From Exeter Chiefs’ historic European and domestic double to Argentina’s remarkable exploits, from France’s re-emergence as a force to Super Rugby Aotearoa, and taking in both England Six Nations title wins, we look back on the top 10 rugby union moments of a turbulent and disrupted 2020
By Sky Sports Rugby Union
Last Updated: 31/12/20 6:19am
We take a look at 10 of the best moments from 2020’s rugby union season, and delve into achievements from the northern and southern hemispheres…
10. Nigel Owens retires on 100 international Tests
Since 2001, Welsh referee Nigel Owens has graced the European game. He soon embarked onto the world stage and emerged as one of the most recognisable figures in the sport.
Owens refereed at Test level from 2003 and went on to officiate at four Rugby World Cups – 2007, 2011, 2015, and 2019 – achieving the ultimate accolade by refereeing the final at Twickenham in 2015.
In December 2020, the 49-year-old announced his retirement from international refereeing after a lengthy and stellar career, finishing on 100 Tests.
9. France come back to life
For all the unpredictability and excitement France offered in the past, the 2010s proved utterly predictable in the sense that Les Bleus never remotely challenged for a Six Nations title, finishing in the top two just once, and that was in 2011.
An unprecedented trophy-drought followed in a decade-long malaise, but in 2020, Les Bleus returned with a bang, playing a highly attractive brand of rugby which should have seen them clinch the Six Nations title.
A group of young and talented players have emerged to drive things, with plenty of depth, and there finally appears to be a settled half-back combination in 21-year-old Romain Ntamack and 24-year-old Antoine Dupont. In total, France have fielded 34 different half-back combinations since 2012, but now they are settled and playing brilliantly.
8. All Blacks pick up Tri-Nations
The All Blacks may not have been vintage in 2020, and the Rugby Championship/Tri-Nations may not have had a vintage year either, but come the end of it, New Zealand had their hands back on silverware.
The world champion Springboks pulled out due to lack of preparation time as a result of Covid-19, while the All Blacks were exceptionally fortunate not to lose at home to Australia for the first time since 2001 before it began, drawing 16-16 in Wellington.
During the Tri-Nations held in Australia, the All Blacks then lost two of their four fixtures – to Argentina for the first time ever, and to Australia too.
But, when the tournament finished, it was the All Black players who had the medals.
7. Leinster go unbeaten in PRO14 triumph
The 2019/20 PRO14 season may have been reduced by six games due to the effect of Covid-19, but for Leinster to go the season unbeaten in the course of winning the title was still a fantastic achievement.
In 15 regular-season games, Leinster proved perfect to top Conference A before going on to beat Munster and Ulster in the semi-final and final – both in Dublin.
The success was the first time in history a club has won three PRO14 (or Celtic League equivalent) titles in succession, and also the first occasion a side has avoided defeat in securing the title since the inaugural league in 2001.
6. England clinch Six Nations in October behind closed doors
Six Nations history was made in 2020 as for the first time ever, a side was crowned champions behind closed doors in October.
The 2001 championship – like 2020 – was actually delayed to October, but on that occasion it was an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Britain that caused three Tests in Ireland to be called off, and back then, the championship did finish in front of crowds.
In 2020, we saw four games called off due to Covid-19 – Ireland vs Italy in Round 4, and all three Round 5 fixtures: Wales vs Scotland, Italy vs England and France vs Ireland.
The fixtures were rescheduled for the final two weeks of October in front of empty stadiums, and though France played the most entertaining rugby and actually beat England well in Round 1, Eddie Jones’ men eventually won out on points difference due to a crucial losing bonus-point picked up late on in Paris.
5. Alun Wyn Jones breaks record for most Test caps
Wales legend Alun Wyn Jones equalled the world Test match appearance record of 148 when he captained Wales against France in October, and has since gone on to extend the record to 152 (143 Wales, 9 British & Irish Lions).
The 35-year-old lock played his 148th game in Paris to match the mark set by New Zealand’s World cup-winning skipper Richie McCaw.
4. Red Roses seal another Grand Slam
Like the men’s Six Nations, the Women’s championship was halted due to Covid-19 and restarted in October.
England’s Red Roses comprehensively displayed their quality by securing a 2020 Grand Slam, with a 54-0 win against Italy at Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi – their second Grand Slam triumph in succession and third in four years.
A flawless campaign in a near flawless era for Simon Middleton’s charges.
3. Super Rugby Aotearoa
The first country to restart with rugby after the initial period of Covid-19 lockdowns was New Zealand, which returned in the form of Super Rugby Aotearoa.
The conventional structure of Super Rugby between New Zealand, Australia and South Africa had to be abandoned in favour of separate competitions within the countries.
What followed was some of the best club rugby we have ever witnessed, as New Zealand’s five franchises played off in 10 successive weekends, producing some outstanding attacking play.
2. Exeter conquer Europe & the Premiership
In October, Heineken Champions Cup history was made as Exeter Chiefs became champions for the first time, defeating Racing 92 31-27 in a stunning final at Ashton Gate in Bristol.
Going all the way, Exeter’s glory capped a remarkable story – not least because of where the Chiefs have come from in such a short space of time.
The Chiefs had never experienced top-flight rugby until 2010 – and 20 years ago, they finished ninth in the third tier, below the Met Police. They shared a stadium with local speedway team Exeter Falcons up until 15 years ago, and as recently as 2008, the Chiefs were playing in front of less than 500 people.
They transitioned from Championship wanderers to a bona fide European force, and all in 10 years. Incredible.
For the four preceding years before 2020, the Chiefs also made the Premiership final in each year. They lost three of the four finals, however, and two in a row in 2018 and 2019. They broke that rut to clinch a historic double in 2020.
1. Pumas make history vs the All Blacks
To defeat the All Blacks for the first time is extremely special, but to beat them in the manner in which Argentina did, when taking into consideration the wider context, was nothing short of miraculous.
They did so having not played a Test in 13 months; 402 days. Having trained on their own, within their gardens and houses, with family, over Zoom calls for six months of quarantine in Argentina. More than 20 members tested positive for Covid-19 back in August and September.
Yet, at Bankwest Stadium in Sydney on November 14, 2020, history was made as Argentina pulled off what seemed impossible. A win against all odds. A monumental, worldwide sporting shock.