RUGBY.com.au 2018 biggest stories 10-6: Pocock's glittering rugby return, Castle starts as Rugby AU CEO

by Staff Writer

As 2018 comes to an end, RUGBY.com.au is looking back at some of the biggest stories of the year.

From the on-field triumphs to the moments that had people talking off the rugby pitch, rugby had some major ups and downs in 2018.

Today, we're looking at the storylines that stretched over much of the year.

RUGBY.com.au 2018 biggest stories 20-16: Mafi charged, Stannard forced into early retirement

RUGBY.com.au 2018 biggest stories 15-11: Thrilling June Series, Petaia's rise, Cheika stays on

10. Quade Cooper’s journey to the Rebels


Technically, this story began in December of 2017, when Quade Cooper was told he wouldn't be required at Reds training for 2018, despite being contracted through to 2019.

Though he had been on the outer at international level that season, the news that he wouldn't be donning the Queensland colours came as a shock to many punters.

Not keen for another overseas sojourn after a short-lived Toulon stint in 2017, Cooper opted to ply his trade in club rugby with Souths as he tried to regain favour with Reds coach Brad Thorn.

Thorn had kept the door open for Cooper initially to potentially stay in Queensland, albeit with a long list of caveats.

Arguably the highest-paid club rugby player ever, Cooper threw himself into premier grade as a mentor off the field and its captain on the field while his former Reds teammates were battling it out in Super Rugby.

While Cooper was adamant for much of the year that he was content to continue playing for Souths as long as required, Wallabies coaches were quick to point out they wouldn't be picking Test players straight out of club rugby.

Quade Cooper was forced off early in Souths' win over Wests. Photo: QRU Media/Brendan HertelRugby Australia CEO Raelene Castle admitted the situation "wasn't perfect", and with a relative lack of experienced playmakers in Australia's Super Rugby sides, moves were attempted to find Cooper a new home.

The Rebels had shown interest in Cooper and while the enigmatic playmaker initially rebuffed the Melbourne franchise, in September this year RUGBY.com.au revealed a Melbourne move was back on the radar.

Rebels coach Dave Wessels made no secret of his desire to bring Cooper down south and he was eventually successful.

A reunion with Will Genia, the chance to lead a star-studded backline and a Super Rugby opportunity being his only possible path back to the Wallabies, Cooper snapped up the chance and officially signed with the Rebels in November.

9. Castle's first year as CEO


Raelene Castle was announced as Rugby AU CEO last December but did not officially start in the job until January this year, with stability the theme of her first media conference on day one.

“(We want to see) some stability and some moving forward that people can see across all those different things - the performance of the Wallabies, community engagement, making sure we've got some strong commercial programs in place,” she said at the time.

Little did she know the challenges that would come at her in her first year in the job - a lean season for the Wallabies and a string of unforeseen challenges.

Just three months in, Castle and Rugby AU became somewhat of an accidental case study when Israel Folau was pulled into headquarters over a string of homophobic social media posts.

A month later, she faced media to confirm the suspension of James Slipper over two positive tests for cocaine.

The future of Wallabies coach Michael Cheika was a constant question for Castle throughout the year, ultimately addressed in December with the appointment of Scott Johnson as a director of rugby.

Outside of the top level of the game, Rugby Australia was able to trumpet some strong grassroots news and growth in schools programs but Castle will likely be hoping for a smoother 2019.

8. Forrest's World Series Rugby kicks off

Andrew Forrest and Force captain Ian Prior soak up the atmosphere. Photo: Getty ImagesAndrew Forrest was one of rugby's most familiar faces in 2017 and this year he put some of his talking into fruition with the launch of World Series Rugby.

The Force faced teams from the Pacific islands as well as Japanese Top League side the Pansonic Wild Knights, trialing a number of new rule innovations in the process.

His competition gave a chance to a number of players and it will take a step further in 2019, rebranding to Global Rapid Rugby and expanding to more teams.

Gone are the terms 'rebel league' that appeared when he first floated his idea of this competition, with Australia and New Zealand most recently reportedly signing a memorandum of understanding with Forrest to work together and respect each other's competitions when it comes to player recruitment and scheduling especially.

Whether Global Rapid Rugby becomes a long-term force in its current format is yet to be seen but it will be keenly watched by plenty of rugby fans in 2019.

7.  Officials face tough review in roller coaster year

Israel Folau has been cited for a contest in Sydney. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart WalmsleyThis was as controversial a year in officiating as there has been in recent memory.

Frustrations over the use of TMO prompted a SANZAAR review in Super Rugby in July with CEO Andy Marinos saying it was "clearly not working".

It wasn't just the Super Rugby system that prompted some confusion as the game adapted to a crackdown on no-arms tackles and contact to the head.

A contentious suspension for Israel Folau in June triggered a law change by the end of the year, with a duty of care in one-man lifts shifted to lifters in aerial contests to avoid a repeat of Peter O'Mahony's awkward fall in Sydney.

Across the ditch, France fullback Benjamin Fall was red carded for his own aerial contest with All Blacks flyhalf Beauden Barrett, a punishment that was later rescinded.

November threw up another round of conversation around tackle safety with Owen Farrell twice avoiding sanction for a no-arm tackle - first against Springboks back Andre Esterhuizen and then in a try-stopping effort against lock Izack Rodda.

Polarising rule trials like the "nipple rule" lowering the legal tackle height were thrown out after practical tests but the challenge of balancing player safety and maintaining consistency and clarity remains one of rugby's biggest.

6. Pocock back with a bang but future hangs on his health


David Pocock became somewhat of a polarising rugby figure in his year-long sabbatical and that became even more so when he missed the first month of the Super Rugby season with an injury.

Whatever fans' views on his time away from Australian rugby, there were few who could criticise his performances once he did make his Brumbies, and Wallabies comeback.

Pocock won his second John Eales Medal in October this year, despite missing the first five Tests in the voting period and another through injury in 2018, a nod to his consistency since he returned.

The openside was a beast for the Wallabies in the June Series and though it was one of his quieter Super Rugby campaigns, his presence clearly lifted his teammates.

His year, though, was also punctuated by concerns over lingering neck soreness that forced him out of two Tests.

The Brumbies and Wallabies voiced concerns over opponents targeting Pocock and the flanker admitted as late as December that he had opted against taking a summer holiday because he needed to work on fixing his neck.

Pocock missed two Tests with the neck pain and admitted at times he was worried about his rugby future because of the recurring issue.

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