The Lineout’s Annual Report Card for 2016 Part 2 – The Southern Hemisphere’s big Four!

Posted: January 21, 2017 in General Commentary
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We continue our look at how the teams we regularly follow over the course of the year fared in 2016. This week we look at the Southern Hemisphere’s big four – Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Without a doubt the talk was all about New Zealand’s continued dominance and South Africa’s slide into despair. Meanwhile Australia struggled to rebuild after the World Cup and Argentina provided plenty of excitement at times but were frustratingly short of results overall. It didn’t quite go all New Zealand’s way in 2016 as evidenced by their historic upset against Ireland in Chicago in November, but it still was a remarkable year for the Men in Black and as they came to the end of a long season they still were clearly the side to beat in International Test Rugby and continue to set the benchmark for everyone else to aspire to.  Australia and Argentina showed they had some world-class players but their cohesion and efficiency as a team still is lacking at times.  South Africa went from bad to worse as the year progressed despite managing to claw out a gritty series win against Ireland in June, but 4 wins out of 12 during the course of the year was simply not good enough for a team that traditionally has been duking it out for top honors in World Rugby with the All Blacks.

Argentina – 6/10

As mentioned above, Argentina provided us with plenty of excitement at times this year, but left many of us pounding our pints on the table in frustration as a promising start faded out and the Pumas, much like Canada, let yet another match they could and should have won slip away. Still what we did see when Argentina was on song looked very good indeed and considering that it is only the first year in their buildup to the next World Cup in Japan in 2019 there is more room for optimism than despondency when it comes to the Pumas future, as difficult as 2016 was at times.

Like Canada, Argentina got 2016 off to an excellent start as with their Pumas B side they emerged unbeaten in the inaugural Americas Rugby Championship, despite a draw in their opening match with the USA, and took the title comfortably in the end.

From there a full strength Pumas side took on Italy once and France twice in the June series of Internationals in Argentina. It was here that we saw the flashes of brilliance at times that we would come to see all year from the Pumas. The Pumas team that we would see for the rest of the year from June onwards would for all intents and purposes be a mirror image of the Argentine Super Rugby franchise the Jaguares. Argentina’s first year in Super Rugby had been one of mixed fortunes, some of the rugby on display was outstanding at times but also overly ambitious and often lacking the composure needed to finish out big games. Much the same could have been said for the Pumas track record in 2016.

It was a scrappy test against Italy, and the Italians gave as good as they got for the most part resulting in Argentina having to work exceptionally hard for the win in what was ultimately a close game. Next up were France for a two Test series and although France themselves were in a process of rebuilding they were more than a match for a Pumas side that often seemed unsure of themselves. Argentina ultimately went on to win the first Test convincingly with number eight Facundo Isa and second rower Guido Petti really coming to the fore and showing what exceptional strike weapons they are for the Pumas. However, in the second Test Argentina literally imploded and were put to the sword by a rampant French side 27-0. This dramatic swing in fortunes from one week to the next would be a consistent theme for the Pumas in 2016.

The Rugby Championship really highlighted some of the strengths and future prospects of this young Pumas side despite Argentina finishing at the bottom of the table. On the way however they provided us with some spectacular entertainment at times. The Argentine front row of Ramiro Herrera, Francisco Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro and inspirational Captain and Hooker Agustin Creevy were exceptional and provided their opponents with a constant headache at scrum time. Creevy’s solid leadership and work rate were exemplary throughout the Championship. The young lock partnership of Guido Petti and Matias Alemanno shows enormous promise for the future as does the back row partnership of Pablo Matera and Javier Ortega Desio. Meanwhile the phenomenal Facundo Isa at number eight was easily one of the best International players of 2016.

Added to the mix were the lightning quick reflexes of the half back partnership of scrum half Martin Landajo and fly half Nicolas Sanchez who also possesses an exceptionally reliable kicking boot which would always keep Argentina in touch of the opposition. Lastly an all-star set of centers, wings and the ever impressive fullback Joaquin Tuculet meant that Argentina were always worth watching and at times stretched the defenses of their opponents to the absolute breaking point. However, when it was all said and done despite numerous fireworks Argentina kept coming up short in the last quarter of all their Rugby Championship matches with the exception of their home game against the Springboks in which they managed to squeak out a narrow win.

The November tour to Europe and Japan exacerbated what had been an exhausting year of travel and nonstop competition for this Pumas squad. Always competitive and obliterating a good Japanese side on the opening game of their tour, they would remain bridesmaids for all of the remaining fixtures of the tour, despite running their opponents to the wire. They were the better team in their game against Wales but ultimately ran out of steam and a poor Welsh team capitalised on some key lapses in concentration by the Pumas. The game against Scotland hung in the balance until the end, but once again in the last ten minutes the Pumas looked exhausted and were clearly hanging on by their fingernails. Against England, they made an impressive comeback after the first quarter and for a good forty minutes proceeded to give England a serious wake up call, but ultimately after a gruelling year of rugby and a travel schedule that would exhaust even the most seasoned international jetsetters, the last twenty minutes simply proved a bridge too far for a Pumas side that simply had nothing left to give.

2017 is likely to see the same nucleus of players making up the Pumas squad who also make up the Argentine Super Rugby franchise the Jaguares. While their travel schedule doesn’t look much lighter for this group of exceptionally talented players, their baptism of fire together that was 2016 is now behind them and the lessons learnt will be invaluable. At times it will be grueling for them to keep up, but we firmly believe that the results are likely to be much more plentiful this year for a Pumas side that is only going to get better and tougher with each outing. The warning shots were fired in 2016 so be prepared for the full artillery barrage in 2017, with hopefully considerably more shots on target!

Australia – 6/10

Let’s face it, 2016 was a very tough year for Australia and one they would no doubt rather forget. It wasn’t without some highs, and there was definitely some promising talent on show, especially towards the end of their season, but overall 2016 brought more heartache than cause for celebration for Australia. To win a paltry 6 out of 15 Tests last year after finishing as World Cup runners-up the year before, doesn’t look good no matter which way you cut it. Sure like pretty well all the big teams, 2016 was a year of rebuilding after the World Cup, but it was clear that as the rest of the world was closing the gap with the Southern Hemisphere, Australia were increasingly finding themselves hanging on to little more than a reputation in 2016.

Things got off to a horrendous start for Australia in June with a three Test series against England. Australia were humiliated by the English in the first two Tests and despite a brave comeback in the third in which they literally threw the kitchen sink at England it just wasn’t to be. Their setpiece work was poor, defensively they were a shambles and their discipline was rapidly becoming the laughing point of International Test Rugby. Add to that a lack of any kind of cohesive attacking game other than handing the ball to fly half/center Bernard Foley and expecting him to produce miracles and Australia looked confused at the best of times. If it hadn’t been for Foley’s selfless heroics in the England series there would have been very few if any positives to take from the series.

Australia’s misery continued in the Rugby Championship, made worse by the decision to play fly half Bernard Foley out of position at center and rely once more on the mercurial Quade Cooper to somehow provide some salvation to Australia in attack. It wasn’t to be. Foley to his credit adapted well to the center and once more was one of the most dynamic Wallaby players on the field throwing himself into attack with little or no regard to his own personal safety. One saving grace for Australia was the return of veteran scrum half Will Genia who ended up becoming a revelation for the Wallabies once more as the tournament progressed and played some of his best rugby to date. The Quade Cooper experiment was finally abandoned, hopefully for good, and Foley returned to his fly half position for the final Bledisloe match against New Zealand. Despite two good wins against Argentina and a scrappy win against South Africa at home, it was a poor tournament for Australia.  However, it’s clearly experimental focus by Coach Michael Cheika did show some promise in player development for the future. Although we found few positives in Australia’s forward play in the front and second rows in 2016, new lock Adam Coleman was definitely something to get excited about from a Wallaby perspective. Possessing a phenomenal work rate and exceptionally hard to bring down, he provided some real consistency to Australia especially in the lineouts and breakdown areas.

In the back row, Australia will always impress with the irrepressible Michael Hooper, but seemed unsure of themselves as to who should wear the number eight jersey. David Pocock was often assigned the position and he regularly impressed although was not quite the force of days gone by this year whether in the back row or at number eight. Always a headache for opposition defenses he still failed to be as much of a threat, especially at the breakdown, as he has been in the past. Sean McMahon increasingly made his presence felt as the year wore on in the number eight shirt and we feel that he has plenty of promise for the Wallabies. However, with Pocock likely to play less of a role in the Wallabies back row this year the confusion as to how the back row partnerships should look is likely to continue for Australia.

Similar uncertainties seem to prevail in the half back partnerships. Australia has no permanent scrum half, and the role seems to be split between the exceptional Will Genia when not on club duty in France and Waratahs stalwart Nick Phipps. There is a clear distinction in quality between Phipps and Genia with the latter having the clear edge. Phipps is simply too easily flustered under pressure leading to continuous lapses in discipline and poor decision-making. At fly half Bernard Foley is clearly the way forward and is Australia’s Mr. Reliable. We felt that he was often asked to carry the entire team last year and as a result his mistakes were understandable given he was constantly being seen as the Wallabies go to man every match.

In the backs though there were two standout players of 2016. Wingers Dane Haylett-Petty and Reece Hodge. Hodge also has the added benefit that he is equally comfortable at centre and possesses a boot that can accurately hit long-range targets from anywhere on the park. In addition to Reece Hodge at centre, Samu Kerevi also looked an exceptionally exciting prospect as did Tevita Kuridrani when he returned to the Wallaby fold for the November tests in Europe. Israel Folau had another strangely quiet year at fullback and it was hard to determine if it was simply that Australia lacked the attacking skill to fully utilise his exceptional talents or that he lacks the cutting edge that we have come to expect from him in years gone by.

However, there was still room for optimism in the Wallaby camp especially once the November series in Europe got underway, and Australia annihilated Wales in their opening Test of the tour. However, the cracks and lack of cohesion were still there to see as they hung on by their fingernails to a one point win over Scotland and a tense victory against a resurgent France. However, in Ireland the wheels fell off and the year ended with an implosion at Twickenham as England made it four from four against Australia. After a long and challenging season, Australia looked out of ideas and ultimately puff in their final two Tests against Ireland and England. As a result, the pressure clearly told as Australia’s discipline especially in the set pieces and the forwards went out the window, and the execution simply wasn’t there across the park when it mattered most.

2017 is likely to see less experimentation and more focus on the basics now that Coach Michael Cheika has the semblance of a core squad which he is likely to develop for the World Cup in Japan in 2019. While Australia may lack depth in their player base there is no denying that there is plenty of talent to work with. Get the discipline and execution right and there is no reason that Australia should not be challenging once more for top honors come the next global showdown in 2019, provided they can keep pace with a rapidly improving Northern Hemisphere opposition and somehow keep in sight of New Zealand’s coattails.

New Zealand – 9/10

New Zealand were once again simply the best. They don’t quite get a ten out of ten from us, due to Ireland spoiling their otherwise perfect season in Chicago at the end of last year. Also as that match highlighted, there had been times throughout the year that New Zealand didn’t quite look the finished product. However, it is New Zealand’s exceptional ability to adapt to whatever the opposition throws at them, and to ultimately emerge the comfortable winners which continues to make them the benchmark team to beat in Test rugby. Nevertheless New Zealand often got rattled more in 2016 than we are used to seeing. Ireland, France, Wales and Argentina all caused the All Blacks serious problems at times during their 2016 campaign for continued world dominance. This made the All Blacks look distinctly uncomfortable and unsure of themselves on several occasions, even if it was only Ireland who were able to break New Zealand’s world record winning streak.

That said however, there was little to complain about in New Zealand’s clinical demolition of world opposition in 2016. They like everyone else were in the inevitable process of rebuilding after the World Cup, it’s just that the depth of New Zealand’s player base is so exceptional coupled with the sharpest coaching team in International rugby that everyone else is just simply trying to keep them in sight let alone beat them.

New Zealand got their 2016 campaign underway with an emphatic series whitewash over Wales in June, despite some very spirited play from the visitors at times especially in the first two Tests. From there it was straight into the Rugby Championship. Questions were asked as to how New Zealand would cope without the world-class centre pairing of Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu. Those questions were answered in no uncertain times by debutant Anton Liennert-Brown alongside the proven Ryan Crotty who is back to his barnstorming best along with Malakai Fekitoa. Liennert-Brown was sensational and a total revelation and in these three the All Blacks possess a centre field partnership that is rapidly becoming a serious threat, making the antics of Nonu and Smith almost seem like ancient history.

New Zealand simply dominated the Rugby Championship, despite being clearly rattled in the opening forty minutes of their first encounter with Argentina in Waikato. However, as we were to see all year, New Zealand’s ability to regroup in the second half and adapt their game plan to their opponents’ strengths and weaknesses was remarkable and proved to be the secret to their success all year. The All Blacks are able to play a game of two halves better than anyone else in Test Rugby right now and until their opponents can match them in this department they are likely to remain unbeatable. When you have the likes of the incomparable Beauden Barrett at fly half who was one of the most exciting players of 2016, coupled with two of the world’s best fly halves in Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara, New Zealand’s strike axis becomes exceptionally difficult to contain. With veterans Ben Smith and Israel Dagg in the back line and interchangeable at wing and full back, New Zealand’s finishing skills are second to none. Add to this mix the fact that winger Julian Savea was back to his unstoppable best in 2016 and Waisake Naholo also made a welcome comeback. With winger Nehe Milner-Skudder also set to return in 2017, New Zealand are going to continue to be exceptionally hard to beat especially out wide.

The talent continues to manifest itself in the almost superhuman figure of hooker Dane Coles. We were left with the question is there anything this player can’t do? To be honest, we fully expect to see him lining up drop goals in 2017. As we saw in 2016, Dane Coles seems as comfortable on the wing as he does in the front row and his passing abilities are at times the envy of many a scrum half. New Zealand’s forward dominance was also clearly evident in the impact made by the second row partnership of Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick, when this duo was available for the return fixture with Ireland in Dublin, their absence being highly noticeable in Chicago.

The November series saw New Zealand come unstuck against a rampant Irish side in Chicago for the first time in 111 years, in one of the most thrilling games of the year, that until the final five minutes was balanced on a knife-edge. New Zealand got their revenge a fortnight later in the return fixture in Dublin, but once again were made to work exceptionally hard. In their final Test of the year against France, there is no question that New Zealand were clearly getting to the end of their rope but still managed to do enough to get the win and close out an almost perfect season.

In short, we learned this year that New Zealand are not unbeatable and there are some chinks in their armor if you somehow manage to get them under pressure. Could we find any weaknesses that are long-term? To be honest not really. The absence of Richie McCaw in the back row was there for all to see and some question marks still remain here as they do at number eight and the Captaincy. Kieran Read  was at times brilliant but at others lost some of the composure and discipline needed at the Captain’s level, and his decision-making wasn’t always the best under pressure. However, it is still going to take an exceptional team to beat the All Blacks in 2017, with it still being the exception rather than the norm. However, they are perhaps in for a few more surprises and upsets in 2017 than they have been accustomed to for quite a while.

South Africa – 5/10

It was simply depressing to watch this once proud rugby nation slide almost into oblivion by the end of the year. The uncertainty around who would succeed Heyneke Meyer as Coach persisted well into 2016 with the final decision only being announced in April as Alastair Coetzee was chosen to take up the reins.

South Africa started their 2016 campaign against Ireland and the omens were there for all to see as they lost the opening Test to a 14 man Irish team. A consistent theme was visible in this opener of 2016, as South Africa looked bereft of any kind of coherent game plan whatsoever. Add to this a reliance on a game based on simply bashing the opposition into submission as opposed to creating any kind of genuine attacking threat and the alarm bells began ringing early.

South Africa were able to regain their honor to win the series in the final two Tests, with the second Test in Johannesburg being perhaps their best performance of the year. However, once again in both Tests Ireland pushed them hard and in the final Test South Africa were clearly hanging on in desperation in the final quarter.

From there things went from bad to worse. Bizarre and inconsistent team selections which had little if any view to the future, misguided and confused coaching and a continuing lack of any sort of game plan meant that South Africa’s Rugby Championship campaign was a disaster. Despite eking out a narrow win against Argentina in the opener and a scrappy win at home against Australia, South Africa looked a shadow of themselves and stumbled from one humiliation to the next. Narrowly avoiding the wooden spoon, South Africa limped from the Rugby Championship to a November series against England, Italy and Wales.

This in short ended up being South Africa’s horror show of 2016. After an embarrassing draw in an exhibition game against the Barbarians, South Africa were put to the sword by an England side brimming with confidence. Up next was the low point of the Springboks campaign of 2016 – a disastrous albeit narrow first ever loss to Italy. There was simply no return from there and the Test against Wales had an air of inevitability to it as South Africa lost a match where they put up little if any semblance of resistance.

Completely disowned by their fans and ridiculed in both the domestic and foreign press the Springboks limped home, while the future of Coach Alastair Coetzee hangs in the balance after only nine months in charge. The demise of Springbok rugby in 2016 is all the more difficult to explain when there is clearly an abundance of talented players in the country. However, a coaching and management structure crippled by politics and nepotism has left South Africa poorly equipped to deal with the rapidly changing landscape of International Test Rugby.

2017 is unlikely to be much better for South Africa particularly if Coach Alastair Coetzee and his assistants remain in charge. However, given the fact that the Springboks have now hit rock bottom, surely things can only get better from here on, albeit at a snail’s pace under the current setup. There are simply no quick fixes for South African rugby at the moment, but to write them off would be foolish given their history as one of the most competitive and successful rugby nations at Test level. Furthermore, South Africa has a deep player base that with the right development and management processes in place can be drawn on for the future and once more make South Africa a force to be reckoned with. There are clearly troubled times ahead for Springbok rugby but we firmly believe that by the time of the next World Cup we are likely to see a resurgent South Africa, and for the good of the global game we sincerely hope we are proved right!

Endnote

As a summary of this post we provide you with GG Rugby’s excellent video wrap up of some of the best moments of last year’s Rugby Championship – Enjoy!

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