It was another Covid-hit year for rugby union, with the Six Nations and the British and Irish Lions tour both taking place without supporters; events usually so synonymous with the vibrancy of the fans.
But there were many memorable moments and matches across all forms of the game.
Exciting rugby, dour rugby, joy, despair, extraordinary video rants… 2021 had it all.
Have a read of some of our moments of the year – and vote for yours too.
Scotland end Twickenham wait
Scotland fans waited 38 years to win at Twickenham; and when it happened, they weren’t allowed in the stadium.
But despite being behind closed doors, this was a Calcutta Cup classic, with Scotland full value for their 11-6 win over a scruffy England.
Duhan van der Merwe’s first-half score proved the difference, while debutant centre Cameron Redpath looked to the manner born with a sublime performance.
This was a landmark victory for Gregor Townsend’s side that sets up beautifully the opening game of the 2022 Championship – against England at Murrayfield.
Wales’ Grand Slam dream dies
Written off before the tournament – Wales were 33/1 to win the Grand Slam – Wayne Pivac’s side were four wins from four ahead of the showdown in France.
They had ridden their luck, capitalising on red cards for Ireland and Scotland as well as some major decisions going their way against England, but had played some lovely stuff too, with wing Louis Rees-Zammit breaking through on the Test stage.
With 13 minutes remaining in Paris, Wales led by 10 points with France also down a man; the Grand Slam sealed, surely.
But deep into added time Brice Dulin crossed to break Welsh hearts in dramatic fashion.
Scotland’s win in Paris a week later ensured Wales at least had the consolation of the Six Nations title.
Quins’ Premiership miracle
Harlequins’ first Premiership match of 2021 ended in a draw at home to London Irish, a game which was to be Paul Gustard’s last in charge.
What happened thereafter was extraordinary, as the coach-less Quins’ run of form took them to fourth in the table and a remarkable extra-time win at Bristol in the semi-final.
Quins then prevailed 40-38 against Exeter in one of the all-time great Twickenham finals, playing ambitious, happy rugby as rookies Alex Dombrandt, Marcus Smith and Louis Lynagh collaborated with club legends Joe Marler and Danny Care.
It capped a miracle month for the club, with Quins women claiming their first Premier 15s title by beating Saracens in May.
Erasmus goes nuclear
It says a lot that the most memorable episode of the British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa happened away from the field.
After the Lions edged the first Test, Springboks director of rugby Rassie Erasmus went nuclear, recording an-hour long video slamming the officiating.
Erasmus was later banned, not just for the video’s content but also for privately threatening and intimidating referee Nic Berry.
It was an episode which soured the tour, but the video had its desired effect as South Africa worked their way back into the series with a thumping win in a messy second Test, with the officials paralysed with fear as the match lasted in excess of two hours.
The Springboks clinched a brutal Test series a week later.
Olympic sevens joy
Juxtaposed with the rancour of the Lions tour was the joy of the Tokyo Olympic sevens.
There were heart-warming stories everywhere: Team GB making it to the Games despite the programme being disbanded, Fiji winning their first ever women’s Olympic medal with bronze and – under the tutelage of Welshman Gareth Baber – becoming back-to-back champions in the men’s competition.
And who could forget Ruby Tui’s interview with the BBC’s Jill Douglas? “We’re at the Olympics. Let’s be happy. Let’s compete safely and peacefully. Peace and love.”
Red Roses’ record wins
It was initially uncertain how England would fare against world champions New Zealand in November after the Red Roses were pushed hard by France in the inaugural Women’s Six Nations final earlier in the year.
But while the Black Ferns were badly undercooked having not played for two years, England were superb, winning 43-12 at Sandy Park before another record victory a week later in Northampton, this time by 56-15.
Following Katy Daly-Mclean’s retirement, Zoe Harrison made the 10 shirt her own, while namesake Aldcroft’s consistent excellence on the flank led to her winning World Rugby Player of the Year.
Ireland beat New Zealand
Following the victories over New Zealand in Chicago in 2016 and two years later in Dublin, the 2021 edition of Ireland’s trilogy was arguably the most impressive, as Andy Farrell presided over his most significant win in charge of the national side.
Veteran fly-half Johnny Sexton showed he can still cut it at the top aged 36, while Joey Carbery saw the game out following his long-standing injury issues. Can Ireland kick on from here?
Youthful England’s World Cup revenge
At the start of 2020, England boss Eddie Jones boldly proclaimed his side aimed to become the “greatest of all time”.
But England had stuttered since the 2019 World Cup in Japan, winning matches in prosaic style through 2020 before the wheels came off in the 2021 Six Nations, finishing fifth.
Jones jettisoned some England greats ahead of the autumn, putting faith in the likes of Marcus Smith at fly-half and Freddie Steward at full-back.
This “new England”, with captain Owen Farrell injured, came storming out of the blocks against South Africa, and although the world champions wrestled back momentum in the second half, Raffi Quirke’s fine try and Smith’s late penalty ensured a memorable win in front of an enraptured Twickenham.
French Flair in Paris
If 2020 hinted France were back as a global force, 2021 confirmed it, with Les Bleus saving their best until last as they toppled the All Blacks.
The key moment came on the hour mark as fly-half Romain Ntamack launched a brilliant length-of-the-field counter-attack which was to prove decisive.
It was classic French rugby, reminiscent of Philippe Saint-Andre at Twickenham in 1991 and Jean-Luc Sadourney’s try from the “End of the World” in New Zealand in 1994; a legendary score which featured Romain’s father, Emile.
But while Ntamack started it, there was no surprise scrum-half Antoine Dupont was also involved. Dupont was superb all year for club and country and a deserving winner of the men’s Player of the Year award.
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