Best rugby moments of 2021 – From one-of-a-kind try to last-minute Lions decider

The new year is a time to pause and reflect on the important things in life—and 2021 provided a return nearer to rugby normalcy following the major disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic during the previous 12 months.

Fans of the sport were treated to magical moments at both club and international level, including a British and Irish Lions series in South Africa and French giants Toulouse clinching a rare European and domestic double.

It wasn't only the household names that found themselves in the headlines, however, as lesser-known teams and semi-pro players made waves with heroics deserving of their spot in the end-of-year honours.

Mirror Sport has catalogued a selection of the sport's major highlights from 2021, signing off with a trip down memory lane to capture the best rugby has had to offer over the past year.

10. Edd Howley's heads-up try

Even in a year where rugby celebrated a Lions tour, a Six Nations and the Rugby Championship's return, one of the best tries came courtesy of a player very few had even heard of prior to November.

Bridgend Ravens full-back Edd Howley went from relative unknown to social media superstar almost overnight after using his head to score in a Welsh Premiership Cup clash against Swansea:

Howley's was the kind of once-in-a-lifetime opportunity one might dream about as a player, winning the game for Bridgend in the final minutes with some of the best initiative one's likely to see at any level.

9. Uruguay beat USA to 2023 RWC

Uruguay are becoming a more frequent fixture at the Rugby World Cup and will feature in three consecutive editions of the tournament for the first time after beating the United States to qualify for France 2023.

The achievement was all the more spectacular after they lost the opening leg of their home-and-away shootout against the World Cup regulars 19-16, only to romp to a 34-15 triumph in the return leg in Montevideo one week later.

Los Teros remain some ways off closing the distance on South America's dominant power, Argentina, but Uruguay won over a legion of neutral fans thanks to one of, if not the most significant result in their history to date.

What was your favourite rugby moment of 2021? Let us know in the comments section.

8. Quade Cooper single-handedly saves Australian rugby

More an entire summer than one single moment, per se, but Quade Cooper's triumphant return to Wallabies duty will be best remembered for his injury-time winner against reigning world champions South Africa.

Four years on from his most recent Australia cap, the widely-held view was that Cooper's international days were behind him—especially at 33 years of age and with minimal prospects of making it to the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

Oh, how wrong we were.

Cooper had an instant impact in changing the fortunes for Dave Rennie's side and steered the Wallabies to successive wins over the Springboks and a surprise second-place finish at the Rugby Championship.

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7. Toulouse take home the double

A quarter of a century after winning both domestic and continental crowns, Toulouse repeated the feat in 2021 after hitting the peak of their powers under head coach Ugo Mola, edging French rivals La Rochelle in both finals.

There has rarely been a point in modern rugby when 'Le Stade' aren't expected to contend for the sport's top honours, but the club's 2020/21 squad was phenomenal even by their own high standards.

6. Ireland beat New Zealand (again)

Wins over New Zealand are becoming a lot like buses as far as Ireland are concerned—you wait 111 years for one, and then they start to arrive en masse.

The northern-hemisphere side went 28 meetings with the All Blacks before beating them for the first time in 2016, and a 29-20 victory at the Aviva Stadium in November made it three wins in their last five encounters.

There was something different about his display, however, which many in Irish circles would consider the most conclusive of its kind, even if New Zealand were nearing the end of a very demanding 2021.

Ireland's win was made all the more special due to the fact they had three Kiwi-born stars and former All Blacks hopefuls—James Lowe, Bundee Aki and Jamison Gibson-Park—in their starting XV.

5. Shaunagh Brown's Harlequins create history

“This is not just about rugby, this is not just about the sport, it’s about women, about women’s sport and it is about putting us on a platform, and knowing we can do it."

Those were the words from Harlequins prop Shaunagh Brown that had us in tears after guiding her team to a maiden Allianz Premier 15s title having defeated Saracens 25-17 in the decider.

The result carried special significance considering Quins had lost back-to-back Premier 15s finals to Sarries in 2018 and 2019, representing victory over the sport's overwhelmingly dominant force of recent years.

Regardless of where one's support lies, it was almost impossible not to feel the value it had for England star Brown in particular, celebrating the most publicised match of its kind as a landmark moment for women's sport in general.

4. Coach-less Quins are jesters no more

Speaking of the team from Twickenham, no wrap of 2021 would be complete without hailing the male counterparts who somehow beat Exeter Chiefs to a Premiership title next to no-one forecast at the start of the year.

Cutting ties with head coach Paul Gustard in January turned out to be an inspired decision by Harlequins, who ended their nine-year wait for an English title on the back of some of the Premiership 's most memorable matchups.

And they did it all while promoting some of the most electrifying rugby in club rugby, armed with a rag-tag corps of young stars including Marcus Smith, Alex Dombrandt, Tyrone Green, Louis Lynagh and more.

3. 14-man Scotland beat France in Paris

The rugby population of Wales became Scotland supporters for one day only towards the end of March when Wayne Pivac's side needed their northern neighbours to beat Les Bleus so that they could win the Six Nations.

And even despite the fact Finn Russell's late red card ensured they finished with only 14 on the field, Scotland duly delivered a 27-23 masterclass as Duhan van der Merwe broke French hearts five minutes past the 80th:

Scotland's first win in Paris since 1999, their third win in the last four meetings between the two teams and the most dramatic finale a Six Nations supporter could have dreamed of.

2. 'That' Morne Steyn kick

Van der Merwe found himself on the receiving end of heartbreak, however, when the much-maligned Lions tour of South Africa concluded with a familiar face crushing British spirits at the death.

That was after 37-year-old Morne Steyn came off the bench to play 16 of the most meaningful minutes in his career, coolly slotting the last-gasp penalty that would seal South Africa's 19-16 triumph, and the series to boot:

As if the nature of his match-winner didn't hurt Lions fans enough, 68-cap veteran Steyn turned the screw by calling time on his Test career just a couple of months later.

1. All Blacks fade to Les Bleus

If Test rugby is taken to represent the best the sport has to offer, then last month's melee between France and New Zealand was the proverbial Everest in terms of accumulated talent on one field of play.

Meetings between this pair have long been regarded as a miniature derby of sorts given their long, illustrious histories, but France entered their autumn clash without a win over the All Blacks since 2009.

One had to trace back to 2000 to find Les Bleus last home win against New Zealand, meanwhile, but a 40-25 triomphe put an abrupt end to that rut—and in some style.

Romain Ntamack, Damian Penaud and Peato Mauvaka (two) were the try-scorers against an All Blacks side that—while admittedly fatigued following a long year of rugby—are still arguably the form team in rugby.

In the end, Christophe Galthie's side—inspired in no small part by World Rugby Player of the Year, Antoine Dupont—made the seemingly impossible look routine in a game that hinted at a major power shift in the international arena.

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