What a year it has been for rugby. It has included victory, defeat, controversy, hilarity and some down-right craziness! In the run-up to the 2015 World Cup, all players and countries were being assessed, right through the European Cup, Six Nations, Rugby Championship and respected leagues. It has set up a truly exciting climax for the final few months before the greatest teams battle it out for the Webb Ellis trophy.
We begin as it seemingly seemed to continue, with a bit of madness. Sebastian Chabal featured in a TV advert as a fairy ( the less said about that, the better) The poor weather in the early part of the year meant some matches were called off, but it didn't stop Scottish full-back Stuart Hogg from having a bit of fun in the rain, with a huge swallow dive into the Scotstoun puddles!
There was absolutely no love lost in the month that featured Valentine's Day. February marked the beginning of the Six Nations, and some of the finest players in Europe went head-to-head to win the trophy. The competition started off with some classic matches, none more so than the epic battle between Les Bleus and England in Paris. The French sneaked a win in a heated match that finished 26-24. The second week included the Calcutta Cup match in Edinburgh between Scotland and England. England score twenty unanswered points in a game that seemed to drag on, and severe criticism of Scottish rugby was to follow. There was more drama in round 3, with Scotland pipping Italy thanks to a last-minute Duncan Weir drop-goal. England defeated Ireland at Twickenham by a margin of three points, whilst Wales easily swept away France in Paris. Elsewhere, Georgia and Romania qualified for the 2015 Rugby World Cup, while the Waratahs were off to a flying start across the pond in the Super 15.
The third month of the year would eventually bring an end to the 2014 Six Nations, as well as Brian O'Driscoll's international career. The legendary Irish centre was able to break George Gregan's record for most international test caps for his country, with a thrashing of Italy, before a famous victory in Paris meant a fond farewell for O'Driscoll, as well as a Six Nations victory for Ireland. Stars of the game paid tribute to Brian O'Driscoll in a fantastic Adidas advert. March also brought victories for England, who finished runners-up.
This month marked the rising fame of Wallaby winger, Nick Cummins, A.K.A, 'The Honeybadger'. The Western Force back was keeping the rugby world laughing with his quick witted post-match interviews. He did a lot of his talking on the field as well, bagging a hat-trick against fellow Australian team, the NSW Waratahs. Toulon and Saracens also booked their places in the Heineken Cup final with semi-final wins over Munster and Clermont. Toulon would be hoping to make it a second successive European cup triumph.
The French outfit did just that a month later, beating English club, Saracens, in the final at the Millenium Stadium in Cardiff. Toulon were classy in their victory of Saracens, with the star-studded side scoring two tries through Matt Giteau and Juan Smith. The victory for Toulon gave Jonny Wilkinson a winning send-off for his last game on British soil. Englishman Steffon Armitage paired his man of the match performance with a European Player of the Year success.
We were now on to the deciding month of the European club season, which meant it was time for some mouth-watering finales. Glasgow Warriors and Leinster were first up, as the Celtic clubs fough it out for the Pro12 trophy. The Irish side edged out the Scotsmen, who had really impressed over the course of the season. South of the border, Northampton claimed a last-ditch victory against the - once again - unfortunate Saracens. It was goodbye to one of rugby's greatest players, as Jonny Wilkinson finished his glorious career with another medal, this time Toulon completing the double with a top 14 final win against Castres. The fly-half and 2003 World Cup winner was very modest in his send off, claiming he was 'lucky'. By the end of the month, the summer international's had begun, and there were some bruising games, with England attempting to conquer the All Blacks in their back yard, but to no avail. Elsewhere, Scotland had an inconsistent tour, beating USA, Canada and Argentina, before being truly thumped by the Springboks.
That rounds up the first half of 2014, and we'll look at the remainder of the year tomorrow so stay tuned!