So as we do at the end of every year, we look back on the last twelve months of International Rugby and pick our Team of the Year. A team is nothing without a good bench, so in fairness to all the outstanding performances we’ve seen from some remarkable players this year, we always pick our starter for the position but also pick who we would want to have on the bench for said spot. In a year which has seen some fantastic rugby and a genuine levelling of the playing field in terms of the gap between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, this year’s team caused heated debate amongst the Lineout’s selectors but eventually a squad of 15 starters and 15 benchers was settled on.
While this year’s selection has a distinctly greenish tinge to it from both Hemispheres, it does reflect the fact that Ireland dominated Europe while at the same time acheiving some notable victories over their Southern rivals. Meanwhile South Africa’s Renaissance after long years in the wilderness was one of the most exciting events in International Rugby since the last World Cup. However, our starting XV does have some notables from around the globe, with France, Wales and New Zealand getting a shot at glory. Our bench though remains heavily dominated by gentlemen wearing black shirts, reflecting that they may not have grabbed as many headlines this year, but they are still the team against which everyone else measures success. Perhaps much to everyone’s surprise, it’s been the reliability factor that has swayed our selectors more than panache or X-factor this year. So while we are sure that allegations of bias will be levelled against us over these choices we think it remains true to the selection criteria used.
In addition to the players, we also pick our Team, Coach, Referee, and lastly Game of the Year, with all four of these categories having a runner-up. Like we say it’s been a genuine arm wrestle amongst us to come to some common agreement, but after much debate and several pints it’s done. So without any further ado this is who the Lineout thought really stood out in 2018.
The Lineout’s Team of 2018
1 – Loosehead Prop – Steven Kitshoff – South Africa
We’ve always been huge fans of the “ginger ninja” and this was one of our easier selections, as there was unanimous delight in seeing a player we think has been one of South Africa’s up and coming stars for the last two years, finally getting the recognition he deserves. Possessing superb technique at the coal face, as well as being a strike threat of note close to the try line, the Springbok is likely to be hugely problematic for his opponents come the World Cup.
On the bench – Cian Healy – Ireland
You’ll notice that a theme of “reliability” will run through a lot of our selections, and Healy fits that bill perfectly. His work rate is off the charts and he was often in the thick of all the physical work that helped Ireland to their remarkable success this year. A seasoned veteran and campaigner, Healy is precisely the kind of player you would want to bring on if things were coming unstuck.
2 – Hooker – Guilhem Guirado – France
This position caused massive debate amongst us, but eventually we settled on the Frenchman. His team may have had mixed results this year, but there is no denying the super human effort that France’s Captain put in to galvanise his team to go the extra yard. Invariably the Man of the Match for France in every game he played for them this year, Guirado is such an inspirational player we felt we just had to have him in our starting XV. Couple that to a phenomenal work rate and all round reliability, and you’d be hard pressed to find a better player in terms of knowing what you’ll get from them when they run onto the pitch. In short, one of International Rugby’s most underrated players.
On the bench – Codie Taylor – New Zealand
One of the biggest attributes of Taylor this year was his reliability. He may not be the flashiest player at Hooker or have the mercurial skill set at times of South Africa’s Malcolm Marx, but there is no question that he provided All Black Coach Steve Hansen with a solid platform in the scrum throughout the year. Furthermore he has simply taken over where Dane Coles left off with effortless ease. A bruising and steadfast ball carrier who simply does his job, and precisely the kind of player you would look to restore order in the final quarter.
3 – Tighthead Prop – Tadhg Furlong – Ireland
Another easy decision for the selectors. The Irishman has been one of the standout players of the year full stop. More to the point he is one of the few players that when making our choice, we realised we couldn’t single out a match this year where it could have been said that he had an off day. A player who puts in 110% continuously, never seems to tire and appears impervious to injury. In short – indestructible. Could you ask for anything more?
On the bench – Owen Franks – New Zealand
Our heart continued to break this year for the veteran All Black as he earned his 100th Test Cap but still remained without a try to his name. Once again the word reliable comes to mind when talking about Franks. Quite simply one of the best Tightheads the game has ever seen, Franks is someone you know you can count on for stability when the chips are down.
4 – Lock – Brodie Retallick – New Zealand
Once again a bit of a no brainer on this one. Retallick was truly extraordinary this year, and his performance in appalling conditions against England perhaps best summed up the impact this player can have on a match. Retallick’s efforts single-handedly got New Zealand back into the game and turned the screw on England. In addition to being a remarkably gifted player, he also is able to inspire a certain degree of fear in his opponents. With the ability to make a mockery of opposition team’s efforts in the lineouts, the sight of the 2 metre plus giant running at full speed had most of us ducking for cover behind the bar this year. Definitely one of International Rugby’s ultimate weapons and someone you would not think twice about including in your starting XV.
On the bench – RG Snyman – South Africa
Another player who quite simply scared the living daylights out of us this year, the giant Springbok made everyone sit up and take notice in his first year at Test level. In the best tradition of intensely physical Springbok forwards, Snyman brought some real grunt and power to South Africa’s efforts up front this year. While his discipline occasionally needs some work, expect to see the big man cause opposition defences plenty of sleepless nights next year in Japan.
5 – Lock – James Ryan – Ireland
The Irish youngster has turned heads repeatedly in his first full year of International Rugby. Another of those players who seems impervious to either fatigue or injury he will play a huge part in Ireland’s efforts next year in Japan. Like his fellow countryman Tadhg Furlong, Ryan puts in a massive effort every time he dons the green jersey and as shown this year was able to match one of the world’s best, Sam Whitelock of New Zealand, with ease.
On the bench – Sam Whitelock – New Zealand
This All Black veteran stood in admirably for regular Captain Kieran Read during France’s visit to New Zealand in June, and like so many of our selections he just is the epitome of cool, calm and collected reliability. One of the most dependable and safe heads in the International game.
6 – Blindside Flanker – Peter O’Mahony – Ireland
The Irishman’s monumental performance in the match against New Zealand, was for us without a doubt one of the most impressive individual performances of the year. Involved in simply everything Ireland did that day, he was a huge inspiration to the rest of his teammates, even battling through pain at times to make the statement that Ireland mean business next year in Japan. A quiet and modest man who embodies all the best qualities of Irish fury on a rugby pitch, O’Mahony has become the team’s talisman in so much of what was good about what they achieved this year. A fearsome presence who is the epitome of big match temperament.
On the bench – Pablo Matera – Argentina
While he still may have to work on his discipline at times, there is no doubt that Agustin Creevy’s successor as Captain has been a revelation for the Pumas this year. The devastatingly effective loose forward is another of those players who seems capable of a 90 minute game without missing a beat. Matera is aware he has a potentially lethal side at his disposal, and expect he and the rest of his team to be a major hiccough in England and France’s World Cup ambitions next year.
7 – Openside Flanker – Pieter-Steph du Toit – South Africa
The big South African’s emotions at the final whistle in that historic triumph in Wellington this year said it all about this remarkable player. Equally at home in the second row, du Toit’s performances at 7 this year have really stood out. A player who gives his all to the cause and delivers the goods at the same time, is someone few Coaches would want to be without. Du Toit has epitomised those qualities all year and for us was an easy choice for our starting XV.
On the bench – Justin Tipuric – Wales
As regular readers of this blog know, we are huge fans of the dynamic Welshman. Long regarded by us as Wales’ most underrated player, Tipuric really came to the fore this year and was a massive part of Wales steady progress up the World Rankings in 2018. Once again a player who embodies reliability and an off the charts work rate, Tipuric will be essential to Welsh ambitions next year as they seek to solidify their position as the second best side in the Northern Hemisphere.
8 – CJ Stander – Ireland
Perhaps not the flashiest number eight, but as a reliable workhorse there are few better in the modern game. A ferocious ball carrier who is always in the thick of the action and who clearly relishes the physical aspect of the game, Stander can be counted on to make the important yards for his team when you need them most.
On the bench – David Pocock – Australia
In a year which Australia will want to forget as quickly as possible, Pocock is the only Wallaby who makes it into our side for 2018. While he has clearly battled with ongoing injury issues this year, you would be hard pressed to find evidence of it in his performances. His never say die attitude and constant effort even when battling through the pain barrier was one of the few standout aspects of an otherwise dismal Wallaby effort this year. Often expected to produce miracles by his lacklustre colleagues, Pocock is a talent that better teams would have been able to make much more effective use of.
9 – Scrum Half – Faf de Klerk – South Africa
The pint-sized South African stole the show this year in the scrum half position. He was key to South Africa’s revival in 2018, and his absence from the November Internationals for the Springboks was telling, with the exception of the French Test. The word electric comes to mind when describing a player who seems to exhibit no fear whatsoever, and in defence is able to bring down opponents more than twice his size. A remarkable player who is the definition of spark and unpredictability, while at the same time being able to punch way above his weight.
On the bench – Conor Murray – Ireland
While he may have missed Ireland’s historic first ever defeat of New Zealand on Irish soil, Murray was instrumental in Ireland’s Six Nations Grand Slam and their successful tour of Australia. Rated as the world’s best and now back from injury after missing Ireland’s November Internationals, Murray is likely to be one of the biggest names in next year’s global showdown in Japan.
10 – Fly Half – Jonathan Sexton – Ireland
World Rugby’s Player of the Year in 2018 sums it up nicely. Sexton has been one of the best in the world in his position for a good few years now, but 2018 was definitely something special. He is clearly the back room conductor of every Irish performance, and seems to know exactly how to run a game. As we saw in Ireland’s opening match of this year’s Six Nations against France, Sexton is a master of composure under pressure. Despite seeming to have a complete disregard for his own personal safety, there is no question that Ireland are something unique when he is on the pitch. If he can avoid injury between now and Japan, he along with Conor Murray are likely to be the linchpins of any Irish success at the World Cup.
On the bench – Beauden Barrett – New Zealand
While there is no denying that he had a few off days this year, he is still a player that most Coaches would want to see on their teamsheets. His goalkicking may occasionally be off the mark and it seems remarkable to think that the drop goal is not part of his regular routine. However, his ability to create something from seemingly nothing is unique in International Rugby. Along with fellow All Black Damian McKenzie and Ireland’s Jacob Stockdale, Barrett is the definition of X-factor.
11 – Left Wing – Jacob Stockdale – Ireland
2018’s king of the intercept, has had a remarkable year. His tries against New Zealand and England were crucial watershed moments for Ireland and displayed a set of skills that at times defied belief. Of one thing you can be sure, the likelihood of Stockdale crossing the whitewash is almost a given in any match. Over and above his legendary try scoring abilities the Irish winger has also become much stronger in defence. In short the complete package out wide.
On the bench – Rieko Ioane – New Zealand
There were times this year that we felt that the All Black winger was kept quiet, admittedly more by resolute defence from opposition teams painfully aware of the threat this extraordinary player possesses, than a poor showing on his part. However, there is no denying that Ioane is destined to be one of New Zealand’s greats. Give this man any kind of space and you are in for a world of hurt.
12 – Inside Centre – Bundee Aki – Ireland
Some might be surprised to see us give this position to Aki over New Zealand’s Ryan Crotty. However, Aki had such a breakout year for Ireland and was such an impressive ball carrier that we simply had to give him the nod over the All Black. Once again Aki, may not be the most gifted footballer out there, but his willingness to constantly put his body on the line and make the hard yards made him such a key part of Ireland’s biggest moments this year. He is a bruising ball carrier who defences find very hard to bring down. Like many of our selections he may not be the flashiest player on the pitch but he was devastatingly effective for Ireland at getting the basics right this year.
On the bench – Ryan Crotty – New Zealand
A quality player through and through, we were delighted to see Crotty make a spectacular return from injury. Once again Crotty comes in high on the reliability list for us and as a result is one of those go to players when the chips are down. Basically impossible to keep off any Coach’s teamsheet.
13 – Outside Centre – Jonathan Davies – Wales
Once again a very tough choice here, with many worthy contenders. However, for us Davies gets the nod, as much like Tipuric, we feel he has been one of the key architects of Welsh successes this year. A highly creative player with a keen eye for opportunity, he rarely failed to impress. One of International Rugby’s sharpest minds, we are expecting big things from the Welshman next year in Japan.
On the bench – Huw Jones – Scotland
While Scotland may not always have impressed this year, Jones did so consistently. Some of his breaks in open play were a joy to watch and we rate the Scotsman very highly. A very talented player who given any kind of space suddenly becomes absolutely lethal.
14 – Right Wing – Ben Smith – New Zealand
The veteran All Black is the epitome of class. Always seemingly in the right place at the right time, Smith is your textbook winger while at the same time providing his team with a rock solid defence. As evidenced several times this year, his ability to contort his body to remain within the field of play and score seemingly impossible tries is the stuff of legends – and he makes it all look so utterly effortless.
On the bench – Bautista Delguy – Argentina
While Argentina had a challenging year, this is one player who really made us sit up and take notice. Some of his counterattacks from deep within his own 22 this year were the stuff of legends. Given the fact he is only 21, expect him to be grabbing plenty more headlines in 2019.
15 – Fullback – Rob Kearney – Ireland
There were fullbacks with a lot more panache than Rob Kearney out there this year, but nobody quietly answered their country’s call on every big occasion under pressure better than the Irishman in 2018. On our reliability meter, Kearney probably registered the highest this year. He just quietly and efficiently did everything his team expected him to do, and did it well. As your last line of defence you couldn’t have asked for a better player.
On the bench – Damian McKenzie – New Zealand
We were once again amazed by the sheer genius of this player who proved that size is irrelevant. With ball in hand he is probably the most exciting player in Test rugby right now. Able to evade tackles at will, and leave hapless defenders clutching at thin air, he is the ultimate proponent of the “now you see me – now you don’t” style of attacking rugby. Almost impossible to read defensively, he is likely to continue to provide his opponents with sleepless nights throughout 2019.
Team of the Year – Ireland
Just look at the record – Six Nations Grand Slam, Series win in Australia and a clean sweep of the November Internationals including a much coveted All Black scalp. 12 played, 11 won and 1 lost. The record speaks for itself. Meanwhile all this was built on Irish dominance of European club rugby in 2018. Some say that Ireland may have peaked too early in relation to next year’s World Cup, and while history may provide good grounds for such statements to be made, the foundation on which Irish rugby success is now built has never looked more sound. A team that now boasts some extraordinary depth and unity of purpose will be very hard to beat in 2019, and while they are likely to find it harder to maintain that dominance next year against much more determined opposition, they will still be one of the benchmark teams to beat.
Runner-up – South Africa
One of International Rugby’s traditional super powers, South Africa have spent far too long in the wilderness of International Rugby since the last World Cup. Consequently, for the good of the global game we were delighted to see them rise from the ashes once more this year under new Coach Rassie Erasmus. We were lucky enough to attend their season opener in Washington against Wales, and although not the greatest spectacle, their narrow loss showed that some momentum was beginning to build. Their series triumph over England in June solidified that claim. Although there were some low points in their Rugby Championship campaign, a strong second place finish and managing to beat the All Blacks on the road and run them exceptionally close at home was the clearest evidence that the Boks were back, and that one of International Test rugby’s greatest rivalries was alive and kicking once more. Their end of year Tour also provided enough highlights, despite the narrow loss to England. The defeat to Wales clearly showed a group of players starting to run out of steam at the end of a tumultuous season, but there had been enough high points this year and some serious talent on display to leave us in no doubt that South Africa are likely to be a very serious contender for World Cup glory next year.
Coach of the Year – Joe Schmidt – Ireland
While 2019 sees the New Zealander head into his last year in charge of Ireland, 2018 demonstrated to full effect how far he has brought the Men in Green. They are without doubt New Zealand’s equal, and as such, serious contenders for next year’s World Cup. A triumph next year in Japan, by adding International Rugby’s ultimate prize to Ireland’s already sizeable silverware cabinet, would be the ultimate crowning glory and send off to Schmidt’s remarkable time with Ireland. The changes he has wrought since taking the reins in 2013 have had a significant trickle down effect throughout Irish rugby as evidenced by the continuing success of Irish teams at club level. In short despite a relatively small player base, Ireland boasts a level of depth that is the envy of much larger unions. A remarkably humble and modest man who possesses perhaps the sharpest tactical brain in International Rugby, Schmidt has gained the complete trust and confidence of his players and the country as a whole. By the time he leaves Ireland at the end of next year’s World Cup, his six-year tenure with the national side will leave a legacy that should benefit Irish rugby for generations to come. While his plans post Ireland remain unclear there is no doubt that his place in history is assured.
Runner-up – Rassie Erasmus – South Africa
Since taking over early this year from the ill-fated Allister Coetzee, Erasmus has transformed Springbok rugby. His selection policy has been consistent and has produced results. The side is clearly more settled and focused than we have seen for a very long time. Players appear to understand what is expected of them and how to deliver on the day. There is a passion behind the jersey that was sadly lacking during the tenure of Erasmus’ predecessor. In short Erasmus’ efforts in the ridiculously short space of six months have brought the Springboks back into contention on the World Stage. The age-old rivalry between New Zealand and South Africa, which had provided so many of Test Rugby’s greatest moments over the years, but which had sadly lost its lustre since the last World Cup, is back with a vengeance and arguably produced two of the best Tests of 2018. There is still plenty of work to do, but the total renaissance of Springbok rugby in a mere six months under Erasmus has been remarkable. In doing so he has unearthed some genuine world-class players who are likely to provide plenty of excitement at next year’s World Cup.
Referee of the Year – Wayne Barnes – England
As regular readers of this blog know we traditionally have not been a fan of the Englishman, and while we still have doubts about his ability to spot the odd errant forward pass, we must say that in terms of consistency he has got the nod from us this year. His ability to defuse tense situations, while at the same time being able to clearly explain his thinking and the ebb and flow of the game to the players, has really matured this year, to the point we felt he was the easiest referee for players to understand and work with in 2018. There were very few surprises with Barnes this year, and players could for the most part walk onto the pitch knowing what to expect from the Englishman and how to play the game as a result. While like all the referees this year, he was not completely without error, let’s face it, it’s still probably one of the hardest and most thankless jobs on the planet. However, we questioned his decisions far less than many other of the referees this year much to our surprise, and enjoyed his consistency and clear explanations.
Runner-up – Nigel Owens – Wales
Like many we feel that the iconic Welsh referee lost some of his accuracy at times this year, but there is no question that International Rugby’s favourite headmaster still takes some beating. There are very few grey areas with Owens and players know that if they keep disregarding his advice then in no time at all life is likely to become very difficult for them. While we felt his consistency in 2018 wasn’t quite up to his very high standards of years gone by, he is still a class act and probably one of International Rugby’s greatest wits and masters of the one-liner. A legend in his own time who clearly isn’t done yet and one of the best there is – plain and simple.
Game of the Year – New Zealand vs South Africa – September 15th, 2018 – Wellington – Rugby Championship
No we are not trying to highlight New Zealand’s two losses in 2018, but the desire to beat the mighty All Blacks produced something special in their opponents and resulted in arguably two of the best Tests of not only 2018, but also since the last World Cup. If that is not a testimony to how much esteem New Zealand is held in then we don’t know what is. South Africa’s triumph over New Zealand a long way from home was something very special. A Springbok side that had been written off heading into the match after their defeat to Australia the week before, defied all the odds and produced a 23 man effort which was the stuff of legends. It had all the qualities of a great Test match, tries galore, huge physicality, heroic defence and a game in the balance for the full eighty minutes. It was breathtaking stuff from both sides, but the emotion on Springbok flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit’s face at the final whistle summed up the truly superhuman effort by South Africa that day to defy the odds and beat the All Blacks in their own backyard. The return match in South Africa two weeks later was just as exciting, but the Wellington victory was something that restored the pride to a Springbok jersey that until then had never quite recovered from the rot that set in after that shock defeat to Japan in the pool stages of the last World Cup. As a result there is no question that it was probably the most important game of the year.
Runner-up – Ireland vs New Zealand – November 17th, 2018 – Dublin – November Internationals
The thriller in Dublin produced heroics from Ireland similar to South Africa’s efforts in Wellington mentioned above. Furthermore missing some key players, most notably scrum half Conor Murray, a very good Irish side showed that depth is one thing they have plenty of. They simply starved New Zealand of the ball and kept them tryless which is something you don’t see very often. Furthermore, the only try scored in the match by Irish winger Jacob Stockdale was arguably one of the best of the year, and showed a pedigree equal to if not better than that which has traditionally been the preserve of the All Blacks alone. Flanker Peter O’Mahony’s titanic efforts throughout the match, even battling through serious pain at one point to make a try saving intercept, was the stuff of legends. It was a remarkable team effort and one which will live long in the annals of Irish rugby history.
Well that’s it for this year folks and WHAT a year it has been. As we head into a World Cup year there is so much to look forward to. This is probably going to be the most evenly contested World Cup since the tournament’s inception in 1987. New Zealand and Ireland are still clearly the front-runners, however, Wales and South Africa are more than capable of upsetting their plans, while France, Argentina and England will fancy their chances of unseating the front runners on their way to the final. So take a much-needed breather till February and the start of the Six Nations – we think you might need it.
We’ll be back first thing in the New Year with our report cards for 2018 on Canada and the four Tier 2 nations most likely to cause havoc in the pool stages of next year’s World Cup as well as Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Till then Happy New Year everyone, and thanks to all of you who helped get our numbers up to 10,000 this year since we started four years ago.
To keep you going till the start of the Six Nations here’s a SUPERB try summary of 2018 from Extra Offload on YouTube.