As the World Cup is locked away in New Zealand’s trophy case for another four years – what lies ahead for the countries of the Six Nations and Rugby Championship?

Posted: November 10, 2015 in General Commentary
Tags:

So as we all adjust to life after the World Cup, what have the ten countries at the top end of international rugby learnt as life returns to normal for them?  As they head into next year’s Six Nations and Rugby Championship what lessons do they need to take from this tournament and what are the challenges they are likely to face?  As this is a Canadian site we’ll also look at Canada’s performance in this World Cup and what it means to them.  So without any further ado here’s a quick wrap-up.

Argentina

In short, a stellar World Cup for the men from South America, with Coach Daniel Hourcade being one of the most influential figures of the tournament.  While it was clear that the retirement of some of the current Pumas legacy is on the cards in the next year, there is so much raw talent in this Pumas team that the future can only be something to get excited about.  Winger Santiago Cordero, centre Matias Moroni, lock Tomas Lavanini and others are all beacons for the future given that they are all well under the age of 25.  Argentina’s continued exposure to the cream of Southern Hemisphere rugby in the form of their participation in the Rugby Championship and the most recent addition of an Argentinian franchise to the Super Rugby competition in 2016 all bode well to cement Argentina’s position as a rugby superpower.  I can only see a very bright future for the Pumas.

I regard Argentina as one of the most improved teams in the last four years and this trend looks set to continue in the buildup to Japan in 2019.  I really don’t have all that much to say about Argentina other than I thought they were one of the most inspired and exciting sides in the tournament, and like many I am really excited to watch their continued development in the next four years.  A truly great side being steered by an inspirational coach.  Argentina are unquestionably sitting at the high table of international rugby at the moment and are likely to remain there for many years to come.  The key will be the continued development and exposure of the young talent they are bringing forward, but based on what we saw in this World Cup I would have to argue that Argentina have a game plan that seems to be working just fine!

Australia

The Wallaby Phoenix has well and truly risen from the ashes this past year.  Coach Michael Cheika has performed miracles with his charges in the last twelve months.  Miracles is perhaps the wrong word as the talent was always there it just needed the right hand to steer it.  Uncompromising yet deeply in tune with his players Cheika brings both the intelligence and sheer bloody-mindedness that Australian rugby has lacked for so long.  There is still much work to be done as evidenced by Australia essentially losing the plot against Scotland in the quarter-finals.  However, given the right support and coaching Australia has all the essentials for a World Cup winning team in 2019.  Some work will need to be done in a continued tightening up of Australia’s forwards strengths while also finding suitable replacements for the likes of Adam Ashley-Cooper and Israel Folau in the backs.  While Bernard Foley still needs to settle completely into the role of Australia’s first choice flyhalf, the skill levels he showed in this World Cup surely left no doubt that he has the ability.  With Will Genia not being around for 2019 Australia will have to figure out who they want to focus on for scrum half.  Nick Phipps has potential but his execution and nerves often leave a lot to be desired.  I was very surprised to see Nic White not make the cut in this position and it remains to be seen how his Wallaby future will play out over the next four years.  Nevertheless, a well coached team brimming with talent and a crop of younger talent likely to come to the fore over the next few years, puts Australia in excellent shape and gives their supporters a lot to be optimistic about.  I can’t help feeling that what we saw this World Cup from Australia was only the tip of the iceberg.

Canada

Canada had one of the most exciting players of the tournament in winger DTH van der Merwe and put up an inspirational fight against France and Italy.  While always likely to be put to the sternest of tests by Ireland they still never looked like a side who was in danger of giving up.  Against France and Italy they caught the imagination of every neutral fan in the stands and those watching on television and there is no question that they could have won both games especially the Italian game.  It was their final game against Romania which was perhaps the most worrying.  To go and lose a game that you had dominated for almost an hour at 15-0 and then leak 17 unanswered points defies all logic.  Romania to their credit played with more self-belief and once their tails were up there was no stopping them.

Canada in the last 2 years have proved incapable of playing more than 60 minutes of rugby with the type of intensity and efficiency that you need to close out big games.  Two wins out of 17 games is simply unacceptable no matter how courageous and entertaining Canada is on the field.  While we may have some dazzling skills on the pitch much of this has been honed in our relative success in the sevens game.  However, they simply do not translate into eighty minutes of rugby plain and simple.  Canada has to find a way to address this and the fifteen a side game needs players who are focused on the bigger game.  Having players jump between the two codes in my opinion is just not practical.  Use the sevens series as a breeding ground for younger players to hone some skills and then integrate them into the fifteen a side game and keep them there.  Canada needs more international exposure and I have always argued that a closer continental tie-in with Argentina on a yearly competitive basis would be a key step in the right direction.  Canada could learn an enormous amount from the successful development of the game in Argentina as sporting wise there are enormous similarities between the two countries.

Like England, Canada’s record in this World Cup will raise questions about coaching and while I am not necessarily of the opinion that wholesale change is the answer, a recognition of the fact that it may be part of the problem allied to the way the national side is managed and developed may go a long way to fixing Canada’s issues.  Canada could and should be doing so much better than they are and it is hoped that in the next four years instead of merely entertaining us, they will also find that winning mentality and self-belief which so often seems to desert them when they need it most.

England

England’s World Cup can only be described as a disaster, albeit a puzzling one.  There is no question that England has some of the best resources in international rugby at its disposal but yet somehow has been unable to obtain much in the way of silverware in the last four years.  There is considerable talent in England in terms of a player base which makes the lack of success all the more baffling.  As we saw in this World Cup, they are more than capable of scoring quality tries and Johnny May and Mike Brown certainly did not disappoint in this department.  What seems to be lacking is a genuine structure to the team and clear purpose as to what kind of rugby they want to play.  I also can’t really understand many of the coaching decisions made by England in this World Cup and while not necessarily being of the fire Stuart Lancaster mentality, surely questions need to be asked about what exactly the last four years have been about under his tenure.  The fact that untried combinations were being experimented with during the heat of a World Cup in the most unforgiving Pool of all beggars belief – surely that’s what the four years leading up to the World Cup were for?

England will also need to wrestle with an increasingly self-centred club structure and domestic competition that runs the risk of mirroring the destruction caused to the national side as seen across the Channel in France.  While the rampant greed and disparity of national and club interests hasn’t quite reached the level of the poisoned atmosphere that exists in France, the lack of commitment by the clubs to address England’s national fortunes is worrying.  A real litmus test of this will be how much Clubs are willing to release key players to the national squad prior to the Six Nations as well as the overall success of English clubs in this year’s European Champions Cup.  England hit rock bottom during this World Cup and you would hope that it is only onwards and upwards from here.  However, until we know what the coaching structure of England will look like going into 2016, England’s future still looks murky as a team in crisis struggles to find some answers.

France

With no disrespect to French readers of this site, I have to say that the situation in the French camp looks fairly hopeless.  The ineptitude of coach Philippe Saint-Andre aside, there was little on display by France in this World Cup that could be held up as a sign of hope for the future.  France only looked good, and even then they struggled at times as evidenced against Canada and Romania, when up against tier two countries.  The total annihilation of France by New Zealand was the final straw for many French fans.

In short, French rugby strikes us outsiders as being in a complete mess at a national level and there are few if any signs that things are likely to improve between now and the next World Cup.  The appointment of a new Coach, Guy Noves, has done little to instill a sense of optimism as the national side still remains completely subservient to and strangled by the needs and wants of France’s domestic competition.  While a strong grassroots level competition is a cornerstone of a successful national side, in France it has been blown out of all proportion.  Add to this the fact that much of the domestic competition is dominated by international players, much as in European football, and it is hard for quality French players to emerge.  The glory days of French rugby and that mystical French flair are very much the stuff of legend these days.  It remains to be seen whether or not Guy Noves can turn things around and offer up French sides that are something more than disjointed and demoralised outfits that do little to inspire the imagination.  I hate to say it but France under the current structure, with little sign of a change in attitude from the clubs, is starting an inevitable slide to tier two status if something radical isn’t done soon.

Ireland

Oh Ireland, you promised us so much but left us with so little as the ghosts of 2007 came back to haunt you.  This should have been one of Ireland’s best World Cups ever but instead they left with a whisper.  While I think the media are partly to blame for building a certain myth around this Irish side coupled with the fact that injuries cost them dearly, there is no escaping the fact that when it mattered Ireland just did not look like the finished product.  On the plane home the day after the quarter-final loss to Argentina which I attended in Cardiff, I was interested to read one Irish commentator in the Irish press dismiss Ireland’s success as back to back Six Nations champions.  In his view, while it is commendable to win the Six Nations and no mean feat, if you look at the standards on display by Southern Hemisphere teams in the Rugby Championship, the Six Nations suddenly starts to look like the Second Division.  Based on what we saw on display by the Six Nations competitors in this World Cup with the possible exception of Wales, you can’t help feeling that there is a grain of truth in that statement.  As impressive as Ireland’s wins against South Africa and Australia were last November, when was the last time an Irish side or any team from the Six Nations for that matter beat a Southern Hemisphere team in their own backyard?  Like me you’re probably having to go to a Google search for that one.  Yes I know Ireland beat Argentina, last year in Argentina but that was not against their first choice team and was very much a Pumas B team, who even then managed to run Ireland close in both games.  Until that starts happening on a regular basis there is no denying that a gap does exist between North and South in terms of skill and quality.

Ireland got the job done in their pool against their Northern Hemisphere opponents France and Italy but even against Italy they looked shaky at times and certainly not world beaters.  Although Ian Madigan admirably stepped up to the plate for Johnny Sexton in the game against France, his performance against Argentina the following weekend was far from composed or assured.  Ireland despite a raft of promising young talent starting to emerge, showed in this World Cup that their game is built far too much around one or two key players for them to be an effective unit that can take on the rest of the world day in and day out.  Remove Johnny Sexton and Paul O’Connell from the equation and Ireland lose too much of their lustre, though in their defence none of their ambition or determination.  However, without these two players they looked far too predictable at times and as I said back in March during the Six Nations they need to score tries and lots of them, something they struggle with on a regular basis.  They have the talent and the adventurism to do so, but all too often lack the finishing skills and confidence to follow it through.  Luke Fitzgerald in the game against Argentina was one real bright spark of hope for Ireland in this regard and there needs to be much more of this kind of expansive play encouraged and perfected by Ireland if they are to challenge the Southern Hemisphere’s big four in 2019.  Coach Joe Schmidt has a great deal of work to do with Ireland in the next two years and the tour to South Africa next year along with Ireland’s record in the Six Nations in a few months will be a serious litmus test of what a new look Ireland is likely to be capable of.  Remove the hype, build a complete 15 man team solid in defence and expansive in attack and Ireland can get back to the winning ways that looked so promising at the beginning of the year.  The potential and talent is there backed by a domestic structure that is probably more supportive of such a process than any of the other Six Nations countries.  Ireland will regroup and under Schmidt they are unlikely to make the same mistakes more than once.  It’s back to the drawing board but the pencils are still sharp!

Italy

Italy made several valiant stands at this World Cup and can be commended for finishing third in their pool and thus automatic qualification for the next World Cup in 2019.  However, that’s where the good news ends and pessimism kicks in.  Italian sides woeful performances at the European level and a traditionally poor showing in the Six Nations do little to instil a sense of belief in a side desperate for answers.  Add to that a change in the coaching team after this Six Nations, a raft of retirements of many of Italy’s old guard and Italy is left with more questions than answers.  Lastly the future of talismanic Captain Sergio Parisse’s long-term involvement with the Azurri is also a grey area, and while he will likely feature in Italy’s Six Nations campaigns for at least the next two seasons his involvement as a player in Italy’s 2019 challenge is highly unlikely.

Still despite concerns there are also grounds for optimism.  Italy does have some exciting backs especially in the shape of Giovanbattista Venditti and Leonardo Sarto and these two should both be available for World Cup duty in 2019.  The halfback partnership of Tommaso Allan and Edoardo Gordi is showing some real promise, and I personally think Italy would be foolish to bring back import flyhalf Kelly Haimona as for me Allan has really matured in the last year and his kicking is far more reliable than that of Haimona.  It’s the forward platform where Italy is in danger of becoming slightly rudderless.  You can have the most exciting backs in the world but without a platform to deliver them quality ball you are going nowhere in a hurry.  As veterans like Martin Castrogiovanni hang up their boots it remains to be seen what Italy has in terms of developing players to fill the void left by Castrogiovanni and others.  Right now I don’t see much to get excited about in this department from an Italian perspective and this should be a primary focus of whoever takes over from departing coach Jacques Brunel.  Italy has produced a solid forward pack before and there should be no reason that they can’t do it again.  Italy has an enormous task ahead of them and if they revert to type in the Six Nations over the next few years and end up being consistent wooden spoon holders, emerging European powers like Georgia will be pressing hard to claim their spot.  You can’t deny the legitimacy of Georgia’s claim but Italy for now deserve their spot in the Six Nations however tenuous some critics may be calling it – but results are needed and sooner rather than later!

New Zealand

In a word – brilliant!  New Zealand’s emphatic win in this year’s Rugby World Cup final cemented their undisputed place at the top of the world’s rugby hierarchy.  There is little to find fault with in another year where New Zealand essentially eclipsed all those who came before them.  However, as we saw in Sydney during this year’s Rugby Championship, as good as this team is it not without the odd chink in its armor, especially as some of its more established players such as the legendary Richie McCaw,Daniel Carter and Ma’a Nonu hang up their All Black boots for good.  However, with the All Black factory churning out young superstars like the electric Nehe Milner-Skudder who only made his Test debut this year, it is unlikely that the All Blacks will suffer any major setbacks in their continued campaign for world domination.  As we all witnessed during this year’s Super Rugby, New Zealand is bursting at the seams with exciting young players as well as some older more established players likely to make a return from injury in 2016 such as Aaron Cruden and Israel Dagg.  Furthermore, World Cup winning Coach Steve Hansen will be with the All Blacks as they transition out the old guard and bring in a new one over the next two years.  Add to that the fact that unlike many countries New Zealand boasts a host of Super Rugby coaches who all know what a winning culture feels like and there surely is very little cause for concern in the land of the long white cloud.

Whether or not future All Black teams will be quite as invincible as the class of 2012-2015 remains to be seen, and it would be hard to replicate their exploits no matter how much talent you have available.  However, New Zealand still are likely to be the team that sets the standard for the rest of the world to aspire to, even if their track record over the next four years is unlikely to be as good as we have seen.  Invincible – no, but still the most challenging team to beat between now and 2019 – probably!

Scotland

The heart wrenching and controversial loss to Australia in this year’s World Cup quarter-finals will leave a bitter taste in the mouths of Scotland’s players and supporters for a long time to come.  Nevertheless as painful and possibly unjust as it was Scotland need to move on. Under Coach Vern Cotter they have a firm and steady hand to guide them out of such a crushing disappointment. Scotland as they have all year showed plenty of promise in the World Cup and one can’t help but feel they are on the verge of an exciting and positive period in Scottish rugby. As many others have pointed out, perhaps the most exciting thing about this Scottish team is its youth. Scotland proved more than capable of taking on the big teams up front, with the Gray brothers, John Hardie, David Denton and WP Nel all getting highly honorable mentions in the tournament. Meanwhile, in the halfbacks Scotland has talent galore with Greg Laidlaw and the emerging talents of Finn Russell, Duncan Weir and Sam Hidalgo-Clyne. With the electric form of fullback Stuart Hogg a threat to any defence, ably assisted by Mark Bennett, Peter Horne and Tim Visser, Scotland now have some real quality attacking players in their back line.

I personally think that Scotland are going to be one of the big if not biggest surprises of the 2016 Six Nations. Their days as wooden spoon holders in the competition I feel are a thing of the past and while they may not be grabbing any Grand Slams in the near future we are likely to see a Scottish side improving by leaps and bounds every year leading up to 2019. These should be some heady times for Scottish rugby as a country with such a proud tradition and heritage in the sport climbs back to the heights they have been accustomed to in the past.

South Africa

South Africa, after the disastrous start to their World Cup campaign against Japan, have to be commended for the way in which they rebuilt themselves and in that semi-final against ultimate World Champions New Zealand, ran the All Blacks so close. Springbok rugby has always been associated with an unshakeable belief and pride in the history and legacy of the jersey. While South Africa’s game plan and style of play has not quite kept pace with the changes in the modern game, it is still devastatingly effective when all 15 players sign in to that unique Springbok mindset.

However, having said that as a new generation of Springbok players seek to carve out their own legacy in South Africa’s rugby history it is unlikely that a reliance on traditional strengths and attributes will be enough to guarantee them success. As we have seen in South African sides poor showing in the Super Rugby championship over the last two years, South Africa is struggling to adapt to the advances made by countries such as New Zealand, Australia and more recently Argentina. Furthermore, the state of coaching in South Africa is, with one or two exceptions, a complete mess and far too conservative to allow South Africa to adapt. Throw in an unhealthy dose of political interference in the sport’s transformation coupled with a wholesale retirement of legendary veterans like Victor Matfield, Schalk Burger and Bryan Habana and others and whoever is tasked with taking the Springboks to the 2019 World Cup has probably the most challenging job in not just world rugby but sport in general.

In a country that has the talent and a player base in terms of numbers that most countries can only dream of, South Africa should on paper be in a very good position. However, the political challenges faced by the sport coupled with a weak coaching base mean that as resource rich as South African rugby is, at the moment the component parts are unable to effectively line up together. The jury is out after this World Cup as to whether or not current Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer will keep his job in 2016. Many people have called for a foreign coach to be brought in, but while I have my doubts about Meyer being the right man to take South Africa to 2019, I can’t help feeling that an outside coach is not the right answer. South African sport has too many complex internal issues governing it and it is only someone with the right local knowledge and connections who is likely to be able to navigate their way through it and provide the success the Springboks and their supporters demand. I do think some foreign influences in the coaching department, especially say in the forwards and backs coaches would be valuable support to a local coach, but ultimately the man in charge should be South African.

What South African rugby will look like in 6 months time will be fascinating to see. As we saw in this World Cup, despite the problems they face, South Africa is still one of the best rugby nations in the world and as a result they continue to get the respect they deserve. The key for the next four years will be to build on this tradition while at the same time adapting the game to both the political realities prevalent in South Africa and the rapid transformation in the skill sets required to play the modern game. South Africa has the players to do it, it just needs the right hands to guide the process. A World Cup just wouldn’t be the same without a strong and competitive Springbok side and I am sure we all hope that the next four years see the development of a side that will at least be in the semi-finals of 2019 if not the final itself!

Wales

Many of us going into the World Cup, had probably written off Wales’ chances of getting out of the so-called Pool of Death as they went into the tournament with a raft of crippling injuries and absentees. Then a certain Dan Biggar stepped up to take his first kick, while Gareth Davies made his first offload from the back of the scrum and all of a sudden the world sat up in a hurry and took notice. Dan Biggar in particular singlehandedly turned Wales fortunes around. Ignoring his slightly bizarre pre-kick dance moves, the Welsh flyhalf caught the imagination of the world in a truly inspired series of performances during Wales five-week campaign. Meanwhile Gareth Davies at scrum half would ensure that Wales would score five pointers to complement the GPS system that Dan Biggar was obviously wearing in his boots. Throw in some heroic performances from lock Alun-Wyn Jones, flanker and Captain Sam Warburton alongside Justin Tipuric and this Welsh team instantly became the stuff of legends.

For me, even though they lost to Australia in the Pool stages they were outstanding. When you consider the character this Welsh side showed as well as displaying some spectacular running rugby at times, it was no wonder that they ran South Africa so close in the quarter-finals. However, you couldn’t help feeling that despite all the hurdles the Welsh had overcome given their injury list, the game against South Africa as a result was just that bridge too far, even though Wales came so close to snatching a historic victory. Nevertheless, given that they performed so well with so many new younger players, Wales must surely feel more than a little excited about what the next four years holds in store for them. I personally think there is at least one Six Nations Grand Slam in Wales prior to 2019, along with the possibility of a big scalp somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere during the summer tours as well as some real success at home during the Autumn tests. For Wales it should simply be a case of regroup and rebuild over the next four years while learning what the secret is to go the extra mile come World Cup time. The only question mark that surrounds this process is whether or not Coach Warren Gatland will still be there in 2019 to guide them through it. While many people questioned his wisdom going into this World Cup as the Welsh roster resembled a combat casualty list, he still managed to get the absolute best out of his players when it mattered most. Whether you are a Gatland fan or not, the type of consistency he brings may in Wales case be just what they need at least till 2019. If he wants to stay till then and the Welsh public let him remains to be seen, but I would go with the opinion that perhaps more of the same with a dash more creativity might just be what Wales needs and Gatland is probably the best man to provide it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s