IT HAS BEEN A SURPRISINGLY GOOD, or maybe that should be productive, 12 months for rugby.
More happened than is probably realised. It was in fact a year of getting things done and significant changes were made, most of which, despite being long overdue, will have a positive if not necessarily immediate impact.
One of those major changes actually took place in late 2016 when Dr Farah Palmer was appointed to the board of the New Zealand Rugby Union.
Last year, without question, had been tumultuous and at times quite worryingly illuminating as to the true state of lingering misogynistic attitudes and cultures.
The arrival of Dr Palmer to the previously all-male board was at least a start in addressing some the chronic lack of diversity in administrative and executive positions across the game.
One appointment is hardly reason for celebration or cause for optimism but what also happened this year is that the provincial unions agreed to change the constitution of the NZR.
Now this could easily be dismissed as far too dry, dull and boring to care about, but it was quite a big deal. The summary here is that it became easier for boards to appoint greater numbers of independent candidates and, in time, it will see more female and non-white faces around the decision-making table.
Rugby in New Zealand should, in time, be something other than male, pale and stale at the executive level, and with a more expansive range of life experience in the mix, goodness knows, the game may be infiltrated with good, creative ideas that lead to player and spectator growth.
Also in the significant change category, obviously, was the decision to cut Super Rugby from 18 teams to 15 next year. We could be smug and say that from day one, earlier, we were clear that expansion was going to end in tears.
It was a bad, bad idea bringing in three new teams into such a bloated format and with a format that was complex and not particularly fair either.
We didn’t like being right but we were and the game in this part of the world suffered as a result. Crowds are down everywhere. TV audiences have dropped, sponsors are suddenly harder to come by and the number of players who have headed offshore from both Australia and South Africa in the last two years is worryingly high.
It was screaming out for change as the situation was untenable: Super Rugby was going to be broken forever if Sanzaar sat on its hands, and yet, we all thought was going to do exactly that... sit on its hands.
It is not renowned as being a dynamic or responsive organisation and agreeing to change would be an admission that it had been wrong to expand just two years previously.
We thought they would dig in, be ultra stubborn and refuse to lose face. But in fairness, they made a good decision and while the execution of it – the shenanigans in Australia – was painful to watch, they finally got there in the end and Super Rugby might be a lot more interesting next year.
Certainly it will have more credibility and integrity with the draw being a little easier to understand.
The other big change will take time to kick on but will eventually have a major impact. World Rugby has finally agreed to challenge the current eligibility laws and extend the residency period from three years to five.
Again, we have banged on about this for an age – arguing that the credibility and integrity of the international game have been compromised by the current law that means players can qualify for a nation in which they were not born if they live there for three consecutive years.
Too many players have washed up in test jerseys they never coveted or dreamt about wearing. What’s particularly bad is the increasing trend towards socalled project players who are signed in collaboration between clubs and national unions with a development plan on how they will break into the test team once their three year residency has been served.
It’s utter nonsense and finally enough people have realised and voted to extend the residency period to five years from 2020. It will take a while for this change to really bite, but it will and it should do plenty to change the balance of world rugby and make a test jersey a more prized possession than they currently are at times.
Those three changes alone made 2017 a year of major change, but it was also a year in which tradition and old school values came to the fore.
The Lions completed a tour of New Zealand that was never dull and as best they could, they tried to make it a tour where they had a few nights out and did something other than endlessly train and play.
What they did was remind everyone – and their fans helped with this – that rugby is more than a sport. It is a means to bring people together, to enjoy a shared passion and ultimately become friends.
And an even more powerful reminder of this came at Murrayfield when former Scottish lock Doddie Weir carried the match ball on to the field, flanked by his three sons.
Doddie has been diagnosed with motor neurone disease but in the way that only he can, he is refusing to be beaten by it or feel sorry for himself and is raising money to help all those who suffer from it.
It was an emotional moment to see him make it out to the middle of a ground he once ruled as a world class player not so long ago.