Biggest stories 5-1: Sydney 7s triumph, Ireland set down World Cup marker

by staff

As 2018 comes to an end, 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.

For the final day of the year, it's time to celebrate the 2018 biggest stories 20-16: Mafi charged, Stannard forced into early retirement 2018 biggest stories 15-11: Thrilling June Series, Petaia's rise, Cheika stays on 2018 biggest stories 10-6: Pocock's glittering rugby return, Castle starts as Rugby AU CEO

5. Aussie schools finish on a high

Australia's Schools and U18s side gave rugby fans plenty of reason for hope this year as they dominated opponents in 

They won four of their five matches against U19 sides in Scotland and Ireland, only suffering a last-second loss to the Ulster U19s in their second match of the tour.

Big victories came against Ireland U19s and the Scotland U19s as the next generation of rugby stars stood up.

A host of that team will be among Super Rugby squads in 2019 and flyhalf Reesjan Pasitoa has already been snapped up by the Brumbies for 2020, despite having another year of school to go.

Of the current Australian Schools and U18s crop Pasitoa, props Apinesa Driti (Brumbies) and Angus Bell (Waratahs), lock Jeremy Williams (Waratahs), No.8 Will Harris (Waratahs) and centres Joey Walton and Angus Bell (Australian Sevens) have all either confirmed or understood to have signed on the dotted line for 2019 or beyond.

4. Super W closes with epic final in big year for women's rugby

This past year was a major one for women's rugby and women's XVs especially.

The inaugural Super W tournament kicked off in February and ended in April with an extra-time thriller to decide the title.

Queensland and NSW finished as the top two teams and faced off ahead of the Waratahs-Lions Super Rugby clash for the first championship.

After the domestic tournament, the Wallaroos played their first home Test in a decade and the first match for which they received match payments, when they faced the Black Ferns in Sydney in a Bledisloe double header.

Those trans-Tasman encounters are set to become annual, a huge step forward for the Aussie women whose Tests have been few and far between in the past.

The Wallaroos are hoping to play at last five Tests in 2019 as they prepare for the 2021 Women's Rugby World Cup in New Zealand.

3. Drua make fairytale run to NRC title

The Fijian Drua took the NRC title in just their second season in the competition after beating QLD Country in this year's final.

The first off-shore team to be included in the NRC in 2017 in a bid to help the Pacific Island nation they turned their potential into form in 2018, losing just one match through their title-winning campaign.

Led by rising star Alivereti Veitokani the Drua had weapons right across the park and used them against their opponents.

Where road trips were once a challenge, the Fijians were intimidating away from home as well as on familiar turf in 2018.

A defeat to Country was their only loss of the regular season but they reversed the result in the competition's decider, 36-26.

Their success was inspiring to their growing fan base and coach Senirusi Seruvakula said they wanted to continue to give some heroes to the rugby-mad public.

Though it appears a Fijian side will feature in the new Global Rapid Rugby tournament in 2019 and the Drua have a long future in the NRC as well.

2. Ireland-New Zealand encounter sets up huge 2019

Ireland clinched a thrilling win over Ireland. Photo: Getty imagesInternational rugby was at its best around the globe in 2018, setting the scene for one of the most competitive World Cups in 2019.

Ireland's enthralling 16-9 win over New Zealand iced the Test cake in Dublin in 2018 but it isn't just the teams right at the top becoming more competitive.

In the November internationals, Fiji shocked France and Wales ended a decade-long losing streak against the Wallabies and ending the year with nine straight Test wins 

England pushed the All Blacks to the brink in November, after a slow start in the 2018 Six Nations.

The Springboks also pinched a win over New Zealand in the Rugby Championship under new coach Rassie Erasmus.

Stretching back to June, the Wallabies beat Ireland to open their inbound series in Brisbane and the USA sprung upsets over an admittedly understrength Scotland side.

While results a year away from the World Cup aren't always the best indicator of how the tournament will turn out but this season has produced some stunning encounters across the board, making tips for not just winners but even quarter-finalists and pool winners difficult ones.

1. Sevens history made in Sydney, on the Gold Coast

The Aussie Sevens have won the Sydney 7s. Photo: WalmsleyThere weren't too many trophies in the Australian cabinet in 2018 but the season began with a bang on home soil as the Aussie Sevens claimed an historic men's-women's double in Sydney.

To say Australia's women dominated the competition would be an understatement as the eventual World Series champions  swept through the competition without conceding a score.

The women scored 213 unanswered points in their six tournament matches, the first team to achieve such a feat in a World Series leg and claiming their first Sydney title.

It was a far cry from the disappointment of their inaugural Sydney 7s outing, a fourth-place finish.

For the men, the Sydney win was a drought-breaking victory and their first Cup triumph since 2012.

Their title victory came in emphatic fashion as well with a 29-0 win over World Series heavyweights South Africa.

The women followed up their Sydney win with one of the most thrilling Sevens finals in history when they faced New Zealand in the Commonwealth Games gold medal final.

Though that game finished in the Kiwis' favour it was as positive an advertisement for women's rugby as any after an extra-time period was required to decide the game.

While there were mixed fortunes for the Sevens sides this year, the Sydney tournament was one of Australia's biggest rugby highlights in 2018.