Yes you read it correctly we’re taking a month off in April, as travel and family responsibilities call. I have the fortune to be travelling to South Africa for two weeks this month and hope to get caught up in some of the enthusiasm and excitement surrounding this year’s Super Rugby tournament. It’s already been a cracking competition and I look forward to covering the business end of it on my return at the end of the month. We’ll also be preparing for the next round of International Test Rugby as the Northern Hemisphere sides get ready to go on tour South of the Equator in June. As we look ahead to what’s on offer in the coming months there is a lot to look forward to as well as plenty of food for thought in relation to the year so far.
February and March were of course dominated by the Six Nations. England had it all to prove with their new Coach Eddie Jones, and they accounted themselves admirably winning the Grand Slam. The tournament as a whole, as it often does post a World Cup, rarely came to light however and we can only hope for a return to the kind of excitement that we saw in the 2015 edition. This year England were clearly the best side by a country mile and while not perfect have come a long way since the agony of the World Cup. England are clearly the dominant Northern Hemisphere side but the ultimate test of how far they’ve come will be seen in June when they face Australia three times. Wales were worthy runners up and showed us how devastating they can be when given space and allowed to run free. Their play is often stifled at times by the current game plan preferred by Welsh Coach Warren Gatland. It may be effective but it kills creativity and makes Wales a tad predictable. If they play like they did in the last ten minutes against England, then they can pose a challenge to New Zealand, but the sheer skill level we have seen already in Super Rugby by New Zealand sides means that it is likely to be a very painful and potentially depressing month for the Men in Red in the Land of the Long White Cloud. Scotland thrilled us throughout the tournament but execution and decision making at key times still seemed to be their Achilles Heel. However, the signs of progress were there to be seen in leaps and bounds as they were the most exciting team to watch without any shadow of a doubt. Ireland and France were clearly rebuilding and there were plenty of reasons for optimism in the Irish camp as a raft of new players acquitted themselves well in their first outings in an Irish shirt. Indeed it was Ireland’s newcomers who stole the show in most of Ireland’s performances and South Africa must surely be awaiting their visit in June with more than a little anxiety. France showed signs of a willingness to return to the glory days of being the team with the most flair and panache in attack, and offloaded the ball more than perhaps any other team. However, inconsistency in selection, not helped by a crippling domestic structure, meant that France rarely were able to string together a unified team. Nevertheless life under new Coach Guy Noves seems a happier prospect for France and they seem to have regained some of their enthusiasm and motivation, and we can only hope that what we saw was the first stages in the rebirth of one of the great rugby powerhouses. Last but not least Italy imploded and by the end of the tournament their place in the tournament at the expense of an up and coming performer such as Georgia was once more put under scrutiny.
Meanwhile this year’s European Champions Cup has been dominated by English and French clubs and as we head into the semi-final stages only one French team remains, making the possibility of an all England final an almost foregone conclusion. England’s success at the International level in Europe looks set to continue at the club level.
Yes Super Rugby is upon us once more for four glorious months and this year’s expanded competition which now includes a team from Japan and Argentina, as well as all the usual suspects from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, is without doubt the premier club competition in World Rugby. New Zealand sides so far have been outstanding, and they have set the benchmark for the competition. Australian sides have struggled to fire at times which surely must make England Coach Eddie Jones breathe a bit easier as he prepares England for a month long tour there in June. However, Australian Coach Michael Cheika is one of the world’s best and despite the stuttering nature at times of Australian Super Rugby sides, he will still be able to weld together an incredibly talented and dangerous unit. South African sides with the possible exception of the Lions have yet to really hit their paces and show us what they are capable of. As politics threaten to get in the way of the natural development of a quality South African side, Ireland must surely feel that their chances of at least one if not two wins in June are a distinct possibility. Argentina’s team the Jaguares have been mesmerizing to watch despite the fact that they seem to be rather lean on results. Exceptionally competitive and possessing some great attacking skills and an almost superhuman defense, the Jaguares have shown that they thoroughly deserve their place in the world’s greatest club competition. Lastly the Sunwolves from Japan, are struggling to make an impact despite some promising efforts at times, but unlike Argentina, Japanese teams still have a long way to go before they are likely to be a major threat in this tournament. Given the extraordinary skill levels already on display in this year’s Super Rugby tournament, the Rugby Championship later this summer between Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa should be absolutely enthralling.
Canada have got 2016 off to a great start. Their performance in the inaugral Americas Rugby Championship could not have been better. Argentina were always going to take the spoils but for Canada to finish second especially with an interim Coach, Francois Ratier, in charge is an exceptional achievement. Ratier as we always knew he would, based on his successes with the womens’ team, did a fantastic job of putting together a solid squad of talented youngsters matched up alongside a core of seasoned and experienced campaigners. As new permanent Coach Mark Anscombe, who comes off the back of two solid years with successful Irish club side Ulster, takes over he must surely feel positive about the groundwork that has been laid in building a cohesive national squad. The fact that there has been a separation of duty from the Sevens and Fifteen a side game, is a huge bonus to the development of the sport in Canada, and is clearly paying dividends in a mere three months of implementation. I personally feel that this year’s edition of the Pacific Nations Cup could be one of Canada’s most successful and a strong showing against Italy and Japan in June is also probably on the cards. Lastly with Anscombe’s knowledge of Ireland based on his Ulster experience, Canada should be able to put in a good effort when they visit the Emerald Isle in November.
So lots to look back on and even more to look forward to. As we sign off for a couple of weeks we’ll leave you with this glorious tribute to the World Cup that took place last September/October in England, courtesy of the Promo Guys on YouTube, and which many of us were lucky enough to be at. From a Canadian perspective, nice to see two fine tries by our boys feature in this, especially the incomparable DTH van der Merwe. Enjoy and see you all again at the end of the month!