minutes left, the dream was surely

over.


Cue a Raffaele Storti break and offload for Rodrigo Marta to score to send the crowd in

Toulouse into absolute raptures.


Portugal had pulled over the biggest Rugby World Cup upset of all time, written off by

everyone and expected to lose by 50 points and go home quietly, they had instead chose to

write their names in history.


As the final whistle blew and the Portugal substitutes and staff flooded the field to empty

their emotion, I could have shed a tear watching at home.

Sport doesn’t get any better than that.

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