What a weekend that was! Surprises galore and expectations shattered – but as a spectacle we couldn’t have asked for a better opening weekend. We had been wary of England but they ended up being the star performers of the weekend. Wales went missing completely in the first half of their match in Paris, while the French did the same in the second half. Meanwhile Scotland as expected did the business in Edinburgh, but as they tend to do fell asleep for fifteen minutes once they thought the game was comfortably won allowing Italy to come storming back into proceedings. However, perhaps the biggest shock of all was how tournament favourites Ireland, were denied the opportunity to play by a rampant England who played them at their own game but then took it to another level. How much the tone for the rest of the tournament has been set, especially by England remains to be seen but it was definitely an opening weekend that gave us plenty to think about heading into Round 2.

The opening match in Paris as France took on Wales had us speechless by the end of the first forty minutes. Where were Wales and what was this brutally physical and free-flowing French team, that combined a new-found aggression with their flair of days gone by? France dominated a Welsh side that appeared completely unprepared for what they were facing. Once Wales did figure it out, it was France who faded into obscurity in the second half, made worse by the kind of errors in execution that have sadly become part and parcel of French efforts in the last few years.

As predicted Scotland put in a mesmerizing display of attacking rugby against an Italian side that all too quickly conformed to expectations. However, Scotland fell asleep dramatically in the 65th minute, and all of a sudden for the next thirteen minutes the match was all about Italy as they ran in three unanswered tries in quick succession. In the process they highlighted some players that could definitely catch the eye this year and show that there is perhaps more to the Azurri than meets the eye. While Scotland were clearly the dominant side for the majority of the match and looked well organised and absolutely lethal in any kind of space, they will know that the kind of lapses in concentration they showed in the final quarter of the game,will see them put to the sword by a wounded Ireland this weekend.

As riveting as the two openers were, there was no denying that all eyes were ultimately drawn to the weekend’s main event – the clash between Ireland and England in Dublin. England had shown in November that they were back and mean business after the horror show that was their 2018 Six Nations campaign. Meanwhile as Grand Slam champions and an All Black scalp to boot, Ireland were the team to beat. What we witnessed was perhaps one of the most impressive English displays in a very long time. In reality it wasn’t just a masterful display by England, it was one of the most complete Test performances by any team since the last World Cup. England took Ireland on at their own game, and simply played a better and more masterful version of it. Ireland were simply not expecting it, and as a result failed to adapt and for much of the match looked bereft of ideas. They had become so reliant on their own brand of devastatingly effective and efficient rugby, that to have someone else take the blueprint and throw it back at you at twice the intensity, clearly left the Men in Green shell-shocked to say the least.

Ireland were soundly beaten by an English side that were masters of everything they tried their hand at in Dublin last Saturday. If England can build on this momentum and adapt it to the play styles of different sides in the competition, there is no doubt that the title of front-runner is probably theirs to hang onto, at least heading into this weekend. As for Ireland, they have may have received a much-needed and timely shock to the system, but to write them off after only one upset would be folly of the highest order. They still possess a strength in-depth that is the envy of most teams, and with one of the sharpest minds in the International game in the shape of Coach Joe Schmidt, Ireland are likely to come storming back with a vengeance this weekend in Edinburgh. Down but definitely not out!

So without further ado, let’s look ahead to the action this weekend and what has got us talking this week.

Scotland vs Ireland – Saturday, February 9th – Edinburgh

Scotland apart from a ten minute blip, albeit one which leaked 3 tries, looked sharp last weekend. Ireland on the other hand did not look so sharp, with several of their key playmakers looking decidedly undercooked. Ireland’s loss to England at home in Dublin in front of the Aviva faithful would have stung, and Scotland know they will have to face the wrath of a wounded Ireland.

Scotland’s free-flowing attacking rugby was a joy to watch last weekend, but it is highly unlikely that Ireland will give the likes of fullback Stuart Hogg and company the kind of space and freedom that Italy allowed them to operate in last Saturday. Scotland winger Blair Kinghorn stole the show last weekend with his hat trick of tries but this week sees him confined to the bench and a more experienced set of wingers attempting to contain the menace of Ireland’s Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale, even though the two Irishmen were somewhat off the boil last weekend.

Scotland know that if they walk away with a win, against what is expected to be a much more convincing Irish performance, then they could well be in contention for a shot at the title. However, that is assuming they can handle two tough away assignments against England and France and dispatch a Welsh side that didn’t exactly inspire a sense of shock and awe last Friday in Paris.

Ireland meanwhile know that anything less than an emphatic victory at Murrayfield means that their Six Nations is all but over this year, with only the promise of the World Cup to look forward to. However, heading into the World Cup after a poor Six Nations is not exactly the best tonic for a team, that faces the threat of elimination once more in the quarter finals should they not get past either New Zealand or South Africa. Ireland know they need to finish this tournament strongly, and a loss tomorrow would put any such aspirations beyond reach at least in terms of the Six Nations. In short, we are set up for one hell of a contest and probably THE game of the weekend!

Scotland’s front row stood up well and Ireland’s needs to do the same this week

It’s been a rare sight in recent times to see Ireland’s front row bossed around, but that is precisely what happened against England last week. Meanwhile Scotland held up well against Italy, but with no disrespect to Italy the Azurri are not renown for their scrummaging prowess and this weekend will be a much different prospect. We can’t imagine that Ireland will take the lessons of last weekend lightly and expect to see props Furlong and Healy back to their bruising best this Saturday. Add to that a gritty Irish bench to take over in the front row and much of what happens here will give us a clue to who will be in the ascendancy. Despite what happened last weekend, all signs would appear to favor the Men in Green. If Scotland get the better of them here, then it will perhaps be the biggest statement of intent in terms of their title aspirations. In short a key contest on Saturday.

The Rory Best question

We almost felt disloyal last week in some of our concerns regarding Rory Best. However, after watching the instantaneous impact that Sean Cronin had last Saturday when he came off the bench, the concern still holds. The question is not about Best’s efforts and leadership, but more as to how soon in this match Cronin will make an appearance. Ireland’s lineout throws got tighter and Ireland simply looked more dynamic in their driving mauls once Cronin came on. Given the role that Cronin is likely to play in the forthcoming World Cup, the need to give him more and more big game time such as a match like this is becoming ever more pressing.

Ireland takes a gamble in the second row

While James Ryan was one of the few Irish players who stood out against England, the loss of Devin Toner was a genuine blow even if the giant lock didn’t have one of his best games. Consequently, it will be a big Test to see if Quinn Roux can bring his stellar form at Connacht to the Test arena, but if he does it will tick yet another depth box for Coach Joe Schmidt. Roux is bolstered from the bench by his fellow Connacht teammate Ultan Dillane, who would also appear to be getting back to his best after a long battle with injury. The Irishmen will be up against one of Scotland’s finest in the form of Jonny Gray, and with Ryan likely to last the full eighty minutes it will be a golden opportunity for the boys from Connacht.

Scotland have found a real gem in Jamie Ritchie and as a result a back row that may give Ireland some grief

The loss of John Barclay due to injury was a bitter blow to the Scots, but we were exceptionally impressed by Jamie Ritchie last weekend as well as in November. Scotland have found a genuine talent, albeit still slightly raw, but a very exciting prospect for the World Cup. Ireland’s offering in the back row should be able to cope, but while perhaps not as much as last weekend it will still be stretched. Josh Strauss had a stellar game for Scotland last weekend and Ryan Wilson needs no introduction.

How will Scotland’s silky centres face up to the bruising physicality of Ireland in the centre of the park?

Tomorrow’s centre battles have a real beauty and the beast tinge to them. Scotland’s Huw Jones and Sam Johnson ran some exquisite lines last weekend, but Ireland’s Bundee Aki and Chris Farrell provide some bruising go forward ball that is very difficult to bring down. Which style has the ascendancy tomorrow will say much as to how this match ultimately plays out.

Verdict

It is hard to see Ireland taking two back to back losses in this year’s Six Nations. However, two years ago Murrayfield was not a happy hunting ground for them. If their confidence is rattled and Scotland get the upper hand early, especially with the crowd in full voice behind them, Ireland could see history repeat itself for them and their Six Nations campaign be all but over before it has really begun. Scotland have their tails up and are fielding an exceptionally capable team which, if it holds its nerve, could cause Ireland all sorts of problems especially if they are allowed to run the ball. However, Ireland still would seem to have too much pedigree behind them to slip up twice. It should be a cracker with Ireland looking to shut down Scotland’s back line and neutralise fly half Finn Russell from the outset. Consequently, it may not be the highest scoring game, but one in which we expect Ireland will just have a slightly better big game temperament. A tight and edgy game, with moments of brilliance from both sides, but one which Ireland should just get the upper hand in by four points!

Italy vs Wales – Saturday, February 9th – Rome

Italy sadly appeared to be the only team true to the form books last Saturday in Edinburgh. There was that glorious ten minute burst in the second half where they caught the Scots napping not just once but three times. However, they were chasing a lead that despite that brilliant passage of play was still utterly beyond their grasp. Wales on the other hand, had us wondering what all the fuss was about in terms of them being genuine title contenders when referee Wayne Barnes blew the half time whistle, and Wales found themselves staring at a 16-0 score line in favor of the French. Wales did make a remarkable recovery in a game of two halves, but even then they didn’t exactly blow the French away. There were some brilliant Welsh performances in the second half, make no mistake, but one still can’t gloss over that complete first half capitulation to the French. Wales looked beyond ordinary in the first half and on the basis of that, plus a relatively inexperienced side, Italy may just fancy their chances at home and given that remarkable passage of play by them last weekend in Edinburgh which showed us that there is still plenty of life left in the Azurri jersey.

Wales need some big points on Saturday, but we are not sure they have picked the team to do it.

Italy have stuck with a side that at times showed some genuine spark last weekend, and at home that could easily get ratched up a few gears. Wales however, have gone with a more experimental flavor. Is this over confidence that could end up backfiring on them or a necessary investment aimed at furthering Welsh depth for the World Cup? There are some notable omissions which we find hard to justify even if the belief is that Italy remains a soft target. Given a rather lacklustre performance last weekend which saw Wales come short on the points haul, teams invariably tend to use their fixture with Italy to help their points difference on the table. It’s a gamble from Wales but we are not convinced that it may pay off ,even though we side with the view that the match is theirs to win.

Where is Justin Tipuric?

Given that he was arguably the best Welsh player on the field last Saturday for the full eighty minutes, we find it remarkable that he doesn’t even make the bench for this match. While we appreciate that a player of such value perhaps needs to be rested, is now the right time to do it, especially as it means he will be without game time in three weeks before Wales’ crucial encounter with England. We feel this is a decision Wales could well regret especially if Italy suddenly turn into a banana skin.

Rattle Dan Biggar and Italy could profit, but if not expect the scoreboard to tick over continuously

It was interesting how much Biggar settled Wales last weekend once he came on, however, we also hold that get under his skin, throw him off his game and Wales start to come unstuck rather easily. Italy have a forward pack and a back row who can clearly do that with Sebastian Negri and Sergio Parisse, expert practitioners of the dark arts, and should this work it remains to be seen how much Gareth Anscombe can be relied on to rescue the cause, as he himself was clearly rattled by France’s stifling physicality last weekend.

If the big points are to come for Wales it will be through Josh Adams and Liam Williams

Williams stood up and was counted last weekend, but we felt Wales missed Adams. The dynamic young winger impressed us throughout 2018, and expect him to make similar statements on Saturday. Williams made some fantastic yards last weekend and ran some outstanding lines, so expect more of the same this weekend with the Welsh pair dominating the big points count.

The sooner Italy get Federico Ruzza onto the pitch the better

Italy’s find of 2019 for us by a country mile. We thought he really stood out last weekend from the minute he came on. A big mobile forward with some outstanding handling skills, we are expecting to see increasingly more of the Italian youngster as the tournament progresses. Definitely one to watch!

Verdict

We were not exactly blown away by Wales last weekend, but apart from ten minutes, the same could be said of Italy. If Wales don’t step it up quite a few gears, with a slightly experimental squad it could end up not being the Roman holiday in the sun they are expecting. That being said, we think that Wales are still the smoking gun in this tournament and are likely to start building some real momentum sooner rather than later, despite last weekend’s hiccoughs. However, Italy will be up for this and heartened by Wales’ first half implosion against France. At home the Azurri will be just that more fired up, and as a result a handful for Wales at times. Nevertheless, it still should be Wales’ day in the end, though with this squad by perhaps not as much as they would have liked or needed in the long run. Wales to emerge comfortable winners but only by 15 points!

England vs France – Sunday, February 10th – Twickenham

England obliterated Ireland last weekend in Dublin, in what was one of the most masterful performances by any Test side we’ve seen in a long while. England took Ireland’s playbook, adopted and improved on it, made it their own and ultimately denied Ireland any kind of foothold in the match. As a neutral you simply had to admire the clinically well executed nature of England’s approach to what had rightly been billed as an exceptionally difficult challenge. England looked completely assured in everything they did, while Ireland began to look increasingly desperate and frustrated as they sought to outthink a style of play that until then had almost been the exclusive preserve of the Men in Green.

France meanwhile will be kicking themselves, that after making such a highly rated Welsh team look downright ordinary in the first forty minutes, they then threw away a 16-0 lead in the second half and ended up losing a match which they had firmly in their grasp. France are clearly not an eighty minute team at the moment, and against such a brutally physical and efficient team as England, it is hard to see them making too many inroads this Sunday at Twickenham. However, this match invariably seems to produce something special in les Bleus, as one of Test rugby’s greatest rivalries once more takes centre stage. France, albeit at home in Paris, played a big part in derailing England’s Six Nations campaign last year, and England are unlikely to let them do so again this year.

Demba Bamba gets his baptism of fire

As readers of this blog know we are not huge fans of French prop Uini Atonio, even though his physicality came in useful at times last weekend. However, his scrummaging technique would appear to be a constant liability for France. Bamba on the other hand packs both in equal measure, and in the loose and with ball in hand is a complete live wire. Inexperienced he may be but there is a big game somewhere in this tournament for the youngster and will this be it? There is no question that he is up against one of the most frightening opposite numbers in the world right now in the shape of England’s Mako Vunipola, but if he makes a statement on Sunday then the jersey could well be his for the rest of the tournament.

Another one to watch for France – Felix Lambey

Yes it would appear that our biggest interest in this match is the test of France’s newbies. We’ve already talked about Bamba, but Lambey is another player who we think has a very big future ahead of him in a blue jersey. Inexperienced he may be, but there is no denying he rose to the occasion when he came on against Wales last weekend and was instrumental in giving France some fight back in an otherwise flawed second half. Definitely one of France’s danger men against a formidable and very experienced English second row.

The battle of the back rows will be the best contest of the afternoon

England’s back row last weekend was absolutely outstanding, but by the same token so was France’s even if they fell off the boil a bit in the second half against Wales. We still think that England are the stronger offering, but if this French back row can play for eighty minutes, then England will need to be at their best. Louis Picamoles was absolutely devastating and Arthur Iturria completely justified our faith in him, but then so did England’s Tom Curry even with his yellow card. Billy Vunipola is back to his best for England and the battle between him and Picamoles should be the highlight of the afternoon. Perhaps more so than any other part of the park, this will be where Sunday’s match is won or lost.

Owen Farrell

We feel we owe Farrell an apology after last weekend. He excelled in the Captain’s role despite some of the doubts we had about him in the position. If he can continue to bring that kind of composure and maturity to the rest of the tournament, then we will take back everything we’ve ever said and gladly eat humble pie. Farrell was outstanding against Ireland but clearly had the upper hand over his rivals. We still remain to be convinced that he has the big match temperament once things are not going his way. France have a habit of not playing to expectations, so this Sunday’s game should be an excellent opportunity to see how Farrell copes in the Captain’s role if things are clearly not going to plan.

Henry Slade take a bow!

We had been patiently waiting for the English centre to arrive, something he did with trumpets blaring in Dublin. Some had been critical of the English youngster, but we were firmly of the belief that get him more big match time and he would ultimately shine. Therefore, as you can imagine we were delighted by his stellar performance against Ireland – it was truly world-class. Now he has that experience under his belt, expect him to go from strength to strength. If France cannot contain him on Sunday, and we are not sure Geoffrey Doumayrou is the man to do it, then it could be a very long day at the office for Les Bleus. Slade has come into his own on the Test stage and although the Frenchman is a proven talent he is still not the finished product that the Englishman was in Dublin last Saturday.

Verdict

England are on a roll and then some! France showed some real class last weekend, but against a Welsh side that failed to show up for half the match. England were an outstanding 80 minute team last Saturday in Dublin, whereas France were a good opportunistic team for only 40 minutes, with occasional flashes of brilliance marred by woeful execution in the second half. On the basis of last weekend, therefore it is hard to see anything other than an emphatic English victory, especially in the comfort of fortress Twickenham. France may surprise at times and are likely to be far less predictable than the Irish which will inevitably throw England off their game. Furthermore, France always seems to find something special for this match, one of Test rugby’s greatest rivalries, though more often in Paris than Twickenham. Nevertheless, we just can’t see England being undone by France on Sunday, and despite an epic tussle at times, especially in the back row, England to take it by 8 points!

Endnote

As we will be doing at the end of every round of the Six Nations we’ll end our musings with the expert analysis provided from our favourite YouTubers, Steve and Gareth from The 1014. Enjoy and make sure you give them a big thumbs up and subscribe to keep their excellent content coming.

One of the great rugby highlights of the year gets underway on Friday. Last year’s Six Nations was an absolute thriller and this year looks set to be even more of a roller coaster. With less than nine months to go before the World Cup, this year’s Six Nations will tell us much about what we might expect in terms of how the global showdown may play out in Japan come September. There are favourites, dark horses, underdogs and a million and one questions to be answered over the next eight weeks.

Ireland have been labelled the favourites this year, and it is hard to dispute that on the basis of form. However, back to back Grand Slams could well be too much to ask for, based on the quality of the opposition this year. One thing Ireland does seem to have more of than anyone else though is depth, and in a tournament which inevitably takes such a heavy toll injury wise on your player base, Ireland looks in very rude health in this department. Superbly coached, well-drilled and perhaps the most cohesive team heading into the tournament, Ireland will be very hard to beat, especially if like last year they keep building momentum as the tournament progresses.

Wales are clearly the team most likely to give Ireland a run for their money this year. Coming off a nine match winning streak, and blessed with some exceptional young talent that seems to have bedded very well into the national side, Wales can certainly field a very strong match day 23. The question remains however, as to how much depth there still is as the tournament wears on and injuries start to take their toll. Many are billing Wales’ final match with Ireland in Cardiff on the last Saturday of the tournament as the Championship decider, however, if Wales’ stocks have been depleted by injury by that stage Ireland are likely to have more seasoned reserves to draw on. If Wales can keep the injuries down, then there is no question that they like Ireland are going to be one of the hardest teams to beat this year especially at home.

England seem to have recovered from the horror show that was their 2018 Six Nations and saw them finish fifth. After a successful November campaign which saw them take Australian and South African scalps and run New Zealand to within a point, England are clearly on the mend. How far they have come remains to be seen, and there are no easy games for them this year, especially as they have to play the two teams most likely to be in the running for top honors, Ireland and Wales on the road.

Scotland continue to look threatening, and their club form in Europe this year has been quite spectacular. With Murrayfield now a fortress for the Scots, they have been blessed with a fixture list that sees them with the advantage of getting to play Wales and Ireland at home, but two difficult trips to Twickenham and Paris will also need to be dealt with. On their day Scotland can potentially beat anyone, but a lack of depth once the injury list starts taking its toll and a lack of big game temperament away from home, means that Scotland will still be wearing the underdog shirt more often than not.

France continue their hot and cold form, but as always one cannot simply judge them on form as this tournament always seems to bring out something special in them, even if they fail to replicate it for the rest of the year. “Le Crunch” match with England regained its notoriety last year, and they managed to give Wales a torrid time in Cardiff as well as coming agonizingly close to scuppering Ireland’s Grand Slam ambitions at the very outset of last year’s tournament. While it may be a well-worn cliché – to write the French off simply based on form alone would be suicidal. Always difficult to beat in Paris, and more than capable of producing an upset away from home, France are unlikely to be contenders for the trophy but are likely to spoil a few of the other teams’ parties along the way.

Lastly it looks like Italy will once more be bringing up the rear this year. While there have been some promising developments at club level, most notably Treviso, Italy are still a long way from where they need to be to really make a dent in the competition. Nevertheless they are a team who plays with their hearts on their sleeves and as such are always entertaining to watch. Although plagued by lapses of concentration, they at least did seem to find the ability to last the full eighty minutes last year, and came close to tripping Scotland up on the final day of the tournament. It’s hard to see them having anything other than the wooden spoon to hold again this year, but their endeavour and commitment will continue to make them worthy competitors. We’re struggling to see where that one elusive win might be on offer this year, but for their sake we sincerely hope they can pull off a much-needed upset.

So now the preamble is out of the way, let’s get into the details, as we raise five talking points for each match that we’ve been mulling over during the last week.

France vs Wales – Friday, February 1st – Paris

France proved they were difficult to beat at home in the Championship opener when they hosted eventual Grand Slam winners Ireland last year. Furthermore the last time they met Wales in Cardiff there was only one point in it favoring the Welsh. After a November campaign that showed promise but ultimately did little to inspire, after their shock defeat to Fiji, France have everything to prove. However as we have mentioned earlier this tournament invariably brings out the X-factor in France, and Coach Jacques Brunel has assembled a side that could pack some nasty surprises.

Wales arrive in Paris feeling confident after nine straight wins. They are clearly challengers to Ireland’s throne and will want to make the boldest of statements in Paris on Friday that such ambitions are completely justified. Possessing a bruising set of forwards, a smart and quick thinking half back duo and some highly skilled backs, Wales definitely arrive as the complete package, while there are considerably more question marks surrounding the French team they will face.

One player does not make a front row, no matter how good they are

As regular readers know we have the utmost respect for French Captain and Hooker Guilhem Guirado, so much so that he made our team of 2018. However, despite his superhuman efforts, we feel he is the only strong link in an otherwise weak French front row. We are just not convinced by the scrummaging technique of his colleagues Jefferson Poirot and Uini Atonio in particular. The Welsh unit leaves us with no such concerns and despite Guirado’s best efforts we feel that France are going to get pushed around here on Friday. France will hope that Guirado can go the full eighty minutes and French sensation Demba Bamba get on early enough to make an impact, provided he is not overwhelmed by the occasion of his first Six Nations. How well the veteran and the youngster team up, if they are allowed to do so, could change the course of how the front row battles shape up, especially once Wales call in their bench.

One of the best contests of the afternoon – Vahaamahina vs Wyn-Jones

In the second rows there should be plenty of fireworks between the Welsh veteran and France’s Vahaamahina. These two giants’ lineout battles should be worth the price of admission alone. The Welshman will excel at getting his teammates to get under France’s skin and disrupt the set pieces, while the Frenchman showed some exceptional poaching abilities in the air last year, as well as being highly destructive in the loose. A fascinating battle of contrasting styles, and whoever gets the upper hand here is likely to give us an idea of the balance of power in the match.

The back row battle should be one of the weekend’s closest with France’s Arthur Iturria potentially grabbing the headlines

We must say we really like the look of both back rows. Wales field one of our favourite workhorses in the shape of the indomitable Justin Tipuric. If you’ve read our musings in the past you know we cannot rate the tireless Welshman highly enough. Meanwhile it’s great to see Josh Navidi back in a Welsh jersey after missing the November Internationals. Ross Moriarity completes a fearsome Welsh back row that should cause havoc for French defenses. Having said that though, we are really looking forward to seeing French flanker Arthur Iturria in action as we think he is likely to be one of the standout players of the tournament. He was one of the few French players to really catch the eye in the November Internationals. Wenceslas Lauret also impressed throughout the year, and veteran Louis Picamoles is back to his best. In short, this is a French unit that is more than capable of absorbing Welsh horsepower and dish out its own fair share of heartache.

Warren Gatland’s leap of faith

There is no question that Welsh youngster Tomos Williams will have everything to prove as he gets the starting nod over the much more experienced Gareth Davies at scrum half. In such a key match that is likely to set the tone for the rest of Wales Six Nations campaign, one has to admire Coach Warren Gatland’s faith in the youngster, especially given that he and his fly half partner Gareth Anscombe are up against a highly experienced French unit in the shape of Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez. However, it would appear that Gatland is banking on a fairly frantic first 50 minutes which will suit Williams playing style more, and then bring in the big guns Davies and Biggar to settle the nerves and the match for the final quarter as France are likely to start throwing caution to the wind, especially in conditions that are expected to be wet and slippery.

Meanwhile Jacques Brunel does the same with Romain Ntamack

As a Test debut it doesn’t get much bigger than this, but the Toulouse centre has been grabbing a lot of headlines lately at Club level and it was only a matter of time before he got his first Test cap. As a baptism of fire his opposite number is Welshman Jonathan Davies who is simply one of the world’s best. If Ntamack comes out of this in a positive light then there will be no better testimony of his skill and the role he is likely to play in the build up to France’s World Cup campaign. He will have the advantage of being partnered with the exceptional Wesley Fofana, and if it works this combination could really catch Wales napping – unlikely with Davies in the mix but definitely one of the most interesting contests on the park on Friday.

Verdict

This should be an excellent match and a fitting start to what promises to be a riveting Championship. France at home will be difficult with their supporters expecting and demanding a significantly more dynamic French team than the one on display in November. An intensely physical contest in which Wales should just have the edge especially in the front row, but expect plenty of surprises from France especially if they can find space for their backs to go to work in. Ultimately Wales’ form of late just looks too convincing allied to a tried and trusted group of players. Consequently France to keep Wales on their toes for the full eighty, but Wales to edge it by 6!

Scotland vs Italy – Saturday, February 2nd – Murrayfield

While it may not have the aura around it that the encounters in Paris and Dublin this weekend have, this still should be an exciting game especially if Scotland really put on the afterburners. Italy have some pace as well, though the loss of last year’s sensation, fullback Matteo Minozzi, to injury is a bitter blow for the Azurri. Italy have lost their last 17 Six Nations games so whichever way you cut it, it’s hard to feel optimistic about their chances this year. However, let’s not forget they pushed Scotland hard in Rome last year and almost caused a notable upset. Nevertheless Scotland’s speed merchants in the backs and a bruising forward pack coupled to home advantage make it hard to see anything other than a convincing win for Scotland.

While we may not follow Italian club rugby closely we have to confess to not seeing too many familiar faces

Sure there are some of the usual suspects there such as Sergio Parisse, Leonardo Ghiraldini and Michele Campagnaro, but the rest have had us scrambling to YouTube to catch up on who’s who in Italian rugby these days, especially when it comes to the bench. What we have seen has given us some cause for optimism, but we still can’t imagine it troubling a Scottish side bursting with talent, even if some of it is still a bit raw.

Laidlaw vs Price for Scotland

We have to confess to being slightly perplexed at seeing Greg Laidlaw starting for Ali Price in a match that should be a relatively straightforward exercise for Scotland. Laidlaw has more than enough experience and perhaps would have been better kept in reserve for Scotland’s first big encounter with Ireland next weekend. The only thing we can think of is the fact that the last time Italy won a Six Nations match it was at Murrayfield. Consequently it must be Coach Gregor Townsend trying to deal with “opening night nerves” and not leaving anything to chance by putting in the experienced Laidlaw to ensure that Scotland keeps the scoreboard constantly ticking over in the first 60 minutes to put Italy out of reach, and avoid any potential banana skins.

In Sergio Parisse’s last year who will take the mantle from Italy’s most legendary player

The great man will not see another World Cup, and Italy really need to use this year to find a suitable understudy and a similar talisman for the team. While it may be premature, his back row partner Sebastien Negri shows many of the qualities of his great mentor. Expect to see the flanker at the heart of everything that Italy does well this year. Negri was one of the few genuine standouts for Italy in last year’s Six Nations and expect him to make even more of a statement this year. The Captaincy may ultimately pass to Campagnaro, but Negri is a very worthy understudy in the making.

Blair Kinghorn to really make the headlines for Scotland this year

Just look at what the energetic winger is doing at Edinburgh and you’ll see why we can’t wait to see him in action this year. When allied to a superb Scottish back line boasting the likes of Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour, Kinghorn could really set pitches alight over the next few weeks.

Scotland will really hope the injury gods are kind to them in their Six Nations opener

We really like the look of the match day 23 going out against Italy on Saturday, but have to confess to be just a tad worried for the Scots as to how much depth there is in the tank for the remainder of the tournament. While a Scottish win on Saturday is not really in doubt, one could argue that a conservative win that avoided putting bodies at risk would be preferable to a high scoring match of reckless abandon, despite the spectacle this would provide for the Murrayfield faithful. Of the match day 23 running out on Saturday there is not much depth beyond it if the body count starts racking up in this opener, with every contest thereafter being that much more physical and demanding.

Verdict

We really don’t mean to be down on Italy, and would love to see them get a win, but sadly we just don’t see it happening on Saturday. This is a Scottish side with just far too much proven explosive talent, especially in the backs up against a relatively unknown Italian commodity. With Sergio Parisse in the mix, expect Italy to be no pushover, but Scotland to eventually open up the floodgates in the final quarter, albeit with an eye to the injury risk and walk away comfortable winners. Because of that though don’t expect a huge scoreline, but Scotland to take it by 13 points!

Ireland vs England – Saturday, February 2nd – Dublin

While the contest in France has a great deal of interest, there is no denying that this is the BIG one of this weekend. Perhaps England’s biggest grudge match at the moment, getting one over Ireland on Saturday, especially in Dublin would really set the tone for where England are headed in this Championship. Having said that however, England know they are up against it. Ireland are on a roll unprecedented in Irish rugby history, and it just seems to go from strength to strength. Since the last World Cup they have beaten New Zealand twice, won a Grand Slam and seem to have reinvented the definitions of organization and depth. Add to that the fact that England have only won in Dublin twice in nine trips to the Irish capital since 2003, and England would seem to have the bigger job on their hands. However, they also ran New Zealand exceptionally close in November, and in general had a superb month as long as you don’t mention that first half against Japan. The stage is set for one of Test rugby’s greatest rivalries to resume and expect no prisoners to be taken by both sides.

Rory Best vs Sean Cronin – the great internal debate

As the Irish Captain looks set to retire from Test rugby after the World Cup, 2019 will tell us much about the speed of ascendancy into the number 2 jersey of Sean Cronin. While few, ourselves included, would doubt the value that Best brings to the squad as a whole and his leadership, there is no denying that Cronin has had to wait in the wings for a very long time, and his statistics this year for Leinster are simply off the charts. Like Jacob Stockdale in the backs for Ireland, Cronin can almost be guaranteed to score a try in every match at club level. His work rate is legendary and his lineout throwing is often more accurate than Best’s. How Coach Joe Schmidt uses the pair of them in a match of such stature is likely to tell us much as to how their respective roles will play out this year.

England finally have a back row that works – for the most part

It’s been England’s bug bear for so long now it’s almost become a bit of a bad joke – especially given the player resources England have at their disposal. However, the November Internationals saw the nucleus of a unit that worked with Mark Wilson proving to be one of the finds of the year. This year Billy Vunipola returns and while we wish him all the best, we are not holding our breath as to the likelihood of him seeing out the tournament injury-free even though he appears to be back to his phenomenal best at club level. The loss of Sam Underhill for the entire tournament due to injury is a huge loss. Nevertheless for this match England’s back row offering looks solid with Vunipola, Wilson and a player we think has a massive future ahead of him for England, Tom Curry.

Talking of back rows, it’s a make or break year for Ireland’s Sean O’Brien

Everyone knows the value of the great man to Ireland, however injury has not been kind to him, and much like England’s Billy Vunipola, whether or not the Irish flanker will make it through the tournament unscathed is a big question mark. With Josh van der Flier and Dan Leavy providing exceptionally healthy and robust competition for his jersey, O’Brien really needs to make this Six Nations his. However, Coach Joe Schmidt is clearly aware of the injury risk in a match that is likely to be intensely physical, and as a result Josh van der Flier gets the nod over O’Brien as a starter for this match. The number seven jersey is likely to be Ireland’s revolving door in terms of selection this tournament, and it will be fascinating to see who emerges the clear owner come March 16th.

Owen Farrell – asset or liability?

Last November saw the England fly half be classed as hero and villain in the same breath by rugby supporters around the globe, including a fair number of English supporters. Some see him as a liability, and despite his genius on the field, ability with the boot and skill at game management, we tend to fall more into the liability camp when talking about the Farrell question. His committment to his team and overall ability is not in question, but we do not feel the Captaincy role is one that he is suited for. Furthermore, we have noticed that his defensive positioning is often out of kilter at critical junctures in matches, forcing him into last-ditch desperate tackles and we all know how that went in November. His decision-making also leaves a great deal to be desired at times and on numerous occasions he has turned down easy points on offer, electing to kick to the corner against teams England are struggling to establish any kind of dominance over. Add to that a slightly impetuous nature, short fuse and challenging relationship with officials, and perhaps it is better to keep him out of the Captaincy role. His value to the team is not up for debate as that is a given. It is more a question of in what role and how to best use him. Something England have yet to nail down and which perhaps this Six Nations will finally provide in time for the World Cup.

The Robbie Henshaw experiment

Yes we know he used to play fullback for Connacht, but we were still surprised to see him get the nod over Rob Kearney for such a crucial game. Even more so considering that Henshaw has not played at fullback for Ireland and instead plies his trade in the centre channels when wearing the green jersey. Will England target him with the high balls that Kearney is traditionally so comfortable under? Or is Schmidt banking on Henshaw’s physicality to break down the attacks from the English back line? The contest between him and England’s Elliot Daly will be one of the most fascinating of the afternoon. Daly is a proven commodity and possesses an exceptionally handy boot, and between him and wingers Jack Nowell and Jonny May they should be able to provide Henshaw with plenty of work. Ireland have Jordan Larmour on the bench as solid cover, but his defensive skills still need some work. In the aerial battles on Saturday, we have a feeling that England may just get the better of Ireland, so how Ireland adapt their game to ensure that doesn’t happen will be something to watch for.

Verdict

Either way this will be an exceptionally fitting end to what should be a great opening weekend of Six Nations rugby. This should be a much better English side than the one Ireland faced at Twickenham last March. Two powerful packs go head to head, complemented by some back lines that can put on a show. It should be a thriller and one that it is likely to keep us on the edge of our seats. However, when it’s all said and done, we have to side with the form and history books. England are once more on the rise, but Ireland have already put in the hard graft in getting their structures and organisation right. Ireland have a better understanding of the game they want to play while England are still putting the finishing touches on theirs. That doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of upsetting the odds, but we can’t help feeling is too much of a tall order on opening night. Consequently in a hard-fought match, Ireland to handle the basics better and walk away the winners by four points!

Endnote

Yes our favorite YouTubers are back Steve and Gareth from the 1014 and look set to have a ton of outstanding content lined up for this year’s Six Nations. Make sure you give them your support and subscribe to help them keep up their excellent ouput. We’ll be ending all our updates with one of their top-notch videos.

As we do at the end of every year and with their seasons over till February, we look back at the highs and lows of the Southern Hemisphere season and hand out our verdicts on the big four Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. With less than nine months left before the biggest rugby show on earth, 2018 was a critical year for all four countries and much was learnt about the pecking order in International Rugby and what we might expect from these four heavyweights once business gets underway in Japan in September.

We’ll be the first to admit it’s completely subjective based on what we saw and where in our humble opinions it leaves the teams heading into 2019. We highlight the match we most enjoyed from each of the teams and we try to pick the player who made the greatest contribution to their national cause in 2018 as well as the player that we feel is most likely to catch the eye in 2019. So take from it what you will but without any further ado let’s get into it.

South Africa – 8/10

Some of you may be wondering why we’ve chosen to give South Africa such a high rating when they lost 7 of the 14 Tests they played in 2018, and thus had a winning ratio of only 50%. However, look a bit closer and the picture looks a lot more rosy. First of all it was a clear turnaround from the disastrous years under former Coach Allister Coetzee after the last World Cup. Secondly of those 7 wins 3 were on the road, something the Springboks have struggled to do in recent years. Lastly of those 7 defeats, 3 of them were by less than 3 points. In short, the renaissance that South African rugby experienced in 2018 and the pride that was restored to the jersey, made it fairly easy for us to give them such a high scoring on sheer effort alone. There was an undercurrent of consistency in both team selection and performance that we hadn’t seen for a long time, and as a result we feel they thoroughly deserved the praise we heaped on them last year, along with the recognition they got on the international stage as a force to be reckoned with once more.

South Africa got their 2018 campaign off to an interesting start in an exhibition match in Washington DC, in June against Wales. Although the attendance could have been better, we still counted ourselves fortunate to be part of the enthusiastic crowd that showed up for the match. The first half was a rather dire affair from both sides to say the least, and both teams lacked the necessary precision at times for a match of this calibre. However, by the end of the match it had turned into an exciting contest. A poorly executed kick from behind South Africa’s goal line at the end saw Wales take full advantage and crash over for a simple try to rob South Africa of the lead they had fought so hard to gain in the second half.

South Africa returned home to host England in June for a three Test series. Many key players who regularly ply their trade overseas returned home as well to lend their support to the cause. The result was a Springbok side that positively hummed at Ellis Park in Johannesburg. It was a thrilling Test match, but its opening twenty minutes saw England run in three tries, and the new-found optimism that Coach Rassie Erasmus had given Springbok supporters appeared to evaporate quickly, as fans had a horrible sense of deja vu. However, the next 20 minutes produced some truly stunning rugby from South Africa as they hit back with four tries of their own and headed into halftime with a narrow 29-27 lead. The second half was a tense affair of give and take, but South Africa found their big match temperament and held on for an historic 42-39 victory. The next match in Bloemfontein was a gritty affair, but once again the Springbok pack ground England into submission and allowed South Africa to claim the series. The final Test in Cape Town, saw England find their groove at sea level and in poor conditions they were clearly the better side. However, South Africa had won the series on the back of two solid performances that gave grounds for plenty of optimism heading into the Rugby Championship.

South Africa’s opening fixture in the Rugby Championship against Argentina, built on the success of the England series as they came away with a convincing win over a Pumas outfit that was just coming to terms with life under new Coach Mario Ledesma. In the return fixture in Argentina a week later, that transition process was clearly complete, and the Pumas got the better of a rather disjointed Springbok performance and one which seemed to confirm fears that South Africa may be a side to fear on home soil, but on the road they were continuing to struggle.

South Africa headed to Australia, knowing they needed to shake off the mantra that they were a team that still battled to look convincing away from home. They looked much sharper than they did against Argentina, but still failed to capitalise on some key opportunities and let the lead slip away from their grasp once more. Australia simply took what little chances were on offer more effectively and in a tight tussle the Wallabies got the better of South Africa by 23-18.

Consequently, by the time they reached New Zealand, many had already written them off, especially as the last time they were in New Zealand they experienced their worst ever defeat to the All Blacks by 57-0. Instead what happened was a piece of Springbok history but this time clearly in their favor. As mentioned before in previous posts it was a Test match for the ages and one that brought out all the best qualities of one of International Rugby’s greatest and fiercest rivalries. There were tries galore from both teams and some truly heroic defence from South Africa in the final 15 minutes. They emerged the deserved winners and finally managed to shake off the curse of being unable to win big games on the road. The pride in the jersey on all the players’ faces at the final whistle was perhaps most emphatic in flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit’s tears.

South Africa would then return home and get revenge for their loss to Australia, as some heroic defence once more saw them home, despite a constant Wallaby assault on the South African 22 in the final quarter. Their final match of the Championship saw them take on a New Zealand side clearly out for revenge after the upset in Wellington the previous month. It was another truly epic Test match that hung in the balance for the full eighty minutes. South Africa had once more built up an impressive lead by the final quarter, but New Zealand came charging back into the match and this time showed those devastating finishing skills that they have become synonymous with. South Africa gave as good as they got, but the All Blacks simply went through their paces with just a shade more finesse. It was a thrilling Test match that saw New Zealand sneak it at the death and win by 32-30.

South Africa finished the Rugby Championship with a strong second place, and then headed out on the road for the end of year tour to Europe with a well-founded sense of optimism. First up were England who were clearly out to avenge their series loss in June. Sadly it was a match once more marred by controversy from the officials. South Africa were dominating most aspects of the game but their execution at key moments let them down, even though South Africa would be the only side to score a try, with all of England’s points coming from the boot. A slightly controversial call from referee Angus Gardner on a clumsy tackle from England’s Owen Farrell, meant South Africa were denied a penalty kick that could have swung the match back in their favor. In the end they had to settle for a heartbreaking 1 point loss to England. Nevertheless, despite their dominance of possession for much of the game their issues with execution at times did much more to scupper their chances of a win than one simple 50/50 referee call.

South Africa’s next two outings were much more positive affairs. First up they held their nerve to snatch victory at the death from France. South Africa showed some real composure in the dying minutes of the match, and to a man looked convinced that the win was theirs for the taking which it was, through a well worked team effort resulting in a crucial try at the final whistle. From there it was off to Murrayfield to take on a Scottish side that looked extremely dangerous. Once again it was another dogged and assured performance from the Springboks as they clawed out a second vital win, through some superb attacking rugby, game management from fly half Handre Pollard and some stoic defence. Scotland threw the kitchen sink at them but they held firm.

South Africa’s last match of the year however, did see the inevitable cracks start to appear in a side that had had a long and tumultuous season that had its fair share of highs and lows. Against Wales, South Africa started to look a shadow of the team that had produced that famous victory in Wellington only two months earlier. With some clearly tired bodies on display, the Springboks ultimately bowed out of 2018 quietly but keen to regroup for 2019 and build on the results of a remarkable year. Wales got the better of them and South Africa, although showing the odd spark, never really looked like they would trouble their Welsh hosts to any great degree. While it may have been an anti-climax to what had otherwise been a fantastic year, there were still more than enough positives for South Africa to take away from 2018 as referee Luke Pearce blew the final whistle on the Springboks season.

In short, a season that has had far more highs than lows, especially when compared to the rather dismal state of affairs the Springboks found themselves in heading into 2018. Life under new Coach Rassie Erasmus has produced a renaissance in Springbok rugby and at the same time unearthed some genuine world-class talent. There is still plenty of work to do, but there are few, ourselves included, who would doubt the legitimacy of South Africa’s challenge for Webb Ellis glory come September. South Africa are back, make no mistake and mean business. They have an enviable balance of youth and experience, a devastating but increasingly mobile forward pack, a half back combination that finally works and a truly gifted set of backs. If any of their opponents in Japan fail to take them seriously they will end up paying a heavy price. If South Africa can build on the momentum gained in 2018 there is no reason why it couldn’t be them instead of either New Zealand or Ireland who are hoisting aloft the Webb Ellis trophy on November 2nd.

Player of the year – Faf de Klerk

The pint-sized scrum half was a revelation in the Springbok jersey in 2018. As regular readers know, we are huge fans of the South African number nine and his time playing for English Premiership side Sale Sharks has paid huge dividends. South Africa’s version of a rugby playing Jack Russell is completely fearless, and his ability to keep opposition defences guessing along with a lightning quick delivery was a joy to watch this year. The ability to tackle players more than twice his size and actually to bring them to the ground single-handed is the mark of a very special player, and someone able to punch way above their weight. His obvious enthusiasm for his role is infectious and clearly rubs off on his teammates. In short, expect him to be just as much a part of the South African success story in 2019 as he was in 2018.

Player to watch in 2019 – Aphiwe Dyantyi

South Africa’s try seeking missile had us mesmerised at times in 2018. An exceptionally gifted footballer with some sublime hands and feet skills, Dyantyi featured regularly in press releases about Springbok exploits in 2018 and expect more of the same this year. With his defensive abilities improving with every outing and complimenting his lethal attacking skills in space, this is a player you won’t want to miss both in the Rugby Championship and South Africa’s World Cup campaign in Japan this year.

Match of the year – New Zealand vs South Africa – Wellington – September 15th – New Zealand 34/South Africa 36

We have run out of superlatives, for what we consider to have been THE Test match of 2018. South Africa’s skill and heroics for the full eighty minutes were something to behold. As one of Test Rugby’s greatest rivalries was reborn with a vengeance, this match and South Africa’s performance in it, will be in our video libraries for many years to come.

Endnote

Well that’s it for 2018. Our focus now shifts wholeheartedly to the Six Nations for the next two months. We’ll have our thoughts on this weekend’s opening round of the classic tournament out by this Thursday night. Stay tuned and once again thanks for all the great support last year!

As we do at the end of every year and with their seasons over till February, we look back at the highs and lows of the Southern Hemisphere season and hand out our verdicts on the big four Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. With less than nine months left before the biggest rugby show on earth, 2018 was a critical year for all four countries and much was learnt about the pecking order in International Rugby and what we might expect from these four heavyweights once business gets underway in Japan in September.

We’ll be the first to admit it’s completely subjective based on what we saw and where in our humble opinions it leaves the teams heading into 2019. We highlight the match we most enjoyed from each of the teams and we try to pick the player who made the greatest contribution to their national cause in 2018 as well as the player that we feel is most likely to catch the eye in 2019. So take from it what you will but without any further ado let’s get into it.

New Zealand – 8/10

It was an interesting year for New Zealand whichever way you cut it. They are clearly still the team to beat in world rugby, but their dominance was challenged in 2018, make no mistake. While they are still a truly remarkable team, we found out this past year, that if they are put under pressure they too can join the ranks of the mortals. Ireland and South Africa put them to the sternest of Tests, and in South Africa’s case pulled off the unthinkable by actually beating the All Blacks in New Zealand – something which New Zealand’s opponents have only managed to pull off a grand total of five times in the last ten years. New Zealand’s losses to South Africa and Ireland, along with their scare from England had many making statements that the All Blacks were vulnerable or that their glory days were on the wane. To be honest from what we saw of them in action we find such statements beyond premature. New Zealand are still a formidable force and without doubt still front-runners to lift the Webb Ellis trophy in Japan this year for the third consecutive time. Yes this year proved that they can be beaten, but it is going to take a very remarkable team to knock them out of the World Cup.

New Zealand’s season got off to an emphatic start, as expected, they put a weary touring French team to the sword, and won all three Tests of their June series. However, some of the controversies surrounding refereeing decisions in the opening match meant there was a slight cloud hanging over an otherwise emphatic victory. The second Test was a much tighter affair, but once again New Zealand were masters of composure under pressure as they sealed a convincing win and the series. In the final Test, the All Blacks put their foot flat to the floor and in the second half simply left an exhausted French team in their dust as they ran in 7 superb tries to France’s 2. It is always hard to gauge how teams stand after having played France, as Les Bleus traditionally field poor touring teams, mainly due to the fact that players are invariably exhausted after one of the longest and most gruelling domestic club seasons in the professional era. However, the second Test did see New Zealand make a host of  uncharacteristic errors, some of which could be attributed to the absence of key players such as lock Brodie Retallick and Captain and number 8 Kieran Read.

Next up it was the annual Rugby Championship, which also saw the return of Retallick and Read. The opening match against Australia, which also was the first of the three annual Bledisloe Cup matches, saw New Zealand eventually blow off the cobwebs and get back to their best. As a result it left few of us in doubt that the tournament would be theirs once more as it has been since the last World Cup. Australia then travelled to Auckland’s Eden Park where they were given a comprehensive schooling by New Zealand fly half Beauden Barrett as the number 10 ran in a remarkable four tries.

From there New Zealand played host to a feisty Pumas side who kept them honest until the 70th minute, at which point they finally managed to unlock the Pumas defences and once more hit their customary stride. A South African side that had been written off were their next visitors in Wellington, and the result was arguably THE Test match of the year. The historic and proud rivalry between these two rugby heavyweights was restored during the course of the match in an epic performance from both teams. South Africa gave as good as they got and put the All Blacks under enormous pressure which forced them into countless mistakes, as New Zealand found themselves in the rare position of having to chase an exceptionally healthy Springbok lead. The All Blacks as they traditionally do, came back with a vengeance in the second half, and for a good ten minutes of the final quarter they were up against a Springbok side down to fourteen men. In an absolutely heroic defensive display, South Africa managed to withstand a continual assault by the All Blacks and emerge the narrowest of winners by 36-34. New Zealand were clearly rattled by the defeat, but you never got the feeling that it would last for long.

Sure enough New Zealand came back firing as they travelled to Argentina and got the better of another feisty performance from the Pumas. However, New Zealand destroyed Argentina’s efforts in the set pieces. With a game to spare they now had the Rugby Championship sewn up, but were clearly keen to settle the score in the final match of the tournament, as they travelled to South Africa to face a Springbok side brimming with confidence. It was another titanic struggle that once more lived up to the pedigree of the rivalry between the two, but this time New Zealand would walk away the victors in a very tight contest at 32-30 in the All Blacks favor.

New Zealand continued their travels as they headed to Japan for a taste of what it would be like to play in the forthcoming World Cup. In the final Bledisloe Cup match they demolished a hapless Wallaby side, in front of an ecstatic Japanese crowd. Next up they took on this year’s World Cup hosts Japan. While it was a third string All Black side as the team’s heavyweights travelled to Europe, it reinforced the staggering depth New Zealand has at its disposal. Japan put up a brave fight at times but the result was never in doubt and the All Blacks ran in an emphatic victory beating their hosts 69-31.

The first match of their end of year European tour was against an English side, that much like South Africa earlier in the year, many had written off. In appalling weather conditions New Zealand once more found themselves under the kosh of a resurgent England. Once again the match was marred by controversy sparked by the officials, but New Zealand did manage to claw themselves back into a match that initially looked beyond them. It was Brodie Retallick’s complete dismantling of the English lineouts that set the All Blacks back on course. However, it had been a serious scare and the match was on a knife-edge for the full eighty minutes, and New Zealand breathed a sigh of relief as the final whistle saw them emerge the winners by the narrowest of margins at 16-15. They were aware that they had been given a serious reality check ahead of one of the most anticipated fixtures of the year, their clash with the second best side in the world Ireland in Dublin the following weekend.

The dustup in Dublin did not disappoint, and was one of the year’s epic Tests. New Zealand threw the kitchen sink at a very disciplined and structured Irish outfit, but the All Blacks simply couldn’t wear them down. Furthermore, New Zealand found themselves on the wrong side of the pressure curve for the full eighty minutes. What pressure New Zealand did manage to exert was absorbed with ease by Ireland, while New Zealand where clearly finding the relentless physicality and probing of their defences by Ireland exhausting – something they simply haven’t been used to in the last four years. Ireland recorded only their second victory over the All Blacks, and New Zealand were left to lick their wounds with the prospect of a dead rubber match against Italy in which to regroup.

As expected an angry All Black side, still smarting from the Dublin defeat, put a helpless Italian side to the sword in Rome, as the hosts appeared to be the sacrificial lambs of tournaments similar to what would have taken place in the Coliseum just down the road a few thousand years ago. The 66-3 thrashing by the All Blacks clearly took some of the sting out of the loss to the Irish, but that and the loss to South Africa on home soil, had clearly given the world’s number one side some much-needed food for thought.

New Zealand are still the force to be reckoned with by everyone else if they want to judge how far they have come since the last World Cup. Watch any All Black performance this year, even their two losses, and you will still see some breathtaking skills on display. Their lofty position at the top of the world rankings for so long now, has provided an enormous incentive for the rest of the world to catch up, which it would appear to be finally doing. Ireland are clearly their biggest threat, but South Africa has also proved that they can derail the All Black juggernaut. Throw England and Wales into the mix and all of a sudden the World Cup doesn’t look so comfortable any more for New Zealand. However, we would argue that 2018 was the best thing that could happen in terms of New Zealand’s preparations for the World Cup. Gone are any illusions of complacency, even if there were any there to start with. The All Blacks have proved time and again that once the rest of the world does eventually catch up with them, they are masters at reinventing themselves all over again. Few sides are better at going back to the drawing board and fixing whatever weaknesses they have discovered about themselves and emerging twice as strong. In short, 2018 was a year in which the All Blacks saw themselves shaken but not stirred. Rugby World Cup 2019 you have been warned!

Player of the year – Brodie Retallick

Although he missed the June series against France, the return of the giant second rower for the Rugby Championship reaffirmed how important he is to New Zealand’s efforts. He made our Team of the Year with ease and quite simply terrified the opposition all year-long. He single-handedly turned around New Zealand’s fortunes at Twickenham in a match which they were struggling to assert their authority. A master of the set pieces and utterly devastating in the loose this is clearly one of Test rugby’s most dangerous commodities, and is likely to leave most opposition defence coaches with endless sleepless nights in 2019.

Player to watch in 2019 – Jack Goodhue

We’d heard great things about the Crusaders youngster, and when he showed what he could do in the third Test against France, it was clear that all the hype surrounding the 23-year-old centre was completely justified. While those who have read our musings over the last few years know, we are of the opinion that Sonny Bill Williams is a tad over rated and slightly one-dimensional. Goodhue possesses the wrecking ball physical ability of Williams, some fancy foot work and is in our opinion a much more complete footballer. Allied to the highly experienced Ryan Crotty, Goodhue formed a lethal partnership at centre this year. Expect to see Goodhue be one of the key talking points of New Zealand’s buildup to this year’s World Cup as well as grabbing some major press attention once the tournament gets underway.

Match of the year – South Africa vs New Zealand – Pretoria – October 6th – South Africa 30/New Zealand 32

This match had just as much intensity as the one between these age-old rivals that saw New Zealand concede a rare defeat on home soil a few weeks earlier. It was another epic struggle which ensured that Tests between these two are likely be some of the most anticipated events of the Test calendar once more. When it comes to Test Rugby as a spectacle it doesn’t get much better than this! Here’s hoping that 2019 will produce similar high-octane encounters between these two.

Next up – South Africa and then into the Six Nations!

 

 

 

As we do at the end of every year and with their seasons over till February, we look back at the highs and lows of the Southern Hemisphere season and hand out our verdicts on the big four Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. With less than nine months left before the biggest rugby show on earth, 2018 was a critical year for all four countries and much was learnt about the pecking order in International Rugby, and what we might expect from these four heavyweights once business gets underway in Japan in September.

We’ll be the first to admit it’s completely subjective based on what we saw and where in our humble opinions it leaves the teams heading into 2019. We highlight the match we most enjoyed from each of the teams and we try to pick the player who made the greatest contribution to their national cause in 2018 as well as the player that we feel is most likely to catch the eye in 2019. So take from it what you will but without any further ado let’s get into it.

Australia – 4/10

No matter which way you cut it, 2018 was a truly dismal year for Australian Rugby. Of 13 Tests played the Wallabies managed a paltry 4 wins, and for much of the year looked in a complete state of disarray on and off the pitch. Meanwhile constant tinkering with the make up and balance of the squad, a misguided obsession with playing players out of position and a game plan that none of the players seemed to understand meant that Australia in 2018 looked a shadow of the great Wallaby teams of old. Rarely getting the basics right and attempting to play what seemed to be an overly complicated game plan without the requisite skills, meant that by their final Test of the year against England, all the players really wanted to do was pack their bags and forget about 2018 as quickly as possible. All this confusion heightened calls for Coach Michael Cheika to step down and based on the results of 2018 it was hard to argue against it, even if it meant a wholesale change in the coaching setup at such a critical juncture in Australia’s World Cup preparation. Cheika has miraculously survived, but is left with very little time and games available to turn things around before the Wallabies travel to Japan in September.

Australia got their 2018 season underway in June, with a much-anticipated three Test series against Ireland. The opening match gave Australian supporters much to cheer about. Ireland looked rusty and Australia were clearly the better side and walked away with a stylish and convincing win. However, Ireland were back to their best in the second Test, and Ireland simply looked better at the basics while Australia although impressive in attack all too often tended to over complicate things. With the series level, Australia headed into the third and final Test rattled but clearly confident of their ability to take the series. They certainly took the game to Ireland, but once again Ireland just seemed the more composed of the two sides, and Sexton’s boot ensured that Ireland had the edge when it came to vital points on offer. Nevertheless, it had been a highly entertaining series and although Australia were not the victors there were still plenty of positives on display to give one cause to think that 2018 would be the year where the Wallabies really started to hit their straps in time for the World Cup.

The Rugby Championship/Bledisloe Cup however would sadly shatter that sense of optimism for the most part. Australia’s opening game against New Zealand showed a glimmer of hope in the first 40 minutes, but after that it was all one way traffic favoring the Men in Black. The return fixture at Eden Park did nothing to dispel the growing sense of doom pervading the Australian camp as the All Blacks ultimately ran rings around a Wallaby side that gradually imploded as the match wore on.

The next two rounds of the Championship would produce one of Australia’s best performances of the year and one of their worst. In the match against South Africa, the Wallabies were without three key players David Pocock, Israel Folau and Adam Coleman. However, they started the match at an intense tempo and managed to maintain it coupled to some solid defence that managed to hold a Springbok team at bay, especially in the final ten minutes. It wasn’t pretty at times, but given their injury list the Wallabies showed some real character to get the win. Things would then unravel dramatically a week later with the visit of the Pumas. Once again there was some enterprising play from the Australians but the Pumas just looked that more clinical and sure of what they were trying to do. Australia’s continued experiment with Kurtley Beale at fly half and Israel Folau on the wing was clearly not working with neither player confident or sure of their roles. Furthermore, when Australia did have chances they were usually butchered by attempting plays that appeared far more complicated than they needed to be. Argentina’s defence in the final ten minutes was rock solid despite a concerted Australian assault, and they ultimately took the spoils as Australia saw yet another match go begging.

The final two rounds of the Rugby Championship clearly demonstrated the crisis in confidence that was starting to pervade the Wallaby camp. Even with the Springboks down to 14 men in the final quarter the Wallabies simply could not get across the South African whitewash and once more looked confused as to what kind of game they were supposed to be playing as the Folau/Beale experiment continued to trip over its own feet. Furthermore the Wallabies were getting seriously pushed around in the forward battles as they found themselves increasingly starved of possession. Their final match of the Championship against Argentina was very much a match of two halves. In the first half Australia were beyond dire. After an absolute roasting in the changing room at half time by Coach Michael Cheika, Australia emerged a side transformed and one which had clearly had the fear of God put into them. They produced arguably their best forty minutes of 2018 and ultimately THE comeback of the year to seal the match in their favor at 45-34, after trailing the Pumas 31-7 at half time. It showed what Australia can do with their gifted set of backs by keeping it simple and their forwards getting the basics right. It was clean and uncomplicated rugby and it worked like a charm.

Australia then travelled to Japan to get a taste of the atmosphere for the World Cup for the final Bledisloe Cup match. However, once again for reasons best known to himself, Coach Michael Cheika continued to tinker and this time put Israel Folau at centre, having been unhappy with the experiment of having him on the wing. Australia looked disorganised and their discipline also started to fall apart and the All Blacks ran out comfortable winners at 37-20. A clearly frustrated Wallaby side then headed to Europe for three Tests, starting with Wales. Australia had an enviable record at the Principality Stadium and were also buoyed by having beaten Wales in their last 13 encounters. Surely the record was set to be broken and while as a spectacle the game provided very little, Wales got the better of a gruelling arm wrestle.

Australia then travelled to Italy for a game they simply had to win, as a loss to the Azurri would have been the most telling indictment of how far the Wallabies had fallen in 2018. Once again although not the most riveting of games from a spectator point of view, and despite some costly lapses in discipline by Australia, the Wallabies still emerged comfortable winners and thus avoided a banana skin that it would have been hard for them to recover from. Their final Test of a turgid 2018 was against an English side clearly on the rebound from their own troubled 12 months. England put in a rampant display against a Wallaby side that had clearly run out of motivation and ideas and just wanted a miserable year to end. While Israel Folau was back to his regular position at fullback and scored both of Australia’s tries as a result, it was a lacklustre Australian effort compared to a powerhouse English performance. Australia quietly slipped away to Heathrow and the long journey home to reflect on a year they no doubt would rather forget as quickly as possible.

Hopefully all the hard knocks Australia took this year will have provided them with some valuable lessons. They are likely to play with a greater sense of purpose this year, and most likely go back to the basics and tried and trusted combinations of players in positions they are more comfortable with. There was a great deal of experimentation by Australia in 2018, and in general most of it did not work, but better to find that out now than during the World Cup. So for 2019 Australia should revert to what works best to unleash a lethal set of backs, shore up the discipline and make sure the first and second rows can compete with the world’s best. The imbalance in Australia’s back row also needs to be addressed with Michael Hooper needing to get back to his best and the team as a whole to stop relying on the outstanding David Pocock to single-handedly produce miracles for them.

With Rugby Union continuing to be in a state of crisis in Australia, as Australian sides continue to fare poorly in Super Rugby coupled to a relatively small player base as opposed to other national sports, it will be a challenge for Australia to really develop the depth needed to compete at this year’s World Cup. Australia can put out a very good match day 23, but once the inevitable injuries of a World Cup campaign kick in we can’t help feeling that Australia will continue to be found wanting in 2019 in terms of depth. While we were not one of the voices baying for Michael Cheika’s head last year, and are glad for both him and Australia that he will remain in charge till the conclusion of the World Cup, he really needs to demonstrate that he has taken the painful lessons of 2018 for both himself and his charges on board. If he and his team can do that and some much-needed depth can be found in the next nine months, then there is no reason that Australia cannot be the competitive force they always are come the World Cup – but after 2018 there is no denying it is a VERY tall order indeed!

Player of the year – David Pocock

Pocock’s return from injury this year was a godsend for the Wallabies and this outstanding player did not disappoint. However, at times his team lost the plot while expecting him to singlehandedly turn matches around. As a player who puts his body on the line like few others, Pocock did not disappoint but it clearly took its toll, as he was clearly battling through the pain barrier at times. Given his injury history it remains to be seen how much longer he can continue in this Superman role, and the rest of his team really need to step up and shoulder the burden. Otherwise we fear that one of Australia’s most valuable players may simply not make it to the World Cup this year. By far Australia’s best player even in some of their more dire performances in 2018, Pocock remains Australia’s most valuable commodity.

Player to watch in 2019 – Jack Maddocks

Maddocks’ one try against New Zealand in the opening Bledisloe Cup match epitomised the depth that Australia needs to develop and why Maddocks is such a key player in that regard. The utility back may not have been able to replicate that performance in subsequent games in 2018, and he clearly has a lot to learn defensively, but there is a real spark here with a player able to play a wide variety of positions and thus provide valuable cover from the bench for the World Cup. Definitely one to watch in 2019 and hopefully Australia can find a few more like him.

Match of the year – Argentina vs Australia – Salta – October 6th – Australia 45/Argentina 34

Yes there is no denying that Australia’s first half performance was appalling in this match, but you still have to hand it to them for one of the greatest comebacks in a second half that we have seen in a long time. Furthermore, it epitomised that although shaken this Wallaby side is far from down and out, and when on song can produce some truly breathtaking attacking rugby. As a result it would be foolish to write them off in this year’s World Cup despite the tribulations of 2018. They have plenty of work to do, but as this match showed, put some fire in their bellies and they are a very dangerous side.

Next up – New Zealand!

As we do at the end of every year with their seasons over till February, we look back at the highs and lows of the Southern Hemisphere season and hand out our verdicts on the big four Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. With less than nine months left before the biggest rugby show on earth, 2018 was a critical year for all four countries and much was learnt about the pecking order in International Rugby, and what we might expect from these four heavyweights once business gets underway in Japan in September.

We’ll be the first to admit it’s completely subjective based on what we saw and where in our humble opinions it leaves the teams heading into 2019. We highlight the match we most enjoyed from each of the teams and we try to pick the player who made the greatest contribution to their national cause in 2018 as well as the player that we feel is most likely to catch the eye in 2019. So take from it what you will but without any further ado let’s get into it.

Argentina – 7/10

2018 started off poorly for Argentina, picked up dramatically during the Rugby Championship and then slowly faded out again during the November Internationals. However, despite a mixed bag of results Argentina showed plenty of promise and enough signs that they should end up being a serious threat come the World Cup in September, and a major worry for their main Pool C rivals England and France. Some of their traditional strengths have clearly faded dramatically, in particular their prowess at scrum time, however their skills on attack and overall game management have improved dramatically. Add to that a potent threat up front in the second and back rows, and Argentina is not far off from being the complete package. With new Coach Mario Ledesma having been a formidable front rower in his time with the Pumas, we doubt their scrum problems will continue for long. The changes he has already instituted since taking the reins in July have quickly brought positive results.

Argentina started 2018 with a gritty encounter with Wales in June, and while there were some positives at times in defence, the cracks in Argentina’s setup were clear for all to see, especially at scrum time. The following week, saw Argentina cave under concerted Welsh pressure and sadly the Pumas never really looked in contention. It was not an auspicious start to 2018, and led to further calls for Coach Daniel Hourcade to part ways with the Pumas, especially after a string of disappointing results the year before. Argentina’s final Test of the month saw the Pumas put on a disjointed and shambolic display against a rampant Scottish developmental side. Enough was clearly enough and despite his successes with the Pumas in the 2015 World Cup, Hourcade found himself heading for the exit.

His successor, Mario Ledesma brought with him a wealth of international Coaching experience, most recently with Australia’s Wallabies and at Super Rugby level with the Jaguares. Having turned around the Jaguares fortunes to the point where they would end the season with a quarter-final berth, Lesdesma seemed the ideal candidate to inject some much-needed life into the Pumas think tank.

The initial results looked promising as in their first match of the Rugby Championship, Argentina had a half time lead over South Africa’s Springboks. However, the Pumas were still finding their feet in their first outing under new management and South Africa turned the screw on their visitors in the second half and ultimately ran out comfortable winners. In the return fixture, in Argentina the Pumas took no prisoners and put in a blinder of a first half performance which left the Springboks in the dust. This performance continued into the opening stanzas of the second half, but the Springboks soon got over their shell shock and fought back. However, Argentina held firm and their defence was outstanding, allowing them to walk away comfortable winners in the end.

From there Argentina made the long journey to Australasia where their form continued to improve. Although Argentina would lose their opening match with New Zealand, the scoreline did not do the match justice. It was a very spirited performance from Argentina that often put New Zealand under enormous pressure. Argentina were never really out of the match until the final 10 minutes. Up to that point just as you thought New Zealand were about to pull away, Argentina would come storming back into contention. Winger Ramiro Moyano’s try was one of the best of the Tournament. In short it was a classic Test match which kept you on the edge of your seat for a good seventy minutes.

Building on the momentum of the New Zealand Test, the Pumas then travelled to Australia and recorded a famous away win as they put in an impressive performance against a faltering Wallaby side. Australia fought back and looked to snatch the match at the death but some outstanding Pumas defence kept the Wallabies at bay. Winger Bautista Delguy showed in no uncertain terms what a threat he is likely to pose this year in Japan.

Sadly as they tend to do every year in the Rugby Championship, the Pumas seemed to fade out with a whimper in their last two games, made more frustrating for their supporters as these are always home games. The game against New Zealand really exposed the nightmare the Pumas were having at scrum time, as this once potent Argentinian weapon seemed only capable of one direction – backwards. Some pride was restored in the final match of the tournament as they took on the Wallabies, and the Pumas produced a spectacular first half which completely outclassed their visitors. However, after a dressing room roasting from hell, the Wallabies came back fighting. To add to the Pumas difficulties, key playmaker Nicolas Sanchez would play no part in the proceedings after the first 30 minutes of the match due to injury. His replacement Santiago Gonzalez Iglesias made a spectacular entry within seconds of coming onto the pitch by scoring a superb try. However, his game management was simply not the equal of the exceptional Sanchez and despite a healthy 31-7 lead at half time the Pumas structure began to fall apart. The Wallabies took control of the match in the second half and ran in 38 points to Argentina’s 3, turning the match on its head and walking away the winners 45-34.

November saw Argentina feel the effects of an exceptionally long season. Considering that the majority of the Pumas squad are drawn straight from the Argentinian Super Rugby side the Jaguares, it meant that players had been playing non stop high level international rugby since February without a break. Argentina were convincing defensively against Ireland in their November opener, but their scrum was made a mockery of by the Irish. A weary Pumas side ultimately succumbed to the Irish juggernaut by 28-17. From there it was off to France and a gritty encounter in Lille. The Pumas scrum continued to creak and although they showed some resilience in defence, they continued to look like they were running on empty. France were clearly the better side in the final quarter. Their last full Test of the year (we’re not counting the exhibition match in December against the Barbarians) saw them take on Scotland in atrocious conditions at Murrayfield. As a spectacle it had little going for it, and Argentina had clearly run out of steam. It was a poor game from both sides and sadly did not reflect some of the outstanding quality that Argentina had put on display throughout 2018.

Although there were plenty of ups and downs for Argentina in 2018, there were enough highs to clearly demonstrate that under new management Argentina are starting to hit all the right notes just in time for the World Cup. While their scrum needs some desperate work, under the guidance of Coach Mario Ledesma we are fairly certain they will have it sorted in time for the abbreviated Rugby Championship this year.

Perhaps the more pressing problem for Argentina to address is squad fatigue. Their current policy of selecting only Argentinian based players means that there is little to choose from for the selectors when it comes to determining the Pumas makeup. With 90% of the squad being drafted straight from Argentina’s only Super Rugby franchise the Jaguares, player fatigue by the time November rolls around is inevitable. It is a credit to the Pumas that they manage to do as well as they do in the Autumn Internationals. As we head into the buildup to the World Cup this year, Argentina will be able to use more of its overseas based players who are currently lighting up the European club scene. For the World Cup Ledesma will have access to both domestic and foreign based Argentinian players, and as a result the issue of fatigue should be less of a concern come September. With the talent at his disposal and based on some extraordinary performances in 2018, we have a hunch that the Pumas are peaking, as they always seem to do in the last ten years, at just the right time for the World Cup. Their Pool opponents England and France are likely to be having their fair share of sleepless nights as they get closer to Japan. We for one can’t wait to see a “Super” Pumas side in action come the World Cup!

Player of the year – Nicolas Sanchez

There are certain players who are just essential to their side’s success and Sanchez is one of those players. We’ve always been a fan of the Pumas fly half but this year he has really come into his own. His departure from the Pumas final match of the Rugby Championship against Australia showed just how important this player is to Argentina’s performance on the pitch. Without him Argentina lack the structure that played such a part in some of their best performances in 2018. His kicking from the tee in 2018 was for the most part highly reliable while at the same time scoring some of the Pumas most audacious tries last year. In short quality through and through!

Player to watch in 2019 – Bautista Delguy

We were mesmerised by the Pumas speedster in 2018. Fast, difficult to bring down and providing an increasingly solid defensive component for the Pumas, Delguy is likely to grab a lot of headlines once proceedings get underway in Japan in September. He scored some spectacular tries last year, and his ability to counterattack from deep is alarming for opposition defences. This is a quality player who exemplifies how much Argentina can now boast some extraordinary back line players in addition to their traditional bruising packs of forwards.

Match of the year – Australia vs Argentina – Gold Coast – September 15th – Australia 19/Argentina 23

If you want to see the kind of threat Delguy poses look no further than this match. Argentina played a brilliantly controlled match, superbly marshalled by fly half Sanchez and allied to some heroic defence in the last ten minutes. It was a measured and composed Argentinian performance, and perhaps even more important than the victory over South Africa a few weeks earlier, as it showed that the Pumas can travel well and get results. England and France you have been warned!

Next up – Australia!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whichever way you cut it – 2018 was a long and painful year for Canada and one which they will no doubt want to forget. It was salvaged at the death by a solid performance in the World Cup repechage tournament, which saw them snatch the last place up for grabs in this year’s global showdown in Japan. However, apart from that Canada’s track record in 2018 makes for depressing reading. 11 matches played, 6 lost and 5 won doesn’t seem so bad on paper but of the six they lost 2 were critical and almost lost Canada a place in the World Cup. A summer series saw Canada whitewashed, and the team appear rudderless in both shape and direction. They acquitted themselves well in their bid to secure a place in the World Cup in November in three matches played in France, but this was tempered by the fact that at one point this year Canada sank in the world rankings to 23. At the time of writing they still only sit at 20. This is a side that now finds itself sitting in a Pool with two of Test Rugby’s genuine contenders for World Cup glory this year – New Zealand and South Africa. The World Cup always seems to produce something special from Canada despite the odds, but there is no denying that after 2018, Canada and Coach Kingsley Jones have a phenomenal amount of work to get through in only nine months to make Canada genuinely competitive once more.

Canada – 4/10

Like we say it was hard to find positives this year for Canada, and we’re hoping that the spark we saw in November in France carries through into Canada’s opening games of a World Cup year, as they head into the Americas Rugby Championship in two weeks time.

Canada’s opening shots of 2018 in the Americas Rugby Championship however, did little to inspire confidence. Their first game of the year at home against Uruguay saw them at sixes and sevens as an exciting and powerful Uruguayan side ran rings around them. In the return fixture a week later in Uruguay, which also happened to be a World Cup qualifier, things appeared to be looking up as Canada ran Uruguay close and ultimately only lost by one point, but poor decision-making and discipline cost them a match they could and should have won. Their misery on the road continued as they were given a schooling by the USA. Returning home they managed to put Brazil to the sword, but then returning to South America were made to look like amateurs once more by Argentina. Pride was restored through beating Chile by a comfortable margin but they returned home at the end of the tournament having to settle for a mediocre fourth place on the table.

June saw Canada play a summer series of three home tests which Canada will want to forget. Being comprehensively thrashed by Scotland, Russia and the USA at home left the side completely demoralised, and Canadian fans with very little to cheer about. Furthermore Canada lost their second chance at World Cup qualification in the heavy defeat to the USA. Furthermore, to add insult to injury Canada’s place in the world rankings slipped to a desultory 23, the lowest it’s been in as long as we can remember. Canada simply looked bereft of ideas in all three matches coupled to a discipline problem that left you wondering if any of the players had ever seen a rule book. There were a few standout performances, but all too often it was left to the likes of players such as DTH van der Merwe to single-handedly pull Canada out of the fire. As good as such players are, without a team behind them it simply left with them with too much to do.

Consequently, it was with a sense of trepidation that Canadian supporters looked ahead to Canada’s last chance to qualify for this year’s World Cup in a repechage tournament to be held in France in November of 2018, between Kenya, Canada and Hong Kong. All games were played in Marseille and Canada was fortunate that, as the tournament fell into the official November Test window, it was able to bring in the services of its big guns who regularly ply their trade with major European club teams. As a result the likes of Taylor Paris, Tyler Ardron and DTH van der Merwe amongst a notable few were on hand.

Canada got proceedings under way with a convincing win over Kenya. Next up were Germany and despite the match being much closer Canada still walked away comfortable winners. Their final challenge saw them handle a spirited challenge from Hong Kong, but two superb tries from Van der Merwe helped Canada emerge the victors and thus secure their tickets to Japan and the World Cup. It was an uplifting performance from Canada but which also highlighted the critical importance of Canada’s European based players, without whom results seem rather few and far between. Furthermore, although Canada’s three opponents in the repechage were worthy challengers they are teams that in the past Canada would have dispatched with ease, and run in much larger scorelines. Canada find themselves arguably in one of the World Cup’s Pools of death. South Africa and New Zealand are simply out of reach while Canada has never beaten Italy. Their only Tier 2 opponent Namibia is a feisty opponent and Canada just emerged the victors in a tight tussle the last time these two countries met in 2014.

In short, Canada have their work cut out for them in 2019 in order to get things right for the World Cup. Ahead of them lies the opportunity to get some good mileage under their belt in the Americas Rugby Championship, with some real quality opposition in the shape of Argentina and the USA. The summer sees them travel to the US and then the Pacific Islands in this year’s edition of the Pacific Nations Cup, where they meet the Eagles, Fiji and Tonga. If they can get through this daunting challenge in good shape, then they will have had some solid preparation for both their target match in the World Cup against Namibia as well as hopefully a credible challenge to Italy.

There is some clear and obvious talent in Canadian rugby, both in terms of seasoned veterans and promising youngsters. While the coaching setup appears to have struggled, November showed that with the right mix of players things did seem to come together in that department. However, management of the sport as a whole in Canada and of the national team seems to be a disaster, as evidenced by the ongoing disputes with reimbursement for the sevens team, as well as very little effort at structuring the XV a side game in a way that makes Canada a Tier 2 force to be reckoned with as in years gone by.

2019 will be one of the most important years in Canadian rugby history. With the sport seemingly in free fall at a national level, continued failure this year is likely to kill off what remaining interest there is in the sport in Canada. As evidenced by the growth in popularity of sports such as rugby league, most notably the success of Toronto’s Wolfpack team, Rugby Canada really has to seize the opportunity provided by this World Cup with both hands. Should Canada fail to show up and catch the eye like they did at the last tournament in 2015, then it could well be the beginning of a very long and lonely period in the wilderness of the lower rungs of Tier 2 International Rugby for Canada. Despite the success in France last November, it would still appear that Canada will be up against it again this year. However, we reserve judgement till the results of the forthcoming Americas Rugby Championship are in. If Canada can at least finish in a strong second or third place in this tournament over the course of the next two months, then we like most supporters in this country will breathe a much-needed sigh of relief!

Player of the year – DTH Van Der Merwe

Every time he plays he seems to singlehandedly reverse the rot that has set into Canadian rugby. Blessed with some exceptional pace and skill, he is without doubt Canada’s finest player and one who consistently delivers results for a beleaguered national side – something he has been doing for quite some time now. At 32 this will probably be his last World Cup, but expect the veteran winger to sign off with a bang!

Player to watch in 2019 – Brock Staller

Blessed with a handy boot and an exceptional turn of speed when counterattacking from deep, the powerful utility back caught our eye every time he turned out for Canada this year. With his defence improving with each outing, we expect to see him play a very big part in Canada’s World Cup plans, and his reliability from the kicking tee help ensure that Canada makes a healthy return to being a solid Tier 2 opponent. If Canada can get their coaching structures right, Staller is a player who is likely to really come on song in 2019.

Match of the year – Canada vs Hong Kong – Marseille – November 24th – Canada 27/Hong Kong 10

Canada’s last game of the year finally gave us something to cheer about as they put in a solid performance to beat Hong Kong. It was a fitting end to a run of three straight victories in November and best of all ensured that after all the heartache of 2018, the last spot up for grabs at the World Cup belonged to Canada. The smiles on the players’ faces at the final whistle were a mixture of relief and happiness that a tough year was able to end so positively. From here it’s hopefully onwards and upwards for a team that in the past has been able to consistently punch way above its weight!

Next up – Argentina!