As we do at the end of every year and with their seasons over till February, we look back at the highs and lows of the Southern Hemisphere season and hand out our verdicts on the big four Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. With less than nine months left before the biggest rugby show on earth, 2018 was a critical year for all four countries and much was learnt about the pecking order in International Rugby, and what we might expect from these four heavyweights once business gets underway in Japan in September.
We’ll be the first to admit it’s completely subjective based on what we saw and where in our humble opinions it leaves the teams heading into 2019. We highlight the match we most enjoyed from each of the teams and we try to pick the player who made the greatest contribution to their national cause in 2018 as well as the player that we feel is most likely to catch the eye in 2019. So take from it what you will but without any further ado let’s get into it.
Australia – 4/10
No matter which way you cut it, 2018 was a truly dismal year for Australian Rugby. Of 13 Tests played the Wallabies managed a paltry 4 wins, and for much of the year looked in a complete state of disarray on and off the pitch. Meanwhile constant tinkering with the make up and balance of the squad, a misguided obsession with playing players out of position and a game plan that none of the players seemed to understand meant that Australia in 2018 looked a shadow of the great Wallaby teams of old. Rarely getting the basics right and attempting to play what seemed to be an overly complicated game plan without the requisite skills, meant that by their final Test of the year against England, all the players really wanted to do was pack their bags and forget about 2018 as quickly as possible. All this confusion heightened calls for Coach Michael Cheika to step down and based on the results of 2018 it was hard to argue against it, even if it meant a wholesale change in the coaching setup at such a critical juncture in Australia’s World Cup preparation. Cheika has miraculously survived, but is left with very little time and games available to turn things around before the Wallabies travel to Japan in September.
Australia got their 2018 season underway in June, with a much-anticipated three Test series against Ireland. The opening match gave Australian supporters much to cheer about. Ireland looked rusty and Australia were clearly the better side and walked away with a stylish and convincing win. However, Ireland were back to their best in the second Test, and Ireland simply looked better at the basics while Australia although impressive in attack all too often tended to over complicate things. With the series level, Australia headed into the third and final Test rattled but clearly confident of their ability to take the series. They certainly took the game to Ireland, but once again Ireland just seemed the more composed of the two sides, and Sexton’s boot ensured that Ireland had the edge when it came to vital points on offer. Nevertheless, it had been a highly entertaining series and although Australia were not the victors there were still plenty of positives on display to give one cause to think that 2018 would be the year where the Wallabies really started to hit their straps in time for the World Cup.
The Rugby Championship/Bledisloe Cup however would sadly shatter that sense of optimism for the most part. Australia’s opening game against New Zealand showed a glimmer of hope in the first 40 minutes, but after that it was all one way traffic favoring the Men in Black. The return fixture at Eden Park did nothing to dispel the growing sense of doom pervading the Australian camp as the All Blacks ultimately ran rings around a Wallaby side that gradually imploded as the match wore on.
The next two rounds of the Championship would produce one of Australia’s best performances of the year and one of their worst. In the match against South Africa, the Wallabies were without three key players David Pocock, Israel Folau and Adam Coleman. However, they started the match at an intense tempo and managed to maintain it coupled to some solid defence that managed to hold a Springbok team at bay, especially in the final ten minutes. It wasn’t pretty at times, but given their injury list the Wallabies showed some real character to get the win. Things would then unravel dramatically a week later with the visit of the Pumas. Once again there was some enterprising play from the Australians but the Pumas just looked that more clinical and sure of what they were trying to do. Australia’s continued experiment with Kurtley Beale at fly half and Israel Folau on the wing was clearly not working with neither player confident or sure of their roles. Furthermore, when Australia did have chances they were usually butchered by attempting plays that appeared far more complicated than they needed to be. Argentina’s defence in the final ten minutes was rock solid despite a concerted Australian assault, and they ultimately took the spoils as Australia saw yet another match go begging.
The final two rounds of the Rugby Championship clearly demonstrated the crisis in confidence that was starting to pervade the Wallaby camp. Even with the Springboks down to 14 men in the final quarter the Wallabies simply could not get across the South African whitewash and once more looked confused as to what kind of game they were supposed to be playing as the Folau/Beale experiment continued to trip over its own feet. Furthermore the Wallabies were getting seriously pushed around in the forward battles as they found themselves increasingly starved of possession. Their final match of the Championship against Argentina was very much a match of two halves. In the first half Australia were beyond dire. After an absolute roasting in the changing room at half time by Coach Michael Cheika, Australia emerged a side transformed and one which had clearly had the fear of God put into them. They produced arguably their best forty minutes of 2018 and ultimately THE comeback of the year to seal the match in their favor at 45-34, after trailing the Pumas 31-7 at half time. It showed what Australia can do with their gifted set of backs by keeping it simple and their forwards getting the basics right. It was clean and uncomplicated rugby and it worked like a charm.
Australia then travelled to Japan to get a taste of the atmosphere for the World Cup for the final Bledisloe Cup match. However, once again for reasons best known to himself, Coach Michael Cheika continued to tinker and this time put Israel Folau at centre, having been unhappy with the experiment of having him on the wing. Australia looked disorganised and their discipline also started to fall apart and the All Blacks ran out comfortable winners at 37-20. A clearly frustrated Wallaby side then headed to Europe for three Tests, starting with Wales. Australia had an enviable record at the Principality Stadium and were also buoyed by having beaten Wales in their last 13 encounters. Surely the record was set to be broken and while as a spectacle the game provided very little, Wales got the better of a gruelling arm wrestle.
Australia then travelled to Italy for a game they simply had to win, as a loss to the Azurri would have been the most telling indictment of how far the Wallabies had fallen in 2018. Once again although not the most riveting of games from a spectator point of view, and despite some costly lapses in discipline by Australia, the Wallabies still emerged comfortable winners and thus avoided a banana skin that it would have been hard for them to recover from. Their final Test of a turgid 2018 was against an English side clearly on the rebound from their own troubled 12 months. England put in a rampant display against a Wallaby side that had clearly run out of motivation and ideas and just wanted a miserable year to end. While Israel Folau was back to his regular position at fullback and scored both of Australia’s tries as a result, it was a lacklustre Australian effort compared to a powerhouse English performance. Australia quietly slipped away to Heathrow and the long journey home to reflect on a year they no doubt would rather forget as quickly as possible.
Hopefully all the hard knocks Australia took this year will have provided them with some valuable lessons. They are likely to play with a greater sense of purpose this year, and most likely go back to the basics and tried and trusted combinations of players in positions they are more comfortable with. There was a great deal of experimentation by Australia in 2018, and in general most of it did not work, but better to find that out now than during the World Cup. So for 2019 Australia should revert to what works best to unleash a lethal set of backs, shore up the discipline and make sure the first and second rows can compete with the world’s best. The imbalance in Australia’s back row also needs to be addressed with Michael Hooper needing to get back to his best and the team as a whole to stop relying on the outstanding David Pocock to single-handedly produce miracles for them.
With Rugby Union continuing to be in a state of crisis in Australia, as Australian sides continue to fare poorly in Super Rugby coupled to a relatively small player base as opposed to other national sports, it will be a challenge for Australia to really develop the depth needed to compete at this year’s World Cup. Australia can put out a very good match day 23, but once the inevitable injuries of a World Cup campaign kick in we can’t help feeling that Australia will continue to be found wanting in 2019 in terms of depth. While we were not one of the voices baying for Michael Cheika’s head last year, and are glad for both him and Australia that he will remain in charge till the conclusion of the World Cup, he really needs to demonstrate that he has taken the painful lessons of 2018 for both himself and his charges on board. If he and his team can do that and some much-needed depth can be found in the next nine months, then there is no reason that Australia cannot be the competitive force they always are come the World Cup – but after 2018 there is no denying it is a VERY tall order indeed!
Player of the year – David Pocock
Pocock’s return from injury this year was a godsend for the Wallabies and this outstanding player did not disappoint. However, at times his team lost the plot while expecting him to singlehandedly turn matches around. As a player who puts his body on the line like few others, Pocock did not disappoint but it clearly took its toll, as he was clearly battling through the pain barrier at times. Given his injury history it remains to be seen how much longer he can continue in this Superman role, and the rest of his team really need to step up and shoulder the burden. Otherwise we fear that one of Australia’s most valuable players may simply not make it to the World Cup this year. By far Australia’s best player even in some of their more dire performances in 2018, Pocock remains Australia’s most valuable commodity.
Player to watch in 2019 – Jack Maddocks
Maddocks’ one try against New Zealand in the opening Bledisloe Cup match epitomised the depth that Australia needs to develop and why Maddocks is such a key player in that regard. The utility back may not have been able to replicate that performance in subsequent games in 2018, and he clearly has a lot to learn defensively, but there is a real spark here with a player able to play a wide variety of positions and thus provide valuable cover from the bench for the World Cup. Definitely one to watch in 2019 and hopefully Australia can find a few more like him.
Match of the year – Argentina vs Australia – Salta – October 6th – Australia 45/Argentina 34
Yes there is no denying that Australia’s first half performance was appalling in this match, but you still have to hand it to them for one of the greatest comebacks in a second half that we have seen in a long time. Furthermore, it epitomised that although shaken this Wallaby side is far from down and out, and when on song can produce some truly breathtaking attacking rugby. As a result it would be foolish to write them off in this year’s World Cup despite the tribulations of 2018. They have plenty of work to do, but as this match showed, put some fire in their bellies and they are a very dangerous side.
Next up – New Zealand!