20 Dec 2021

Rugby 2021 - what we learned

2:13 pm on 20 December 2021

Opinion - Jamie Wall looks back on a tumultous year for rugby - from Olympic gold and European disappointment to the long-running Silverlake saga.

2021 Rugby end of year review collage

Photo: Photosport

This year was a funny old one for rugby in Aotearoa, with another lockdown disrupted season seeing the All Blacks play two thirds of their tests offshore. The return wasn't great for Ian Foster's team, 12 wins and three losses and the realisation that they are simply part of a packed group vying for control of world rugby, rather than out ahead of it. But that wasn't all that happened this season:

It started OK for the All Blacks - It was easy to get excited about the direction the All Blacks were headed in after nine wins in a row. It was also easy to disregard the fact that they'd had the deck completely stacked in their favour with home fixtures against Tonga and Fiji, then two in a row against the Wallabies at Eden Park.

But it didn't finish that way - However, it was clear that this side would be judged on how they got through the end, as the tests against Ireland and France loomed as the toughest of the year. And they failed, badly. You need to go back to 2009 to find a season where the All Blacks got comprehensively beaten twice in a row, the good news is that side went on to win the next World Cup.

Olympic Success

Easily the most feel-good rugby moment of the year was watching a very competitive Olympic Sevens tournament, punctuated by charmingly off the cuff post match interviews and eventually won by the Black Ferns Sevens. That's what happens when NZR actually puts money into women's rugby, even if it's coming straight from the government. The men played their part too, with the All Blacks Sevens winning silver by falling to a very strong Fiji in the final.

Super Rugby champions

Well done to the Crusaders.

Or is it done to the Blues?

Actually, well done to the Reds? Hopefully Super Rugby Pacific can unify all these titles, although things aren't looking good for it to proceed as planned.

Black Ferns

Things were looking shaky when the Black Ferns left to play four tests against England and France, but the team is now almost starting completely afresh for next year's World Cup. It's sad to say but that tour, in which they were obliterated in every test, probably shouldn't have gone ahead as it's done more harm than good even after it finished.


If it wasn't clear that things needed to change with the National Provincial Championship before this season, they certainly are now. Yes, the whole thing needs a big asterisk next to it considering Auckland, Counties-Manukau and Harbour couldn't play, but we ended up with the ridiculous situation of one of the best Taranaki teams in recent history going undefeated and finishing sixth. At least the situation gave coach Neil Barnes, who is known for being about as subtle as a battleship anyway, an excuse to give NZ Rugby a massive spray. Waikato went on to win the premiership, a fitting way to celebrate 100 years as a union, even if the final was decided by Tasman literally throwing the ball at Bailyn Sullivan's feet for him to score two crucial tries.


Lockdowns wreaked even more havoc on the Farah Palmer Cup, which started earlier than the men's and therefore bore the brunt of having the Auckland sides missing. To make matters worse, the Black Ferns decided to pull all of their squad out of the business end , so the final between Waikato and Canterbury was missing 15 top players - something that definitely showed in an ill-disciplined game that reaped over 35 penalties. Waikato's win was deserved, though, plus skipper Victoria Edmonds' foul-mouthed post match interview made sure the game had at least one viral moment.

Silver Lake - If the intention was to drag this out so long that people would stop caring, it's worked but…

Lack of crowds

People don't seem to care about showing up to watch the actual games, either. Super Rugby crowd numbers were down, NPC and FPC crowds were almost non-existent (for the games where attendance was actually permitted). Then the All Blacks played in front of a half-empty Eden Park. Rugby, as a product, needs work. Its connection to New Zealand society needs it even more, especially since next season is supposed to start in eight weeks.

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