This week to summarise a great 2014, we give the top ten International Teams their annual report card using a marking system of 0-10, and as this is a Canadian site, we also have a look at how the Canuck men and women’s teams did over the year. So without any further ado we’ll start off in Buenos Aires.
Argentina – 8/10
Let’s face it, overall it has been a great year for Los Pumas and a superb platform on which to build for this year’s World Cup. If they can keep up the momentum of last year, then Argentina could be a serious contender for some significant upsets at RWC 2015. On the basis of their current form they should easily qualify as runners-up in their pool and thus go to a quarter-final with either France or Ireland. If it’s France, then you could see them going all the way to the semi-finals – heady stuff and is reminiscent of 2007.
Argentina under new coach Daniel Hourcade were very impressive in 2014. We got an inkling of what they might do during Ireland’s tour of Argentina in June. With many of their top players just returned from an exhausting season of French rugby, and Hourcade wisely resting some of his stars in preparation for the Rugby Championship, a second string Pumas side made Ireland work hard in both their matches. This left many of us wondering how a full strength Puma side with a sprinkling of the new talent we saw on hand in June would do. We were not disappointed. In Argentina’s opening game of the Rugby Championship in South Africa, under a torrential downpour complete with hail, Argentina were unlucky to lose and for much of the match had the better of the Springboks. In the return fixture in Argentina, Los Pumas as expected took their game to another level and were unlucky to lose by the smallest of margins to a Springbok side that they outplayed for seventy minutes.
It was this seventy minute issue that denies them a ten out of ten score for me. In all but the last game of the Rugby Championship this was Argentina’s weakness. They played a great 70 minutes but seemed to run out of steam and ideas after this causing them to settle for narrow loss after narrow loss. Hourcade obviously worked hard with his team and by the end of the Rugby Championship in the last game against Australia, the Pumas finally figured out the formula for playing a full eighty minutes. The result – their first ever win in the Rugby Championship.
On their tour of Europe in November, they came unstuck against Scotland despite a late comeback, pulled off an unimpressive victory over Italy, but gave France all kinds of concerns for this year’s World Cup by ending their year with an impressive win in Paris. As they prepare for this year, they do so knowing they have probably the best scrum in the world, an impressive set of forwards, a strong midfield and an exciting backline. Hourcade and Captain Agustin Creevy did a fantastic job in 2014 of building a truly world-class team, and we all look forward to seeing them take it up a notch in 2015.
Australia – 7/10
Given the talent they have Australia should have scored a lot better than the 7/10 I am giving them. However, for whatever reason they consistently stopped short of greatness this year. Having said that, I doubt very much that this will be the case in 2015 – this is a team getting ready to peak at just the right time for the World Cup. Still, enough talk of what could be and more on what was.
Australia started their International campaign in 2014 under coach Ewen Mckenzie on a bright note, with a well executed dismissal of a weary and fractured French side in three tests in Australia in June. However, some of the problems stemming from attitude issues in the Australian camp reared their head in the second French test as an overconfident and perhaps slightly arrogant Wallaby side struggled to keep the French at 6-0 in one of the strangest Tests we saw all year. This wake up call however served to do the Wallabies some good as Australia comprehensively thrashed the French in the third and final test.
Then came the Rugby Championship which all looked so promising for Australia only to end in tears. Australia would blow hot one test and then luke warm the next, coupled with all kinds of off field political drama worthy of one of Mexico’s best soap operas. The Wallabies started the Championship with a nail biting draw against an off form New Zealand and took credit for finally breaking the All Blacks winning streak. They then travelled to New Zealand and were mere schoolboys in a clinical pounding by the All Blacks. Against South Africa next, they produced a superb display and showed the finishing power for eighty minutes that South Africa lacked. From here on however, Australia fell into disarray and despite individual displays of brilliance by a group of very talented players it ultimately didn’t translate into a consistent run of wins. At home against Argentina they looked in danger of losing the match in the dying minutes as a proud Argentinian side made a valiant comeback. In South Africa, they imploded in the last ten minutes, allowing South Africa to run in three unanswered tries. It was the last match in Argentina that perhaps best summed up the Wallabies’ woes. With the team at loggerheads with beleaguered coach Ewen Mckenzie and some members of the team displaying an arrogance akin to spoilt schoolboys, Argentina took advantage of a divided and confused team, using their devastating scrum to attack the key weakness of Australia all year – a consistent and solid forward performance. Yes there was an unfortunate laser incident at the match, but even without that Argentina would still have one by one point, they simply out-muscled and outmaneuvered Australia for 80 minutes.
It was this lack of forward prowess coupled with some questionable attitudes by some of the players that ultimately cost Australia the Championship and much of their November tour to Europe. Despite starting off on a winning note against the Welsh, the rest of Australia’s tour was not much to write home about, losing to the French, Irish and English. However, Australia can take heart from the fact that new Coach Michael Cheika was given a baptism of fire by inheriting the team two weeks before the tour, and to give him and the team credit, there was some definite improvements seen in November both in terms of attitude and skill. So although Australia underperformed in 2014, there is still much to look forward to in 2015. Some key players are returning to the Wallaby fold in 2015 to help address some of their forward pack issues, and with the world class talent they have in their midfield and back line then this is a team to be very wary of. They will only get better as the year progresses and all the other possible World Cup contenders will need to take serious note – underestimate this sleeping giant at your peril.
England – 7/10
In much the same way as Australia, this is a team who on paper should have done so much better in 2014 than they did. As hosts of this year’s World Cup, England needed to consolidate their team and unfortunately this is still very much a team under construction. I can’t help feeling that mistakes were made in not choosing players on the basis of actual form as opposed to supposed potential. Nowhere was this more evident than in the continual search for a settled number 10. For me, I can’t help feeling that George Ford should have been given the starting number 10 shirt for the November Internationals, instead of for just the last two Tests against Samoa and Australia. That being said however, in the pressure cooker that was England’s final Test of the year, against Australia Ford passed with flying colors and if Stuart Lancaster is serious about taking the Webb Ellis trophy this October, then Ford should be given as much game time as possible to build his experience. For me this would mean him getting the number 10 shirt for all of England’s Six Nations games.
What surprised me the most was how poorly England’s backline and centre pairings worked overall. Sure there were individual flashes of brilliance but nothing consistent and players that we expected so much from such as Mike Brown never really fired at every match. Once again this probably can be traced back to the indecision surrounding the number nine and ten positions, but it nevertheless was disappointing when we all know how much talent is there.
England’s Six Nations campaign was disappointing and a case of so close yet so far. Follow this up with a tough but ultimately disappointing tour to New Zealand, where England were competitive for all three Tests, especially in the second match, but somehow just couldn’t find that last few plays to finish off the All Blacks.
The November tests were in short a nightmare for the Men in White, and by the time the Australian test rolled around, the pressure on England was enormous. However, despite it being too little too late to change the overall tone of the year, England dug deep and produced their best performance of 2014. It seemed that they had finally found the combinations from 1-10 that click, if they can do that for 11-15 then they will truly be a major threat for the World Cup this year. The performance of England’s forwards in their last Test of the year against Australia that produced that vital win is rapidly becoming the stuff of legends. It was vintage rugby and gave England the much-needed confidence booster they so desperately needed going into 2015. We now wait for the Six Nations with bated breath to see if we will finally see the finished English product – if we do the Webb Ellis trophy could well be theirs for the taking.
France – 6/10
We all know what the French can do, it’s just they do it so very rarely these days. In a country that produces some of the best club rugby in the world, admittedly shored up by a huge influx of quality foreign players, it always amazes me that the fortunes of French rugby have been so dismal in the last few years. Yes there are coaching problems aplenty in France and much of the discord between coaches and players is a significant contributing factor to France’s woes on the pitch, but they still should be doing so much better in spite of this as that French flair is always lurking in the background waiting to be let loose.
France started the year with a Six Nations campaign that looked like it might go their way after the win against England in the opening round but thereafter it all went horribly wrong for Les Bleus. Up against a determined Irish side wanting to give their beloved Brian O’Driscoll one last piece of silverware to hold, France were ultimately outclassed in final match in Paris, and it became clear that the talent pool France is working with at present is not vintage France.
A weary French squad dragged themselves onto the plane to Australia in June after the usual exhausting French club season and were essentially annihilated in three Tests, leaving them demoralised and confused.
Come the autumn Tests, salvation reared its head in finding the superb Camille Lopez at fly half, the spectacular Teddy Thomas on the wing and Aaron Spedding at fullback. However, despite the shock win over Australia, France were ultimately undone by an Argentinian side determined to make a statement in their last match. Coach Philippe Saint- Andre and his players don’t seem to be on the same wavelength, and there isn’t anybody waiting in the wings who might be able to step in and address this fundamental disconnect between players and coaching staff. It remains to be seen in 2015 if this can be fixed. If it can then given some of the emerging talent in the French team, this sleeping giant of world rugby could once again regain their status of World Cup dark horses. For now though, it’s all about finding something to cheer about in the Six Nations. For the sake of the game and a sense of spectacle in 2015 let’s hope that French flair is back in fashion!
Ireland – 9/10
How to build a world-class side in 12 months. Hire a coach with a brilliant tactical mind who has a good understanding of how your provincial rugby works and its strengths and weaknesses. Take the talent that is available in the provinces and give them solid game time in important matches and develop a strong second string. Make sure you develop depth available to you come selection time. Lastly focus on each match at hand and less on the future and what could be.
Under Joe Schmidt’s tenure this is exactly what happened in 2014, resulting in Ireland being the most improved team this year and finishing the year number three in the IRB world rankings. In short, impressive. Ireland thrilled us all with some great running rugby, solid tactical play and phenomenal defence. Every Irish player selected to wear the green jersey this year rose to the occasion. Sure they were’nt always perfect and they are certainly not the All Blacks’ equals yet but they are narrowing the gap and definitely helping close the gulf between Northern and Southern Hemisphere rugby. Perhaps most impressive of all was the depth that Ireland developed this year and how quickly they were able to adapt and improve on mistakes from previous matches. In a year where many in the Irish media were concerned with Ireland’s significant injury list, by the end of it, there was a feeling that for every first choice player for a position there is a more than adequate understudy ready to step up. This is superb preparation for a World Cup.
Ireland were superb in the Six Nations, with only the narrow loss to England dampening their spirits. As deserved Six Nations champions many were concerned that the end of the Six Nations saw the departure of Irish national treasure Brian O’Driscoll. The emotional scenes at the Aviva stadium at the end of the game against Italy and O’Driscoll’s last appearance in front of the Landsdowne faithful said it all. It was therefore with bated breath that we watched Ireland’s first foray against an under strength Pumas side in two Tests in Argentina in June. Although Ireland won both matches it wasn’t without a struggle, and I must say I for one was not overly hopeful of Ireland’s chances come the Autumn Tests.
Come November and despite a daunting injury list to some key players, Ireland worked hard and delivered in two superb performances against Australia and South Africa, along with a solid showing of some of Ireland’s rising talent in the match against Georgia. Of particular note was Ireland’s game against South Africa. Ireland shut down all of the Springboks danger men while their forwards were fast and accurate at the breakdown, in short a clinical dismantling of all of South Africa’s strengths. In the game against Australia, which was much closer and left the crowd on the edge of their seats for eighty minutes after a first half try fest from both sides, Ireland held their nerve and discipline and carved out a narrow but convincing win.
There is still lots of work to do for Ireland to truly deserve the mantle of dark horse for this year’s World Cup, but there is no doubt that 2014 saw them build an exceptionally solid platform. With the return from injury of several of Ireland’s key players this year, you know that this team is only going to get stronger. Combine a team growing in confidence and developing some serious depth with one of the best coaching minds in the International game and 2015 really could be a champagne year for Ireland!
Italy – 5/10
If you’re an Italian supporter, 2014 is probably a year you will want to forget. Italy started their Six Nations campaign with intent against Wales but come round three and a 1 point loss to Scotland, the wheels quite literally fell off for the Italians as they received thumping defeats at the hands of England and Ireland. Add to that a disastrous tour of the Pacific which saw them lose to Fiji, Samoa and Japan, so that by the time the November Internationals rolled around there really wasn’t much to get excited about in Italy.
It wasn’t all gloom and doom though in November. A convincing rematch with Samoa saw Italy this time emerge triumphant. What epitomised Italy’s woeful year however was losing their next autumn test to Argentina. This was a game Italy should have won against a Pumas side that only just showed up on the day. A spirited performance from the Italians in an effort to salvage some pride then saw them hold South Africa level for the first half of their last Test of the year, only to see South Africa have to throw everything at the Azurri in the second half, which eventually saw an exhausted and frustrated Springbok side claw out a 22-6 victory. Italy is a competitive team, but is woefully inconsistent at the moment, perhaps not helped by their whipping boy status at club level in the European Champions Cup so far this season. It remains to be seen how they will do in this year’s Six Nations and I hope for their sake that some of the obvious talent they have will come to the fore, otherwise it is going to be a long and disappointing year for the Azurri which will make their troubles in 2014 seem minor.
New Zealand 10/10
Look let’s face it, they had one poor game this year. The opening game of the Rugby Championship in which they drew with Australia. Other than that New Zealand were THE complete team this year, as much as perhaps some of us hate to admit it – just as they were last year. Coach Steve Hansen has got the best out of his charges again this year and there is no question that should their form continue they will be the team to beat at this year’s World Cup. In a year that saw them without star fly-half, Dan Carter, lo and behold they found themselves blessed with two high quality number 10s as replacements and who both have many years ahead of them. Beauden Barrett and Aaron Cruden were simply outstanding and left the All Blacks wanting for very little. Add to that the find of the year in Brodie Retallick at number 4, and the list goes on. Julian Savea and Ben Smith provided some of the most memorable tries of the year. Richie McCaw was his usual unbreakable self despite being under heightened scrutiny from referees throughout the year. The All Black scrum was a pillar of strength throughout the year and were only really challenged by the Pumas scrum. New Zealand also showed that they were the masters of closing out big games and how to play the last ten minutes. Time and again we saw them return from the edge of disaster only to then blow their opponents aside in the last ten minutes.
There is so much quality and depth in this All Black side at the moment, that Steve Hansen is the only coach in International Rugby who is truly spoilt for choice in selecting players for all 15 positions. The interplay between all 15 New Zealand players on the field is superb and they have a superb understanding of where they all are at any given moment in a match. This makes them a very, very difficult proposition to beat. An injury list for New Zealand unlike for the rest of the top teams seems not to be a concern. In short, there is not much to say about New Zealand in 2014. They were simply the best and it will take an exceptionally talented and focused team to wrestle the Webb Ellis trophy away from them this year. The only question on everyone’s lips is have they peaked too soon and can they actually win the World Cup away from New Zealand? Remember they have never done this since the tournament’s inaugural competition in New Zealand in 1987. It’s a big question, but right now I would have to err on the side of New Zealand of being more than capable of putting such doubts to rest in 2015 – for the rest of the world the benchmark has been set. Can anyone upset the All Black juggernaut when it matters most in 2015? We wait and see!
Scotland – 6/10
Some might argue this is an unfair score given the exceptional rejuvenation of Scotland in the November Tests. However, November was only one month in a rather long and painful year for Scotland. The positive is that under new coach Vern Cotter the team was effectively reborn in November and there is much to be excited about in Scottish rugby heading into 2015.
However, for much of 2014 it was a lonely, cold year for Scottish rugby fans as their team failed in Test after Test. The Six Nations was for the most part a depressing affair, with some record and embarrassing scorelines against the Scots. There was some salvation in the one point win over Italy and the narrow loss to France, but apart from that it was a pretty dismal experience. The summer tour however showed some promise with wins against Argentina and the USA and a close fought victory over Canada. However it all ended in tears as an exhausted Scotland were annihilated in South Africa at the end of a summer tour which should leave most of the team with a healthy air miles balance for the next year.
Then came November and hints of what could have been all year finally came to light in no uncertain terms. Egged on by the fantastic success of Glasgow Warriors in this season’s European club competitions Scotland came out of the blocks in November as a team on fire. Their opening game against Argentina was inspirational to watch and saw them get a well deserved 41-31 victory in a thrilling display of fast paced running rugby. The Gray brothers, Richie and Jonny were fantastic and helped ensure that Argentina’s forward dominance was put to the test for the full eighty minutes, while Greg Laidlaw’s boot kept Scotland on target throughout the match. It was a great team performance which was then followed up by a superb effort against the mighty All Blacks. Although Scotland lost the match the improvements and motivation of the Scottish players were there for all to see. The final thumping of the Tongans and Scotland’s superb five tries sealed an extremely productive month for the Scots. Furthermore they have answered their critics that they are now a potent try scoring machine. The revival of this proud rugby nation this year has been great to watch and we are all looking forward to a Scotland that instead of duking it out with Italy for the wooden spoon at Six Nations time, has the potential to cause some major upsets and even challenge for the silverware.
South Africa – 7/10
I’m going to be honest here, South Africa were lucky to get a 7, and only really get it on the basis of their win over England in November and beating the All Blacks in the last game of the Rugby Championship. For the rest of the year this was a pretty mediocre team despite flashes of brilliance. Where the blame lays, is hard to say. Most readers of these pages know that I don’t hold Heineke Meyer in very high regard, and on the basis of this year’s performance by the Springboks do not feel he is the right man to take the Boks to the World Cup – despite it being too late to change that now.
Still enough of the coach what about the team. South Africa started the year well enough by beating Wales comprehensively in the first of two tests in June, but then almost came horribly unstuck in the second test managing to claw out a one point win. Despite being rattled by this narrow escape they then went on to put 55 points past Scotland. Then came the Rugby Championship. In their opening game in Pretoria against a fired up Pumas side in appalling weather conditions they managed to emerge the victors but the display was far from convincing. In Argentina a week later the Springboks were completely outplayed for 75 minutes and it was only the Pumas inability to close out big games that saw South Africa emerge the victors 33-31. In Australia, they threw the game against the Wallabies but found some redemption a week later in holding the All Blacks close, but still unable to topple the All Black machine. Back in South Africa the Springboks finally managed to find their rhythm and played two superb games, running in three unanswered tries against Australia in the final ten minutes to emerge the deserved winner in Cape Town and finally managing to be the first team to break the All Blacks unbroken record in 2014 in Johannesburg. For me the key decisions were at the coaching level as Heineke Meyer finally got his charges to stop kicking away good possession and also choosing the right players, in particular putting in Patrick Lambie at fly half instead of the brilliant but inexperienced Handre Pollard and giving Cobus Reinach the chance to shine at scrum half as opposed to Francois Hougaard who I feel is one the most overrated players in South African rugby.
Then came November, and Meyer seemed to forget everything the Springboks had learned in the closing rounds of the Rugby Championship as they were clinically dismantled by a very well organised Ireland. South Africa played a woeful kicking game while Hougaard and Pollard were chosen once more as starting number nine and ten and showed levels of incompetence that left many speechless. In a performance that to many displayed a certain degree of arrogance in thinking that the Irish were inferior opponents, South Africa were quite literally handed their shirts. To their credit they then ate humble pie and went back to the combinations that worked in the dying stages of the Rugby Championship and produced a superb performance against England that showed just how good a team they can be when they get the basics right and use the right players. After that they then slipped back into their old ways as they struggled for much of the game against Italy and really only managed to claw a scrappy win in the last twenty minutes of the game. Their final performance against Wales which they lost and sadly saw a horrific injury to Captain Jean de Villiers, was one of their worst games all year.
Perhaps what was most alarming was the decline in form as the year wore on of star fullback Willie le Roux. He started the year being one of the most exciting players in Test Rugby, but by the November tests had been relegated to the status of schoolboy as a series of spectacularly poor performances made him have a year I am sure he would rather forget. Sure there were some standout players all year-long, Cornal Hendricks on the wing was always exciting to watch, Duane Vermeulen at number eight was rightly nominated as one of the players of the year and Jean De Villiers as Captain epitomised the sportsmanship synonymous with our great game. But to be honest those were the highlights of a Springbok side brimming with talent but lacking the ability to consistently deliver results. Their biggest problem and one which must surely be a concern to every Springbok supporter is their inability to win away from home. Look at the results in 2014, three wins out of seven on the road. Considering they have to win all seven games at this year’s World Cup away from home – it’s not a promising track record. If they can fix this during this year’s Rugby Championship then make no mistake, this troubled side can once again be one of International Rugby’s great powerhouses.
Wales – 6/10
Wales promised so much all year-long but sadly failed to capitalise on many of the winning situations they found themselves in. In a Six Nations campaign that had flashes of what Wales could be but ultimately didn’t see them get into the top three, many Welsh fans were left disappointed. The summer tour to South Africa also was frustrating as the inability to finish off South Africa at the death in the second and final test left many feeling that Wales no longer had it in them to take on the Southern Hemisphere giants. November reinforced that belief as they lost a game they should have won against Australia and threw a game where until 65 minutes they had a dominant lead over the All Blacks. By the time of their final game of the year against South Africa, most people had written Wales off. Yes they managed a win, but the South Africans played so badly that day that it wasn’t exactly a benchmark performance by Wales.
What is perhaps most surprising is that this Welsh team has heaps of talent. Dan Biggar at fly-half impressed all year, and Sam Warburton’s athleticism and sheer immunity to pain at times was the stuff of legends as he continued to rally not just his fellow forwards but the entire team. Leigh Halfpenny was always reliable at fullback and deserved the recognition he always gets. George North is always a potent threat on the wing and Welsh scrum half Rhys Webb had a particularly impressive November. So what’s not working? To be honest like most people, I don’t have an answer. This is a team that should be doing so much better than it does. They promise so much but ultimately seem to deliver so little. It remains to be seen if the morale boosting win over South Africa at the end of a woeful Welsh year will be enough to spark this talented group of individuals to Six Nations glory come February. If not, expect to see an early exit of the Welsh from the World Cup at the end of the year.
So although not in the top ten International teams, as a Canadian site we now turn our attention to our national squad. We’re going to divide this into two sections – the men’s and women’s teams – especially as the spectacular performance of our women at the 2014 Womens’ World Cup detracted from a pretty dismal year for the men.
Canadian Men – 5/10
Canada should have done better this year – enough said. Winning one out of six games is simply not good enough going into the World Cup, especially as we only played one of the top ten teams this year and lost. Furthermore to suffer a significant loss to the only pool opponent we have a chance of beating in this year’s World Cup, Romania, doesn’t bode well for World Cup glory.
Canada played well at times and showed some definite flair all year-long, sometimes too much for my liking at the expense of the basics, but were constantly found lacking in the last ten minutes of every match they played. Even in the one game we won against Namibia, had the game been five minutes longer a consistent Namibian assault on a tiring Canadian defence would probably have seen the game swing in favour of the Namibians. As a result although happy to see Canada’s one win this year it was still far too close for my liking.
Canada has talent and exciting players. Conor Trainor and DTH Van der Merwe in the back line always impress along with James Pritchard at fullback. Canada has strength, experience and physicality in their forwards through Jamie Cudmore and the emerging Nanyak Dala is an exciting talent to watch in the future. However as mentioned above, while they were great to watch at times this year, some of the basics went begging at key moments and a little less adventurous play and more emphasis on strengthening our core skills will serve Canada well this year. The men’s team should spend some time with the women’s’ team this year and if nothing else absorb some of the culture of winning big games that served our women so well in 2014.
Canadian Women – 10/10
I think everyone would agree with me that we end the Lineout’s report card for 2014 with a gold star for Canada’s women who captured our and the rest of the world’s imagination at the 2014 Womens’ World Cup. This was, like the All Blacks, a complete team performance and was inspirational to watch. As I mentioned above the Canadian men could learn a lot from spending some time with this remarkable group of women in their own preparations for this year’s World Cup.
Although Canada didn’t win the ultimate prize of the World Cup, their performance in this tournament made everyone and the rugby world in general sit up and take notice of them. Magali Harvey’s spectacular try against France in the semi-final has become the stuff of rugby legends and was a deserving nominee for try of the year. Captain Kelly Russell’s leadership of her team was an example to all and the spirit and commitment with which this team played throughout the tournament showcased all the best qualities of our great sport. At the end of the tournament I was delighted to see the Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper, devote a full color page to the women’s’ team saluting their performance. This and Canada’s effort in the World Cup has done wonders in elevating the status of the women’s’ game both here at home and overseas.
So after a stellar year this team looks set to have some great years ahead of them and are without a doubt more than capable of winning the next Women’s World Cup in 2017. To quote an old song ladies: ” the future’s so bright you gotta wear shades!”
So that’s it for 2014 – bring on 2015 and so much to look forward to! Thanks to all for your support this past year!