As 2015 approaches the full-time hooter, Planet Rugby's chief paper-pusher, Ross Hastie, reflects on the year gone by and the future of the game.
World Cup years are always special, not only because rugby's global showpiece is one of the biggest events on the sporting calendar, but also because the tournament marks the end of a four-year cycle that seems the cornerstone of every national team's planning.
The media industry also revolves around these big events, with the RWC representing a cash cow that will balance the books for a couple of years. We made sure we had a man at almost every game.
Unfortunately for all involved, England crashing out prematurely meant the whole industry all took a massive hit as advertising rates plummeted. It's a credit to the organisers, and the entertainment produced by the participants, that the English public's interest didn't fall off a cliff, thus averting a financial catastrophe.
As usual, the RWC was the defining moment in many careers, as it launched a handful and it ended quite a few too. The tournament so overshadows everything else that it marks the boundaries between generations of players, meaning that the rugby universe will have a very different complexion in 2016 as a new era commences.
But before we cast our eyes forward, let's look at the lessons learnt in 2015.
Big guns shoot blanks
Unsurprisingly, the respective misfortunes of England and the Springboks, and more specifically their head coaches, dominated our top-ranking headlines this year. Throw France into the mix and the three countries with the most rugby resources in the world will be starting from square one in January.
Whatever the final outcome, England's performance at their own World Cup was always going to be the biggest story of 2015, and Stuart Lancaster has come in for some harsh criticism – some justified, some not-so-much.
In hindsight, the simple truth is that England did not have a cup-winning team. Clearly mistakes were made, but Lancaster alone cannot bear full the weight of the host nation's disappointment. Failing to get out of their group was obviously both a massive and avoidable disaster, but I don't think they had the firepower to get further than the quarter-finals anyway.
If England fans gave an honest assessment, they'd have to admit that not one England player would make a World XV. The fact that England's two best players were watching the tournament on TV from Toulon and Leicester respectively is a matter for a longer debate, but I reckon the World Cup should have qualified as the "exceptional circumstances" required to pick the very best team possible.
That said, the blame for the exclusion of certain players – be it because they were based abroad or for disciplinary reasons – should not rest solely with the coach. The rules were clear from the start – if they wanted to be part of the show, they should have come home/behaved themselves.
The ridiculous selection of Sam Burgess must go down as the flop of the year, however. The England staff can find no excuses on that count. They wanted a Sonny Bill Williams/Jamie Roberts of their own, but Burgess was never going to be the man to add a sharp edge to an attack that had been pretty blunt for a while, and that included a pack that didn't have the bite we've come to expect from England.
Eddie Jones will bring a fresh perspective in the short term and he'll certainly add some attacking flavour. Looking further ahead though, someone like Rob Baxter should be groomed to take over when Jones retires in 2019.
Speaking of blunt attacks, Heyneke Meyer's Springboks get my award for being the most boring team of the year. Things looked so promising midway through the Meyer's tenure but his insistence on falling back on so-called 'traditional strengths' instead of continuing down a path of evolution was incredibly frustrating. I can only hope that the next Bok coach, whoever he is, allows his fly-half to actually stand at first receiver.
Playing style will only be one of the new coach's many challenges, with the issue of the racial transformation of the Springbok side as problematic as ever. I honestly believe that only a foreigner could provide the clean slate and neutral perspective South Africa needs for a fresh start. Only an outsider would be able to escape the preset labels of quota/racist, but finding someone willing to drink from the poisoned chalice will not be easy.
The end of the Philippe Saint-André era could not have come fast enough. PSA gets my 'lack of imagination' award because his Bleus have been the standout underperformers of the last four years. The Top 14 may be infested with imports, but there is still plenty of talent to be found in France.
As a long-time fan of Toulouse and their attitude to the game, I'm glad to see Guy Novès get the job that should have been given to him in 2008. I can only hope that his appointment hasn't come a generation too late for France, as was the case with Meyer in South Africa. 'Flair' has been missing from the French game for some time now, so let's hope Novès can live up to his promise of bringing some spark back to le XV de France.
Rugby sugar daddies
France and South Africa are at different ends of a very serious problem affecting not only their respective national teams, but the game worldwide. There are over 300 South Africans playing professional rugby in Europe, mostly in France. Not that long ago, you could buy nine Rand with a Euro, now it's closer to 17! The ZAR is not going to get any stronger any time soon, so the problem is only going to get worse.
The prospect of South Africa ditching SANZAR in favour of joining forces with partners in their own time zone was once a fanciful idea, but is inching closer to becoming an uncomfortable financial necessity if the South African game is to profit from the products of it's conveyor belt of talent (the Republic has more registered players than any other nation).
Without South Africa's broadcast money and massive fans base, Super Rugby – the lifeblood of rugby in Australia – would die. The Southern Hemisphere giants are hoping that expansion into new markets will unlock the finances needed to keep the game afloat.
The new Super Rugby format unveiled this year is the first step on this bold new path but while the addition of news teams in Japan and Argentina is exciting, the new competition structure is simply unfair and risks alienating fans, who are already disenchanted. If the gamble doesn't pay off, 10 years from now matches between Toulon and the Sharks will be regular fixtures, not pre-season friendlies.
The silver lining to the Boks' defeat to the Brave Blossoms in Brighton is that rugby's popularity is now taking off in the Land of the Rising Sun. The challenge now is to make the Sunwolves competitive – because if they're not, everyone loses.
While the southern hemisphere nations' stocks get plundered each year, some serious questions need to be asked about those doing the plundering. Rumours and allegations of salary cap breaches in the Premiership are now (finally) starting to be mirrored in France. In light of the Toulon's latest influx of megastars, it seems inconceivable that they are not colouring outside the lines, even if France's cap is significantly higher than across the Channel.
It's early days yet, but a fourth-straight European title looks very much on the cards for Mourad Boudjellal's galacticos.
The winners may have been the same in 2015, but the revamped European Champions Cup certainly delivered in terms of bringing new intrigue via a more competitive structure. However, we've had two-all French finals in three years and by the time next year's final is played, it will be have been a decade since an English club won the title. The question remains whether next season's salary cap raise will be sufficient to keep Premiership clubs competitive.
Glory and tragedy for New Zealand
The All Blacks were very much the deserving RWC winners – I don't think anyone could argue to the contrary – and it seems fitting that the two best players of the professional era capped their international careers with historic, back-to-back world titles.
Whatever your feelings about Richie McCaw's relationship with the laws of offside and hands in the ruck, no one can deny that he has been an outstanding ambassador for the game. Likewise, Dan Carter's rugby genius has never been tainted by an overgrown ego, nor the kind of off-field scandals that often come with global fame.
Indeed, in my book, what has made them truly exceptional is their complete lack of hubris. Both are products of a New Zealand's rugby culture that distinguishes between striving for excellence and arrogance, between the need for aggression versus poor sportsmanship. It's also a culture that recognises that winning does not have to be removed from enjoyment and entertainment (more on that later).
Perhaps the most astonishing thing about King Richie and DC's departures from the Test scene is that the All Blacks will hardly miss them. The Kiwi talent factory has already produced a few brilliant replacement options in both positions. It's amazing that a country with less than half the registered players of South Africa, England, or France continually sets the benchmark at almost every level of the game (let's not forget they also won the U20 world title and had two teams in the Super Rugby Final this year).
But 2015 wasn't all roses for New Zealand. The unexpected deaths of Jerry Collins and Jonah Lomu left a profound mark on the rugby community around the globe. They were two more examples of exceptional characters. No one has yet managed to match Lomu's superstar status on a global scale and I doubt anyone ever will.
Positive culture = positive results
The feel-good story of the year came from Argentina. I see their transformation as a shining example to the rest of the world of what can be done with the right attitude. Fourth place in the Rugby World Cup is an incredible achievement for a country that does not have a professional domestic rugby tournament, which make their trashing of Six Nations champions Ireland all the more impressive and negates any possible Irish excuses about injuries and squad depth.
Key to the Pumas' success was their willingness to play 15-man rugby and evolve beyond the negative approach of basing their game on disrupting their opposition.
The fact that five tries were scored in the RWC Final (to go with 32 in the quarter and semi-finals) is a sign that game has moved forward. The tactics used in 2007, when it was preferable to play without the ball, are now defunct.
The only team to beat the All Blacks this year? The Wallabies, by having a full go. Add Japan's high-paced style – which had fans enthralled – to those of the title-winning Highlanders and Lions in Super Rugby and the Currie Cup respectively, along with Exeter – who qualified for Europe's top division with minimal resources but a positive approach – and the great lesson of 2015 must be that entertaining rugby is winning rugby, in every sense of the word.
Dynamite comes in small packages
As noted extensively elsewhere, the highlight of the World Cup was without doubt the competitiveness of the smaller nations – bar dysfunctional Samoa – with Japan's shock win over the Springboks probably the biggest upset in the history of the sport. I wonder if years from now, we'll look back at that result – and RWC2015 in general – as a way station in the transformation of the game worldwide.
How long before Romania and Georgia's cries to join an expanded Six Nations are answered – if ever? Both are still some way off competing at the required level and depth is a huge issue. It's a doubled-edged sword because without regular top-level competition, they'll never improve. How does the apparent stagnation of Italy's progress influence that argument?
Luckily, is seems that the world has a growing appetite for rugby. A recent report showed that global participation in the sport has increased by more than 50 per cent in less than a decade across the globe.
The report also stated that Sevens' Olympic inclusion will have greater long-term impact than the this year's World Cup as it has already been a catalyst for both funding and development. The future lies with the little guys.
A brave new future
Planet Rugby too has a bright future. Despite a series of technical challenges and hiccups, we finally now have a new mobile-friendly site, and an all-new forum is on its way.
It's been another massively busy year. A word of thanks to staffers Adam Kyriacou, Ben Coles, Dave Skippers and Paul Eddison and all our other contributors for their hard graft.
This will be my last year-end review as I move onto a new role in our parent company, OleMedia, and hand the reins over to Ben. Good luck to him and the rest of the team, I know they will serve you, our faithful readers, well.
Yours in Rugby,