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.
New Zealand – 8/10
It was an interesting year for New Zealand whichever way you cut it. They are clearly still the team to beat in world rugby, but their dominance was challenged in 2018, make no mistake. While they are still a truly remarkable team, we found out this past year, that if they are put under pressure they too can join the ranks of the mortals. Ireland and South Africa put them to the sternest of Tests, and in South Africa’s case pulled off the unthinkable by actually beating the All Blacks in New Zealand – something which New Zealand’s opponents have only managed to pull off a grand total of five times in the last ten years. New Zealand’s losses to South Africa and Ireland, along with their scare from England had many making statements that the All Blacks were vulnerable or that their glory days were on the wane. To be honest from what we saw of them in action we find such statements beyond premature. New Zealand are still a formidable force and without doubt still front-runners to lift the Webb Ellis trophy in Japan this year for the third consecutive time. Yes this year proved that they can be beaten, but it is going to take a very remarkable team to knock them out of the World Cup.
New Zealand’s season got off to an emphatic start, as expected, they put a weary touring French team to the sword, and won all three Tests of their June series. However, some of the controversies surrounding refereeing decisions in the opening match meant there was a slight cloud hanging over an otherwise emphatic victory. The second Test was a much tighter affair, but once again New Zealand were masters of composure under pressure as they sealed a convincing win and the series. In the final Test, the All Blacks put their foot flat to the floor and in the second half simply left an exhausted French team in their dust as they ran in 7 superb tries to France’s 2. It is always hard to gauge how teams stand after having played France, as Les Bleus traditionally field poor touring teams, mainly due to the fact that players are invariably exhausted after one of the longest and most gruelling domestic club seasons in the professional era. However, the second Test did see New Zealand make a host of uncharacteristic errors, some of which could be attributed to the absence of key players such as lock Brodie Retallick and Captain and number 8 Kieran Read.
Next up it was the annual Rugby Championship, which also saw the return of Retallick and Read. The opening match against Australia, which also was the first of the three annual Bledisloe Cup matches, saw New Zealand eventually blow off the cobwebs and get back to their best. As a result it left few of us in doubt that the tournament would be theirs once more as it has been since the last World Cup. Australia then travelled to Auckland’s Eden Park where they were given a comprehensive schooling by New Zealand fly half Beauden Barrett as the number 10 ran in a remarkable four tries.
From there New Zealand played host to a feisty Pumas side who kept them honest until the 70th minute, at which point they finally managed to unlock the Pumas defences and once more hit their customary stride. A South African side that had been written off were their next visitors in Wellington, and the result was arguably THE Test match of the year. The historic and proud rivalry between these two rugby heavyweights was restored during the course of the match in an epic performance from both teams. South Africa gave as good as they got and put the All Blacks under enormous pressure which forced them into countless mistakes, as New Zealand found themselves in the rare position of having to chase an exceptionally healthy Springbok lead. The All Blacks as they traditionally do, came back with a vengeance in the second half, and for a good ten minutes of the final quarter they were up against a Springbok side down to fourteen men. In an absolutely heroic defensive display, South Africa managed to withstand a continual assault by the All Blacks and emerge the narrowest of winners by 36-34. New Zealand were clearly rattled by the defeat, but you never got the feeling that it would last for long.
Sure enough New Zealand came back firing as they travelled to Argentina and got the better of another feisty performance from the Pumas. However, New Zealand destroyed Argentina’s efforts in the set pieces. With a game to spare they now had the Rugby Championship sewn up, but were clearly keen to settle the score in the final match of the tournament, as they travelled to South Africa to face a Springbok side brimming with confidence. It was another titanic struggle that once more lived up to the pedigree of the rivalry between the two, but this time New Zealand would walk away the victors in a very tight contest at 32-30 in the All Blacks favor.
New Zealand continued their travels as they headed to Japan for a taste of what it would be like to play in the forthcoming World Cup. In the final Bledisloe Cup match they demolished a hapless Wallaby side, in front of an ecstatic Japanese crowd. Next up they took on this year’s World Cup hosts Japan. While it was a third string All Black side as the team’s heavyweights travelled to Europe, it reinforced the staggering depth New Zealand has at its disposal. Japan put up a brave fight at times but the result was never in doubt and the All Blacks ran in an emphatic victory beating their hosts 69-31.
The first match of their end of year European tour was against an English side, that much like South Africa earlier in the year, many had written off. In appalling weather conditions New Zealand once more found themselves under the kosh of a resurgent England. Once again the match was marred by controversy sparked by the officials, but New Zealand did manage to claw themselves back into a match that initially looked beyond them. It was Brodie Retallick’s complete dismantling of the English lineouts that set the All Blacks back on course. However, it had been a serious scare and the match was on a knife-edge for the full eighty minutes, and New Zealand breathed a sigh of relief as the final whistle saw them emerge the winners by the narrowest of margins at 16-15. They were aware that they had been given a serious reality check ahead of one of the most anticipated fixtures of the year, their clash with the second best side in the world Ireland in Dublin the following weekend.
The dustup in Dublin did not disappoint, and was one of the year’s epic Tests. New Zealand threw the kitchen sink at a very disciplined and structured Irish outfit, but the All Blacks simply couldn’t wear them down. Furthermore, New Zealand found themselves on the wrong side of the pressure curve for the full eighty minutes. What pressure New Zealand did manage to exert was absorbed with ease by Ireland, while New Zealand where clearly finding the relentless physicality and probing of their defences by Ireland exhausting – something they simply haven’t been used to in the last four years. Ireland recorded only their second victory over the All Blacks, and New Zealand were left to lick their wounds with the prospect of a dead rubber match against Italy in which to regroup.
As expected an angry All Black side, still smarting from the Dublin defeat, put a helpless Italian side to the sword in Rome, as the hosts appeared to be the sacrificial lambs of tournaments similar to what would have taken place in the Coliseum just down the road a few thousand years ago. The 66-3 thrashing by the All Blacks clearly took some of the sting out of the loss to the Irish, but that and the loss to South Africa on home soil, had clearly given the world’s number one side some much-needed food for thought.
New Zealand are still the force to be reckoned with by everyone else if they want to judge how far they have come since the last World Cup. Watch any All Black performance this year, even their two losses, and you will still see some breathtaking skills on display. Their lofty position at the top of the world rankings for so long now, has provided an enormous incentive for the rest of the world to catch up, which it would appear to be finally doing. Ireland are clearly their biggest threat, but South Africa has also proved that they can derail the All Black juggernaut. Throw England and Wales into the mix and all of a sudden the World Cup doesn’t look so comfortable any more for New Zealand. However, we would argue that 2018 was the best thing that could happen in terms of New Zealand’s preparations for the World Cup. Gone are any illusions of complacency, even if there were any there to start with. The All Blacks have proved time and again that once the rest of the world does eventually catch up with them, they are masters at reinventing themselves all over again. Few sides are better at going back to the drawing board and fixing whatever weaknesses they have discovered about themselves and emerging twice as strong. In short, 2018 was a year in which the All Blacks saw themselves shaken but not stirred. Rugby World Cup 2019 you have been warned!
Player of the year – Brodie Retallick
Although he missed the June series against France, the return of the giant second rower for the Rugby Championship reaffirmed how important he is to New Zealand’s efforts. He made our Team of the Year with ease and quite simply terrified the opposition all year-long. He single-handedly turned around New Zealand’s fortunes at Twickenham in a match which they were struggling to assert their authority. A master of the set pieces and utterly devastating in the loose this is clearly one of Test rugby’s most dangerous commodities, and is likely to leave most opposition defence coaches with endless sleepless nights in 2019.
Player to watch in 2019 – Jack Goodhue
We’d heard great things about the Crusaders youngster, and when he showed what he could do in the third Test against France, it was clear that all the hype surrounding the 23-year-old centre was completely justified. While those who have read our musings over the last few years know, we are of the opinion that Sonny Bill Williams is a tad over rated and slightly one-dimensional. Goodhue possesses the wrecking ball physical ability of Williams, some fancy foot work and is in our opinion a much more complete footballer. Allied to the highly experienced Ryan Crotty, Goodhue formed a lethal partnership at centre this year. Expect to see Goodhue be one of the key talking points of New Zealand’s buildup to this year’s World Cup as well as grabbing some major press attention once the tournament gets underway.
Match of the year – South Africa vs New Zealand – Pretoria – October 6th – South Africa 30/New Zealand 32
This match had just as much intensity as the one between these age-old rivals that saw New Zealand concede a rare defeat on home soil a few weeks earlier. It was another epic struggle which ensured that Tests between these two are likely be some of the most anticipated events of the Test calendar once more. When it comes to Test Rugby as a spectacle it doesn’t get much better than this! Here’s hoping that 2019 will produce similar high-octane encounters between these two.
Next up – South Africa and then into the Six Nations!