One of the most fascinating November Test windows in a long time, has given us plenty to think about as we head into a World Cup year!

Posted: November 28, 2018 in General Commentary, November Internationals
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In a month that saw plenty of excitement, we learnt a great deal about the pecking order in International Rugby and what it means, with less than a year to go before the final whistle in Japan and the crowning of a new World Champion. There were upsets, there was controversy, but throughout we were treated to a month of Test Rugby that had plenty of excitement and which kept us glued to our TV screens.

England managed to resurrect themselves from a year which up till then they would rather have forgotten. France, showed signs of character at times, but ultimately made us think twice about how far French rugby has really progressed under new management, when they were beaten by a highly entertaining and enterprising Fijian side. Ireland led by example from start to finish and completed a remarkable year which left no doubt about their position as the number two side in the world. Italy sadly gave us and their supporters little to cheer about other than silencing their critics by defeating Six Nations aspirants Georgia. Scotland provided plenty of excitement but lacked the ability to close out a potential quarter-final opponent in the World Cup – South Africa. Finally Wales cemented their position as the second best team in the Northern Hemisphere with a clean sweep of their four internationals, including two Southern Hemisphere scalps –  Australia and South Africa.

For the Southern Hemisphere teams it was a tough end to the year. Argentina, despite their successes in the Rugby Championship, faded at the end of a long hard season which has seen very little rotation of players. As a result a tired group put up some valiant resistance at times but ultimately lost all three key matches, and most importantly their game against next year’s pool opponents in the World Cup – France. Australia were dire – plain and simple. The Wallaby ship is seriously adrift with no sign of cohesion amongst the crew and management. Australia’s end of year tour started with a loss to their pool opponents next year in Japan, as Wales finally managed to get a home win against them. The Wallabies laboured to a win over a hapless Italy, but looked a shambles against England, with the players clearly wanting nothing more than to get on the long flight home and forget yet another wasted year. New Zealand had perhaps their hardest ever November tour since the last World Cup. They had to work hard to squeak past the old enemy England in appalling weather and a week later were taught a painful lesson in game management by a clinical Ireland. New Zealand ended their tour by piling all their frustrations on Italy as they literally put the Azurri to the sword in their final match of the year. Finally South Africa continued to build on the progress shown during the Rugby Championship and that historic defeat of New Zealand in Wellington. They were unlucky to lose to England by the slimmest of margins possible, but redeemed themselves against France a week later and then again in their encounter with Scotland. However, the puff seemed to go out of their sails as they came short against a Welsh team who had simply got better and better throughout the course of the month.

Perhaps the biggest surprise and talking point of the month however was the performance of some of the Tier 2 nations. Fiji gave Scotland a challenging first half at the beginning of the month and then went on to claim a famous victory against France by the end of it. But perhaps the most pleasing performance came from next year’s World Cup hosts Japan. At the end of their first half against England, they had easily outplayed the Men in White, and although England were able to regroup in the second half, there was no question that Japan’s Pool A rivals will have to take them very seriously indeed next year. With a rapturous home crowd cheering Japan on, Ireland and Scotland will have to be well prepared if they are to avoid one of the biggest potential upsets of 2019.

So as we say we couldn’t have asked for a better month of Test Rugby one year out from the World Cup. There was plenty to talk about so here’s a quick wrap up of the key points that came out of this month’s action for us.

The gap between North and South would appear to be nonexistent

Ireland’s victory over New Zealand has meant that although New Zealand still sit comfortably at the top of the world rankings, the North/South divide has finally closed. The All Blacks still possess a remarkable ability to regroup, but they are no longer invincible and as we have seen repeatedly this year – put them under pressure and they make mistakes. There is no doubt that they will be back to their best come the World Cup, but by the same token after an intensely competitive Six Nations next year, Ireland and Wales should be humming along just as well with England catching up fast. Meanwhile, the rest of the Southern Hemisphere are very much on a level playing field with their Northern rivals. South Africa look likely to be the side to pose the most problems next year, but Argentina are also on track to pack a few surprises. It is really only Australia who find themselves out in the cold heading into the run up to the World Cup. There are simply no givens for next year’s global showdown, but one thing is for certain the Northern Hemisphere sides are looking in the most robust health since the tournament was first introduced in 1987.

There are some front-runners for World Cup glory next year but no favorites

Ireland’s victory over New Zealand was without doubt the highlight of a memorable month of Test Rugby. However, in fairness to Ireland we are not going to fall into the trap of labelling them with the burden of favorites for next year’s global showdown in Japan. Very strong contenders yes – but favorites no. While they and New Zealand may have their noses out in front in terms of the form race, there is no question that Wales could also go all the way along with South Africa. England could also end up being the surprise package of the tournament after surviving a purple patch which has provided them with a wealth of valuable experience. After this month we can only comfortably call the favorites to get to the quarter finals, beyond that it is wide open which makes it one of the most potentially exciting World Cups since the tournament’s inception 30 years ago.

England are back and Australia would appear beyond redemption

This past month saw England rise once more from the ashes, just as they did immediately after their shock exit from the last World Cup. Sure the twelve months since the end of the 2017 Six Nations and this November was not a happy time in the England camp but that appears to be behind them now. Their two big Southern Hemisphere scalps came in the shape of South Africa and Australia. At the same time they were able to hold the World Champions, New Zealand, to a one point difference, albeit on the losing side which is a significant achievement. Many were predicting disaster for the Men in White this November against New Zealand and South Africa, with the possible exception of the match against Australia being their only redemption against the Southern Hemisphere superpowers. However, they surpassed expectations and can feel exceptionally well pleased with their efforts this past month. What has perhaps been the most rewarding aspect of the whole experience has been the ability to really blood some new players. Names like Sam Underhill, Mark Wilson, Tom Curry, Zach Mercer have all injected some much-needed life into an English back row that had become a bad joke. Meanwhile Joe Cokanasiga had everyone sit up and take notice in the Australia match as he provided a stunning complement to Jonny May on the opposite wing. England have found the depth they need up front and in the backs, and if they get back to their form winning ways of 2016/17 then they will definitely be the smoking gun of next year’s World Cup.

The only real question for us is the Captaincy when it comes to England. While we don’t deny that Owen Farrell is a brilliant player, we still remain unconvinced that his leadership skills are what England needs under pressure. His decision-making at times leaves a lot to be desired and his tackle technique definitely needs some work. He has had a habit of costing England dearly in big matches under pressure, and we still don’t see that has really changed. Like we say we don’t deny his skill, tenacity and all round committment, we just have trouble seeing him as the calm head England needs at the helm, especially when things aren’t going their way. The problem is if not Hartley or Farrell then who? For us that is the biggest question England has left to answer.

As we saw in their final match against England, Australia are clearly at sea without a paddle. Despite a raft of talented individual players, the Wallabies as a team simply don’t work. Add to that the fact that there is relatively little depth to their squad, and it is hard to see them getting much farther than the quarter finals in Japan next year, and if Fiji play like they did against France then even that might be a tall order. Michael Cheika seems out of touch with both his players and what he wants the team to look like, and the players seem unable to understand what kind of game it is they are meant to be playing. With precious few opportunities to play again as a unit before the World Cup, we really don’t see how Australia will be able to set their ship on a straight course once more. A World Cup without a competitive Australia will be a loss to the tournament as a whole, but it is in serious danger of becoming a reality.

Scotland and France still have work to do while Italy seems to have made little if any progress

Sure Italy did enough to beat Georgia and once more silence those who wish to see them fight for their place in the Six Nations on a yearly basis with the threat of relegation hanging over their heads. However, that is about all that can be said for the Azurri’s November campaign. For them to really show that there has been some genuine progress since the last World Cup, they needed a win against a vulnerable and demoralised Australian side that were there for the taking. Sadly they fell far short of the mark. With them most likely ending up the whipping boys once more of next year’s Six Nations, Italy will once more have to look at yet another 4 years of wasted opportunity.

Scotland played some terrific rugby this month make no mistake. They showed once more that they can go head to head with some of the world’s best, however closing out big games still remains problematic. While few felt they would beat Wales in Cardiff, they really needed to beat South Africa to make a statement that life beyond the quarter finals in Japan next year is a definite possibility. It didn’t happen and Scotland know they still have plenty of work to do to make such a promising side go the distance it needs to. They are blessed with some exceptional talent across the park, and some surprising depth, however that big match temperament still eludes them to some degree. With a tough schedule of away games in next year’s Six Nations, it remains to be seen if Scotland can get their house in sufficient order in time for Japan.

France meanwhile will be pleased with their much-needed victory against Argentina, who are their pool rivals next year in Japan. However, that was the sole highlight in an otherwise depressingly familiar November. They fell at the last hurdle to South Africa, and completely lost the plot against a sparkling Fijian side. Despite some stellar and inspirational performances, especially from their Captain and Hooker Guilhem Guirado, their wasn’t enough collective grit from France to get the job done under pressure. If significant progress isn’t made in next year’s Six Nations, then France will have a mountain to climb come September and the World Cup. Consequently, a third place finish or better in the Six Nations must be their objective for the next three months as a bare minimum.

The top Tier 2 nations are going to be a handful at next year’s World Cup and could end up being genuine banana skins for some of the Tier 1 big guns

Japan’s outstanding performance against England and Fiji’s historic victory over France, proved that the Tier 2 countries may well be some of the more traditional rugby powers’ undoing at next year’s World Cup. Japan in front of their home crowd are likely to be exceptionally dangerous, and what we saw against England is likely to prove to be a mere teaser for what they can do as hosts of the biggest rugby spectacle on earth. Both Scotland and Ireland will need to be on their guard, as a quarter-final spot is not beyond Japan’s reach.

Fiji meanwhile have always been a joy to watch. However, what really stood out in their performance against France was the fact that they have become so much more than just a flashy set of backs. They possess some exceptionally skilled and powerful forwards, and their backs remain some of the most unpredictable and dangerous in Test Rugby. Australia after their woes this month, must surely be feeling more than a little nervous about their pool encounter with Fiji next year in the World Cup. Fiji could well send Australia packing before the knockout stages have even begun. Just like Japan a quarter-final spot is not beyond the realm of possibility for Fiji next year. Even Wales are no doubt feeling slightly edgy about meeting the Pacific Islanders.

With less than a year to go to the greatest Rugby show on earth, World Rugby really needs to sort out the mess that officiating has become

There were simply too many poor calls and controversies in the officiating this November, and there is no denying that at times it detracted from the quality of rugby on display. The tackle law needs some serious revision and subsequent consistency applied in terms of officiating, as does the on field interpretation of what is and what is not an offside position. Furthermore, if the TMOs, as they are now supposed to be, are to be a last resort then that also needs to be reinforced. There were too many occasions this month where they still had a leading role in affecting referees’ on field decisions or even leading or prompting the referee to revisit a decision.

In short, the lack of consistently applied standards to the refereeing of the game detracts from growing the game for a larger global audience and those to new to the game. Furthermore, it has a negative impact on players as they are increasingly unsure of what they can and cannot get away with in the eyes of the officials, making strategy and planning almost impossible at times. Perhaps most important of all, the constant interruption and lack of clarity is energy sapping and frustrating for both players and spectators alike. While we are the first to admit that referees face by far the most difficult job on the pitch, consistency in terms of interpretation of arguably one of sport’s most complex set of rules must still be a paramount concern for both them and their superiors. In the sport’s showpiece tournament next year in Japan this has to be got right. Let’s hope that as a step on the road to ensuring this, next year’s Six Nations is the proving ground to fixing the issues to the point where we and countless others no longer have to write about it.

Endnote

Although there is no International Rugby till the Six Nations in February, we won’t be silent and have a few things we’ll be looking at between now and then. Between now and the beginning of January we’ll be putting out our annual report cards on the Rugby Championship participants – Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. With Canada having just snagged the last World Cup berth up for grabs we’ll be handing out our report card on their turbulent season this year and a look ahead to next year’s Americas Rugby Championship. We’ll also be putting together report cards on the four Tier 2 nations we think are most likely to cause problems at next year’s World Cup for some of the bigger guns – Japan, Fiji, the USA and Georgia. There’s also the small matter of putting out our team of 2018, though it may take a while as this topic is hotly debated amongst us all to the point where reaching a common consensus is proving to be tricky to say the least. Lastly as the European Champions Cup pool rounds draw to a close in January we’ll be having a look at what we can expect from the next year’s Six Nations tournament as a result

It’s been a terrific year and thanks to everyone who has taken the time to read our amateurish musings over the past twelve months which has helped get our visitor numbers up to the 10,000 mark. Bring on 2019 and all the excitement it has in store!!!

 

 

 

 

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