As we do every year the Lineout reviews the performances of the top ten international teams over the course of the last twelve months and gives them a score on what we feel they got right and what they got wrong. As always as this is a Canadian based site added to the top ten list is the performance of the Canadian senior men’s team.
As in every World Cup year, it has been a year of massive ups and downs, with New Zealand as they have for much of the last four years cementing their place as the dominant force in World Rugby. However, they were pushed hard this year and Australia and Argentina in particular gave them plenty to think about, while South Africa had to fight harder than ever to keep their traditional spot as the world’s second best team. In the Northern Hemisphere the gap between the North and South grew even more obvious as England were knocked out of their own World Cup in the Pool stages, and Ireland who had risen to the lofty heights at one point in the year of being number two in the World Rankings, found themselves fading into obscurity by the end of the year. Meanwhile Italy and France found themselves in complete disarray while a resurgent Scotland just got better and better with each outing and the Welsh found a level of depth against all the odds that surprised many. Lastly Canada offered us plenty of excitement but in a year of much promise, they sadly ended it desperately short of results.
Argentina – 9/10
Some may raise eyebrows at Argentina’s score of 9, as while they impressed all who saw them they still didn’t manage to get beyond the semis, and did lose to their three main rivals at the World Cup – Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Nevertheless, they still managed to beat South Africa in Durban, finish third in the Rugby Championship and fourth in the World Cup. In doing all of this they managed to put on display some of the most exciting rugby any of us got to see all year. Their quarter-final victory over Ireland at the World Cup is already the stuff of legends along with the famous win over the Springboks in Durban earlier in the year. Coach Daniel Hourcade rightly was recognised as one of the most influential and competent coaches in World Rugby in 2015. His role in the transformation of the Pumas and the raft of exciting new talent he has brought on board has been key in providing Argentina with the complete game plan they have lacked for so long. Argentina finally has an exceptional attacking platform coupled to their traditional awe inspiring strengths in the forwards. Expansive and exciting in attack while having one of the strongest and most resolute defences in international rugby, the Pumas are going to be an exceptionally tricky proposition for their opponents in 2016.
The Pumas continued presence and growing prowess in the annual Southern Hemisphere Rugby Championship supported now by a quality Super Rugby franchise, are likely to make Argentina a consistent powerhouse in international rugby. Despite the retiring of the old guard such as Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, Juan Martin Hernandez and possibly Marcos Ayerza, there are so many outstanding newcomers coming through the ranks, the vast majority of them being under 25, that Argentina should be in fine form come the next global showdown in Japan in 2019. With a long list of names to watch over the next four years, both Argentinian supporters and neutrals alike can look forward to the continuing development of a very exciting brand of Pumas rugby.
Australia – 9/10
Bridesmaids ultimately to New Zealand at the end of the year in the most important game of the year, Australia can still reflect on a vintage 2015 for the Wallabies. Winning the Rugby Championship, albeit an abbreviated version, and finishing a close second to the best team in the World for the last four years are considerable feathers in your cap. Coach Michael Cheika can pride himself on a complete transformation of the Wallabies fortunes in the space of a mere twelve months. His no-nonsense attitude demands respect from his players, while at the same time his clear commitment to his players is there for all to see.
The big question for Australia over the next year will be how it deals with the loss of some key players to overseas clubs, as the exceptions made for Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell are unlikely to hold sway in 2016. Still with this aside, Australia will be fielding five teams in the 2016 Super Rugby competition and while three of them may be of dubious quality overall, there are enough talented individuals in each of the three teams, along with top quality standard bearers the Brumbies and Waratahs, that Cheika should have little if any difficulty in fielding a world class Wallaby side. If Argentina can do it with just one team, then surely given Cheika’s abilities it should be mere child’s play for Australia. Rebuilding lies ahead, but this is a confident and assured Australia that knows exactly what it wants and how to achieve it. Easy victories over the Wallabies are likely to be a thing of the past in 2016 and all teams will do well to approach them with a great deal of caution and respect.
Canada – 5/10
While Canada may have provided us with some fabulous entertainment over the past year, and individuals like winger DTH van der Merwe have become hot commodities for international club signings, Canada as a whole have had probably their worst year in 20 years of professional rugby. Two wins this past year, and one of them against a European club side without its star players, is a record that most Canadian players and supporters will want to forget as quickly as possible. A myriad of reasons have been put forward to explain the failings of the Canadian team in 2015 and it would appear that steps are being taken to address them in 2016.
Although having success with Canada in his early years as Coach, Kieran Crowley has been alarmingly bereft of results since October 2014. Under his tutelage Canada continuously threw games they should have won, as they would inevitably implode in the last quarter. Excuses were made time and again but Canada’s inevitable lapses in concentration in the final quarter of every major international they played since October 2014, were predictable with a depressing certainty.
While it would be unfair to lay the blame squarely at Crowley’s feet, it did seem to appear that he was a part of the problem and his ultimate departure from Canadian rugby announced in the last few weeks is unlikely to herald much protest from Canadian rugby fans. However, Rugby Canada itself must also take some responsibility for carving a new direction for the senior men’s team. It is heartening to see that in 2016 there will be a greater emphasis on moving players away from divided loyalties between the Sevens game and the full 15 a side game. For me this was one of Canada’s biggest problems in the last eighteen months. While Sevens can add a great deal to a player’s skill base, few players are able to transition effectively back and forth from the rigours of the two codes. The stamina and overall game awareness required in the larger game does not come from Sevens and it was clearly obvious that the requirement for players to do double duty in both disciplines was detrimental to Canada’s overall success in the 15 a side game. Lastly, it would appear that the senior men’s team will get two fixtures a year with Tier one teams, in 2016 they will play Italy in the summer and Ireland in November.
So with a new coach, a more regimented division of disciplines and training skills and greater international competition for Canada, 2016 should provide Canadian supporters with more of a sense of hope for the future than they have had in the last two years. Continued competition in the Pacific Nations Cup and the newly organised Americas Cup all bode well for getting Canada the regular kind of exposure that it has lacked for too long. Cautious optimism should be the modus operandi in the Canadian camp in 2016.
Let’s face it, it should have been England’s year and yet it fell so spectacularly short of the mark it will be one that most English fans would rather erase from the memory as quick as possible. There were some highs but for the most part it was one crushing disappointment after another. Despite putting in a memorable performance against France in the final game of the Six Nations, England still finished runners up for the second year in a row and imploded dramatically against Ireland midway during the tournament. They ultimately never really looked like the finished product and this was clearly in evidence in the warm-up games leading up to the World Cup.
Then came the disaster of the World Cup and being the first host team in the tournament’s history to be knocked out in the pool stages. They looked nervous against Fiji and then proceeded to lose the plot against Wales and then be blown out of the water by Australia and with it their place in the knockout stages. Bizarre decision making at times by both players and management certainly didn’t help matters and a selection policy, that often had no rhyme or reason to it, found England still experimenting with combinations and untried players, the Sam Burgess episode being a case in point, at a time when they could least afford it. Their World Cup was a disaster but players and management needed to take responsibility for it. While those at the senior management level have for all intents and purposes absolved themselves of any guilt, credit must be given to former Coach Stuart Lancaster and many of his senior players who tried to make sense of the wreckage.
Lancaster and his colleagues are now no longer part of the England setup and the rebuilding of England has been left in the hands of former Wallaby and Japanese Coach Eddie Jones. While many have given Jones credit for the remarkable performance of Japan at last year’s World Cup, coaching England and all the pressures and politics that come with it are an entirely different kettle of fish. Whether or not he can pull it off and turn England’s fortunes around remains to be seen. There is little doubt that he has all the resources he could possibly ask for and a player base that boasts enough domestic talent to make England a true powerhouse of international rugby to rival even the All Blacks. Whether or not Jones will be allowed to use the considerable assets he has at his disposal to their full potential is something only time will tell. The English rugby public are desperate for results and Jones and England will be under the most unforgiving microscopes known to international rugby for the next four years – we wish them well!
France – 4/10
While England may have had a rough year, it pales into insignificance when compared to France’s fortunes in 2015. Finishing a poor fourth in the Six Nations, a hit and miss warm up series of matches leading up to the World Cup and then what could only be described as France’s worst ever World Cup. France looked poor in the Six Nations, not helped by the fact that very few of their players ever played more than one match together. There were grounds for optimism in the final barnstormer match against England as we saw some tantalising glimpses of French flair. However, come the Pool stages of the World Cup and France looked disjointed and demoralised. A scrappy outing against Italy, followed by nail-biting encounters against Romania and Canada ended in their final humiliation by Ireland. Sure they managed to claw their way out of their Pool only to face the ultimate humiliation of their quarter final thrashing by the mighty All Blacks. I had the good fortune to be at the Quarter Final match in Cardiff and really felt for the gloomy French fans on the train after a match that for most would be one to forget. The only cause for celebration amongst French fans seemed to be that it finally marked the end of the Philippe Saint-Andre coaching era which for many seemed to be as popular as the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution.
I for one couldn’t help sharing the French public’s relief at Philippe Saint-Andre’s departure. He came across as divisive and arrogant, coupled with probably the most indecisive and inconsistent selection policy in French rugby history. Clearly disliked by his players, Saint-Andre was without a doubt the architect of his own downfall and with it the dramatic decline in French rugby fortunes over the last four years. However, it would be irresponsible to lay the blame solely at his feet. The French domestic structure and the phenomenal financial and political power of the French clubs has all but strangled French rugby at the national level while denying many promising young French players the kind of game time and exposure they need, as the ranks of many French teams are swelled by a majority of high priced foreign players. As successful as they are Toulon is a case in point, as on any given match day they are represented by a mere handful of French players. For all intents and purposes Toulon like many of the French clubs is more like a World XV than a French team. Until the insatiable ambition and greed of the domestic clubs is balanced with the needs of the national team, it is unlikely that new Coach and former Toulouse maestro Guy Noves will be able to reverse the decline of France on the international stage. Guy Noves has made a series of bold statements in relation to how he wants to see change take place in French rugby and the clubs have said that they support it, however it remains to be seen how much of this is mere lip service. It is hoped that for the sake of this proud rugby nation that has provided us with so many memorable moments over the years, Noves is given the scope he needs to return France to its rightful place at the highest levels of international rugby.
Ireland – 7/10
Ireland held so much promise but ultimately fell prey to all the hype surrounding them and left most of us with a crushing sense of disappointment as they once more exited yet another World Cup with a whimper. As they headed into their preparations for the World Cup as back to back Six Nations champions and a string of solid wins against South Africa and Australia at the end of 2014, many were touting them as the dark horse of the 2015 World Cup. However, for many yours truly included, alarm bells were starting to sound during the course of the Six Nations. Ireland were clearly having a problem with scoring tries when they needed them most despite the wizardry and tactical genius of Coach Joe Schmidt and a raft of exceptionally talented players. The dangers became abundantly clear in the match against Wales as Ireland essentially lost a game they clearly could have won and with it their first Grand Slam since 2009. They would still go on to win the Six Nations by the narrowest of points differences but for many it lacked the conviction that you felt was needed of a team that was being touted as one that could lift the Webb Ellis trophy at Twickenham at the end of October. Furthermore, there was an overwhelming reliance on one or two key players such as Captain and lock Paul O’Connell and fly half Johnny Sexton. Remove these two from the mix as we saw in the World Cup quarter-final against Argentina and Ireland suddenly looked creaky and disjointed.
It is clear that despite an initial run of fabulous successes, Coach Joe Schmidt’s honeymoon period with Irish rugby is over. Now the real work begins as he seeks to rebuild the Irish dream, especially now that many of the old warhorses are unlikely to be seeing duty in Japan in 2019. There is little doubt that Schmidt possesses one of the best brains available in international rugby at the moment, and the Irish setup is exceptionally well suited to providing him with the tools and support he needs. Add to this a wealth of young Irish talent coming through the ranks, as well as one or two foreign players now eligible to play for Ireland and on paper the future looks exceptionally bright for Ireland, especially should Schmidt choose to renew his contract in 2017 and take Ireland to the next World Cup. While Irish fortunes in this year’s European Champions Cup do not reflect the Irish dominance of European Club rugby of years gone by, there is still enough talent and depth in the Irish provinces to weld together a truly formidable national team. Irish rugby will reinvent itself of that there is little doubt and while the process of rebuilding may mean that this is a year of uncertainty for Irish rugby, it is only a question of time before the label of dark horse is once more firmly attached to Irish fortunes. Irish rugby finally has the kind of depth it has lacked for so long. This World Cup may have taught them some painful lessons, but ones which will no doubt serve them well as they prepare to be clear contenders for the ultimate prize in Japan in 2019.
Italy – 5/10
Whichever way you cut it, it was a pretty poor year for Italy, their only real saving grace was narrowly avoiding the wooden spoon in the Six Nations. There were moments of excitement in the Italian camp as they showed some promise at times in the Six Nations and gave France and Ireland a good workout in the Pool stages of the World Cup. However, there was never a point where Italy looked like a cohesive unit with a clear game plan, and given that they were without inspirational Captain Sergio Parisse for a large part of 2015 they were always going to be up against it. With Parisse on the field Italy is a different unit and can mount a serious challenge on any given day. Remove him and Italy looks promising but ultimately rudderless. One positive for me has been the development of fly half Tommaso Allan at the expense of New Zealand import Kelly Haimona, as the latter was out with injury for much of 2015. As readers of this blog know, I have often been puzzled by Italian Coach Jacques Brunel’s fascination with the New Zealander. Haimona in my opinion has done little to impress in an Italian shirt, whereas Allan has grown in confidence in the role over the last year and much of what was good about Italy in 2015 featured the young fly half. If Brunel has any sense, he will continue with Allan for this Six Nations tournament as he has much to offer and is clearly a rising talent for Italy.
That brings us to the question of Jacques Brunel. With the forthcoming Six Nations marking the end of his tenure with Italy, and few positive results to show for his time with the Azurri, many Italian supporters must be looking forward to his imminent departure. One would be hard pressed to find a more disinterested looking coach. While it would be unfair to lay the blame for Italy’s misfortunes squarely at his feet, he hasn’t exactly sought to answer any of his critics and certainly doesn’t appear to inspire his charges. This is unfortunate as Italy is under the radar after this World Cup as other up and coming European countries like Georgia and Romania are calling into question Italy’s place in the European rugby hierarchy. Furthermore, despite Italian woes in European Club competitions, there is no denying that Italy has some quality players. They have always been able to boast a competitive if at times undisciplined forward pack, and Captain and number eight Sergio Parisse is without doubt an icon of the modern game. Italy has found some exciting pace and power in their backs of late and as a result given the right support and coaching there is a reasonable expectation particularly at the Six Nations level that Italy can upset anybody on their day. It is unlikely with Brunel having this forthcoming Six Nations as his swansong with the Azurri, that Italy are likely to improve on their fortunes of last year and if anything are sadly likely to walk away as the traditional holders of the wooden spoon. However, Italy and their supporters will need to look beyond March 2016 and hope that the impending change in coaching staff will breathe new life into an Azurri setup that has promise but desperately needs a level of commitment and forward thinking that has been sadly lacking in the last few years.
New Zealand – 10/10
Winning two back to back World Cups in many ways says it all about New Zealand. Having dominated international rugby for the last four years it was only fitting that they would lift the Webb Ellis trophy once more. There have been very few cracks in New Zealand’s plans over the last four years and 2015 was no exception. While in 2015 they didn’t appear as all conquering as they had in previous years they still ultimately proved masters at adapting to adversity and the unexpected. They finished runners up to Australia in this year’s abbreviated Rugby Championship but had it run its full length then as most pundits agreed that too probably would have been theirs for the taking. With some of the greatest players the game has ever seen in the shape of Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu and Richie McCaw and who now have hung up their international playing boots, New Zealand has been in an exceptionally privileged position. However, with the departure of such legends there will be lots of questions around what the 2016 version of the All Blacks will be able to achieve. I for one doubt there will be a massive sea change in New Zealand’s fortunes.
Firstly, let’s look at a couple of key facts. Coach Steve Hansen who has led this remarkable group of individuals to such dizzying heights remains in charge until 2017. Take a look at the team sheet that he has at his disposal which boasts names like Nehe Milner-Skudder, Sonny Bill Williams, Aaron Cruden, Beauden Barrett, Julian Savea to mention just a few. These are just some of the names who have stood out in the last two years coupled to a raft of emerging talent and ultimately there should be little if any cause for concern in New Zealand and if anything it should simply be business as usual as a new look All Blacks team picks up where they left off on October 31st, 2015.
To be honest I don’t have much to say about New Zealand. Their score of 10/10 in many ways says all there is to be said. They were the best plain and simple. Sure there are some cracks in the armor, but the abilities of the New Zealand coaching staff and the sheer staggering depth of talent they have in the land of the long white cloud will allow them to comfortably address any immediate deficiencies in the short term and well into their future plans for 2019.
Scotland – 7/10
You may be surprised to see Scotland score as highly as they did, considering that they were wooden spoon holders in last year’s Six Nations. However, it was that World Cup quarter-final against Australia that for many made people sit up and take notice of Scotland. They had threatened all year long, and under Coach Vern Cotter were looking better with every outing. They were competitive in all their matches in the World Cup and in their last match of the tournament against Australia came agonisingly close to making history and turning the established order of international rugby on its head. The decisions that to many robbed them of a glorious victory will be debated long into the future, but what it did show is that Scotland are here to be taken seriously going into 2016.
With a crop of exceptionally exciting backs led by Stuart Hogg but including the likes of Tim Visser, Mark Bennett and Peter Horne, Scotland is developing some exciting and expansive playing styles and with Duncan Weir, Greg Laidlaw and Russell Finn providing quality ball from the halfback department Scotland will be a force to be reckoned with in the Six Nations. Couple this exciting backline to a powerhouse set of forwards boasting names like David Denton, the Gray brothers, and Josh Strauss and on paper Scotland is looking like the most complete side they have been in many years. What was lacking at times last year was that killer instinct at the finish and the composure to go with it, but Coach Vern Cotter is deeply respected by his players as a hard but fair taskmaster. I very much doubt we will see some of the same costly lapses in concentration Scotland made last year as we head into 2016 and they seek to make a statement in the Six Nations. Does the term “dark horse” sound familiar?
South Africa – 7/10
South Africa in the eighteen months leading up to the World Cup suddenly and irrevocably entered a downward slide. There were a myriad of reasons put forward – political interference, bizarre coaching decisions and a degree of arrogance and complacency amongst the players coupled with a serious lack of imagination and inability to adapt to the playing styles being adopted by other countries. Put all of these together and you probably have the sum total of South Africa’s problems. What sadly seems to have happened is that the Coach Heyneke Meyer, whether you liked the man or not, has been made to be the fall guy for the Springboks woes post the World Cup. While he must take some of the blame I still feel it unfair that he has essentially been brushed aside. South Africa were unlikely to find a more passionate and committed supporter of the Springbok cause as Meyer, and it was clear that after the World Cup and the soul-destroying defeat to Japan, that Meyer was keen to learn from his mistakes and take South Africa forward by essentially throwing out the old rule book.
Sadly, Meyer’s demise has left a vacuum and as of going to press South Africa is still officially without a Springbok coach. The front runner seems to be former Stormers Coach Alastair Coetzee, despite much of the South African public clamoring for a foreign coach. Despite the poor state of coaching in South Africa, as evidenced by the woeful performance of South African teams in the annual Super Rugby competition, I for one do not hold that a foreign coach is necessarily the panacea that many in South Africa believe it to be. Navigating the highly complex political, financial and social landscape that rugby has to operate in in South Africa requires a degree of local knowledge and cultural nous that a foreigner is unlikely to possess or more importantly have the stomach for. For all his faults Meyer had four years with the Springbok structure and certainly in his first two years in charge brought them considerable success on the international stage. It was also ironic that much of his initial success was through a playing style and player base that sought to move away from traditional smash and crash Springbok strengths. It was all the more confusing that he reverted to the old dinosaur style of play in the last eighteen months. Nevertheless, post the World Cup, Meyer really seemed to want to embrace change and transform Springbok rugby. I can’t help feel that he was still the best man for the job and South Africa may rue pushing him into a corner so early whatever his perceived faults.
As for the Springboks themselves, they boast enough talent to easily put together a world beating team, just look at the demand for South African players in European Club rugby. Like New Zealand they seem to have infinite reserves of talented young players coming through the ranks. We have already seen the likes of prodigies such as centres Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel last year, and there is plenty more where they came from. The towering figures of lock partners Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jaeger will continue to strike fear into opposition packs for many years to come, and although showing some cracks recently the South African scrum will always be a force to be reckoned with. There is no question that answers on the wing are needed to replace the likes of Bryan Habana and giants of the game like Bismarck du Plessis and Victor Matfield are now no longer part of the picture. However, like the All Blacks, Springbok rugby is essentially gifted with more resources than most coaches would know what to do with. Find the right man to use the resources at his disposal and South Africa will quickly return to their rightful place at the top of rugby’s high table alongside their ultimate rivals New Zealand. We wish them success in their hunt for the right coach and for the sake of this fanatically proud rugby nation hope they make the right decision.
Wales – 8/10
We finish off with Wales and a solid score for them after reflecting on a year in which perhaps more than any other team in international rugby, they were the best in showing us the true meaning of the guts, grit, determination and glory that is synonymous with our great sport. Finishing a strong third in the Six Nations last year and providing us with some heroic performances, most notably their incredible defence against a determined Ireland and their try fest against Italy, Wales looked set for a great World Cup. Then a rigorous training programme over the summer in preparation for the global showdown, left many wondering if too much emphasis had been placed on physical fitness and less on actual ball skills. The summer warm-up games were for the most part a disappointing experience for Wales, made worse by the fact that in the process they racked up an injury count from hell, knocking key players like Leigh Halfpenny and Rhys Webb out of contention for the World Cup.
By the time the World Cup kicked off in September a depleted Wales seemed to offer little hope of effective resistance against fellow pool giants England and Australia. What transpired over the next four weeks rapidly became the stuff of legends. A Welsh team showed up that defied all the odds and produced some heroics that will be talked about for many years to come. The Welsh World Cup team under the skillful guidance of controversial Coach Warren Gatland, stood up and were counted to a man. Whether or not you like Warren Gatland you can’t deny that he knows how to get results and inspire a remarkable sense of self-belief in his charges. The sheer commitment of Wales at the World Cup was inspirational, and they along with Japan and Argentina became firm favourites of many a neutral.
Wales efforts against the host nation England which started England’s inevitable departure from the World Cup may not have been the most remarkable game of rugby in World Cup history but what it clearly showed was that the power of self-belief and hard work can often overcome even the most daunting of odds. Despite their injury list, and the loss of talisman and key kicker Leigh Halfpenny, Wales found a new hero in the form of fly half Dan Biggar. He had always looked impressive up to that point but in the World Cup he simply took it to another level and was instrumental in propelling his team to the successes they achieved. You could not have asked for a more composed and accomplished kicker under pressure. Blessed with a GPS in his boots, Biggar along with a monumental physical effort from Welsh forwards Alun-Wyn Jones, Sam Warburton, Dan Lydiate and for me the unsung hero of Welsh rugby Justin Tipuric, helped keep Wales constantly in touch with supposedly superior opposition. Although they lost to Australia, they were still competitive to the end and at times had the Wallabies feeling distinctly uncomfortable. Scrum half Gareth Davies also showed that the loss of Wales first choice number 9, Rhys Webb was hardly the calamity everyone had feared, instead he too proved to be yet another inspiration in the red jersey.
Perhaps like Scotland, Wales will look back on that quarter final match against South Africa which many thought they had in the bag until the last ten minutes, as a painful moment in a proud history. However, what they should take from it that there is now considerable strength and depth in a Welsh team that has some rising young stars teamed up with some very seasoned and experienced campaigners. As Wales builds towards the next World Cup and Coach Warren Gatland has pledged his commitment to take them there as his last hurrah, they should feel excited about the future rather than despondent about what might have been. Wales will be a serious contender for Six Nations glory in 2016 and they probably start the year as the most unified and cohesive unit in international test rugby other than the All Blacks. Welsh performances in 2015 have earned them top marks and I doubt there will be few of us wanting to be away from our televisions in 2016 whenever the Men in Red take to the field.