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01st Jan 2014

Six of the best: JOE’s best rugby matches of 2013

There were plenty of thrills, spills, excitement and no shortage of disappointment in 2013 and in the end, the All-Blacks invariably won. Here are our six favourite matches from what was an eventful twelve months in the world of rugby union.

Conor Heneghan

There were plenty of thrills, spills, excitement and no shortage of disappointment in 2013 and in the end, the All-Blacks invariably won. Here are our six favourite matches from what was an eventful twelve months in the world of rugby union.

6. Six Nations, Wales 22-30 Ireland

It is a game that will be remembered for THAT Zebo flick (see below), but there was so much more to what made for a thrilling opening to this year’s Six Nations. Playing some scintillating rugby, Ireland raced into a 20-point half-time lead in front of a shell-shocked crowd at the Millennium Stadium and increased it to 27 shortly after the break thanks to that man Brian O’Driscoll, who had earlier produced a moment of magic to set up a try for Zebo.

Wales showed plenty of character to come within touching distance in the second half but Ireland held on for a victory that, at the time, looked like it might pave the way for a very satisfying campaign. The less said about what followed, the better.

5. Lions Tour first test, Australia 21-23 British and Irish Lions

The Lions Tour is surrounded by an awful lot of hype in this day and age, but the first test undoubtedly lived up to it. And then some.

That the Lions won by a brace of points was more down to Australia’s kicking woes, first through James O’Connor and then Kurtley ‘Slippery as a’ Beale than the performance of the tourists, but there was still a lot to admire about the performance of the men in red, not least the individual display of George North, who had a ding dong battle with the brilliant Israel Folau on the opposition side.

That battle was to continue, in fairly epic fashion, during the second test…

4. Heineken Cup quarter-final, Harlequins 12-18 Munster

The big man returns. Munster may have delivered arguably their best performance of the season to topple a fancied ‘Quins side at the Stoop, but one man stood out above the rest. That man, of course, was Paul O’Connell, who bestrode this game like a colossus as Ronan O’Gara out-kicked Nick Evans to secure a place in the semi-finals for Rob Penney’s men.

O’Connell was immense and he set the tone for a performance that was full of intensity, full of passion and full of old-school Munster values, qualities on show when the men in red nearly repeated the trick against Clermont on their own turf at the penultimate stage.

3. November Internationals, Ireland 22-24 New Zealand

Even now it pains us to think about it, but then you have to remember that we were mere seconds away from what would probably go down as one of the greatest performances ever by an Irish team.

The All-Blacks deserve huge credit for the manner in which they won the game at the death through Ryan Crotty, but up until that point, or at least the hour mark, Joe Schmidt’s side had rocked New Zealand with a brilliant display that brought them closer to defeat than they had ever been in a perfect 14/14 season.

Devastating though it was, the performance of so many individuals offers hope for the future, but only if we can back it up and backing up one-off performances has been a problem for the Irish team since the Grand Slam success of 2009.

2. Heineken Cup, Toulouse 14-16 Connacht

Irish sides have claimed the Heineken Cup on six occasions since the competition began, but Connacht’s victory over Toulouse earlier in the month will go down as one of the all-time great performances by an Irish team and rightly so.

The Westerners’ horrid away form and rotten run going into the game suggested they were in for a shellacking in the south of France, but instead they became the first team to come away from there with a Heineken Cup win in five years.

And, although there was only two points in it at the end, Connacht hung on pretty comfortably and would have won by more had a brilliant Robbie Henshaw try not been harshly disallowed late on.

A result that will go down in folklore in Connacht and beyond and one that was done plenty of justice by the peerless Michael Corcoran on RTE radio.

1. Rugby Championship, South Africa 27 – 38 New Zealand

Of all the 14 victories that the All-Blacks claimed in 2013, this was probably the sweetest and, barring their win over Ireland, of course, offered the most tangible proof that they were nigh on unbeatable in the past 12 months.

Needing a bonus point victory by more than seven points to claim the Rugby Championship title, hosts South Africa threw the kitchen sink at their illustrious visitors and managed to score four tries and 28 points in a typically defiant display on home turf.

The problem for the Springboks was that New Zealand hit them with five tries and 38 points in return to claim their sixth win from six games in the competition en route to a perfect season that won’t be seen for a long time again. Unless they do it again next year, of course.