Let’s be honest in general 2020 is a year that most of us can’t wait to assign to the scrap heap of history. Our beloved sport was put on hold for several months and when it did return it was forced to play out in empty stadiums in the Northern Hemisphere. On that note our compatriots in the Southern Hemisphere, as a result of taking drastic measures right from the get go, had much greater success in containing the scourge of the virus. As a result, rugby got underway much quicker South of the Equator in Australia and New Zealand. South Africa was the obvious exception unfortunately as the country was ravaged by the pandemic and Argentina found themselves with no-one to play locally in the rejigged Super Rugby tournaments which essentially become domestic competitions.
Despite all the trauma the Tri Nations held at the end of the year in New Zealand and Australia between the two countries, with Argentina taking up residence in Australia to play their matches, provided us with some memorable entertainment – most notably Argentina making history by beating the All Blacks for the first time ever. Plenty of new talent was on show, and unlike their compatriots North of the Equator the three countries enjoyed being able to play in front of large crowds due to Australia and New Zealand’s success with containing the COVID-19 outbreak from the very beginning. All sports need a crowd to lend an atmosphere, but the color, passion and good humor that rugby crowds bring to a contest are unique in world sport.
So as we look towards a New Year that hopefully promises much for our sport, we look back at the Tri Nations and what it taught us about its competitors.
Argentina have some work to do but showed they are a force to be reckoned with in this World Cup cycle
When it comes to the raw emotion which is such a big part of rugby it would be pretty hard to top Argentina’s stunning win over the All Blacks in November. Sure the victory was tarnished by a media witch hunt around some comments made by some of the players which were a tad inapporpriate, but uttered in the brashness and immaturity of youth many years before this match – inexcusable but needed some context nevertheless. Captain Pablo Matera who was so inspirational to his colleagues in that memorable match, has shouldered the blame for his actions and the shame that comes with them. He and some of his teammates will undergo some awareness training to ensure that those comments were nothing more than irresponsible faux pas made by a bunch of teenagers who had yet to be seasoned by the international camaraderie of rugby union. A sport which brings players together from a wealth of different cultures and backgrounds.
All that aside, what we did learn from Argentina is that a year in the wilderness and isolated from international competition, if anything seems to have made them stronger. Coach Mario Ledesma, with some help from former Wallaby Coach Michael Cheika, has molded together an outfit that blends the best of the Pumas exports playing in top level European competition with an exciting, talented and dangerous group of new young talent. While Argentina will want to forget that 38-0 revenge drubbing from New Zealand a fortnight after that historic win, they managed to redeem themselves a week later against Australia in a hard fought draw despite the distractions of the media circus going on around them. Furthermore, let’s put it in perspective. Unlike Australia and New Zealand, Argentina had not played in a year, were a long way from home and had to play four back to back Test matches against two of the best Test sides on the planet. To emerge from that with one win against New Zealand, two draws and one loss is pretty respectable whichever way you cut it.
The talent on display, especially from the newcomers was a joy to behold at times, and Argentina look so much more cohesive than they have done in years gone by. While there are still problems with concentration and discipline at times, the Pumas look for the most part exceptionally well organised. Their scrum is once more a thing to be feared and they seem to have a factory of alarmingly talented and exceptionally powerful back rowers. Their backs are magical and there are some up and coming youngsters ready to step into the shoes of the likes of Nicolas Sanchez, Tomas Cubelli and Martin Landajo. In short, what we found out about Argentina is that they are in exceptionally rude health and just getting started on their preparations for the next World Cup, something their main World Cup Pool rivals England will need to play close attention to in the next three years. Unlike the last World Cup cycle, and perhaps because of the pandemic, Argentina seem to have accepted the hand that geography has dealt them and appear set to adapt, ensuring that along with Fiji they are likely to remain one of the most popular online shopping destinations for Northern Hemisphere club coaches.
Australia very much a work in progress but watch this space!
Nobody ever said the Wallaby coaching job would be easy. Take a collection of talented players who very rarely seem able or willing to follow orders, throw in a bunch of youngsters who can’t decide whether they should be playing union, league or Australian rules and new Coach Dave Rennie has probably spent much of 2020 trying to figure out where to begin. When he has got it right, Australia have looked good, and some of their new talent has really made us sit up and take notice, especially harnessed to a game plan that actually works. Unfortunately the rather rebellious streak that runs through Australian rugby managed to derail the Wallabies a few times this year despite Rennie’s best intentions. Nevertheless, what we did see him doing was welding the Wallabies into a recognizable shape and giving them a sense of definition as a team, rather than a collection of unruly but talented loose canons. When Australia clicked as in their defeat of the All Blacks, the promise of this new look Wallaby side was there for all to see. Unfortunately though we still only saw glimpses of it rather than any degree of consistency. However it’s early days and we’re fairly confident that under Rennie’s guidance the best is yet to come.
Australia still suffer from problems with discipline and some of their set piece work, most notably the lineout needs some desperate work. However, overall there were improvements across the board. Discipline was for the most part better, their scrum has improved dramatically and they have clearly got the measure of how to use explosive talents like winger Marika Koroibete to maximum effect. Defensively they are improving and with the long range seige gun capabilities of utility back Reece Hodge’s boot, Australia have plenty to be excited about heading into the New Year.
Most notable for Australia this year was the relish with which they harnessed new talent. There was a long list of names on the roll call for notable performances but here are a few that stood out for us. In the front row Taniela Tupou or the “Tongan Thor” as he is better known as has really come into his own and was an absolute nightmare for Argentina and Australia this year. Harry Wilson looks set to be an outstanding prospect for the future at number eight despite one or two deer in the headlights moments on the big stage this year. Jordan Petaia at centre has greatness written all over him, while Tom Wright proved to be the find of the year on the wing and Tom Banks looks set to answer the questions the Wallabies have consistently had at fullback for the last few years.
In short, Australia despite a mixed bag of results this year, have shown some encouraging signs in 2020 that they are going to be a force to be reckoned with come 2023. There are plenty of kinks still to be worked out, but we have no doubts that Australia in Dave Rennie have picked the right man for the job.
New Zealand – False alarms and still the team to beat
Put aside all the nonsense in the media this year claiming that the All Blacks had lost their edge, question marks around new Coach Ian Foster being the right man for the job and a few serious wobbles against Australia and Argentina as nothing more than idle speculation. When the All Blacks review the footage of what they got wrong, they are still hands down the best team in the world at reinventing themselves. After struggling to get past Australia in their first Test of 2020, a week later they were able to close them out and the week after that completely blow them off the park. Sure the following two weeks were a fairly torrid time for the Men in Black narrowly losing to Australia, and then the shock defeat to the Pumas. However, their last Test of the year and ultimate 38-0 revenge over the South Americans showed a side that can finish on a high like no other, as they simply took Argentina apart piece by piece for the full eighty minutes, not allowing the Pumas to even get a word in to the contrary. It’s that ruthlessness and ability to come back from the dark places of the sport with such clinical efficiency that sets the All Blacks apart from their rivals.
The jury may still be out on whether or not new Coach Ian Foster is the man to take the All Blacks to the World Cup, where they are going to have to get past their age old nemesis in the global showdown – France. Les Bleus seem on a rocket trajectory to Mars at the moment and will take some beating especially at home. Fly half and one of the most experienced heads on the team, Beauden Barrett, will still be in his prime in 2023, but has proven his versatility at fullback to ensure that New Zealand will have a genuine powerhouse decision making duo in himself and Richie Mo’unga at fly half. Add in some truly outrageous new talent like winger Caleb Clarke and fullback Will Jordan to the spine of a very capable and experienced team, and this is still the team against whom everyone else will measure their progress. It’s the versatility of New Zealand’s players across the board that still keeps the rest of the world guessing. Dane Coles is not only one of the best hookers in the world, he’s also one of the most dangerous men out wide where he likes to get the winger in him out of the closet. Ardie Savea is the modern day equivalent of a whirling dervish, whilst across the park this group of All Blacks continue to pull off moves that seem effortless to them but often defy logic for the rest of us.
That vision of where space is or how to create it is so ingrained in New Zealand’s rugby DNA, that while they may be in transition the big wins are still likely to vastly outnumber the losses this World Cup cycle. This group of angry young men may still be smarting at their exit from last year’s World Cup at the hands of the old enemy England, but are likely to be using it as a lesson to prepare them for their ultimate potential banana skin France in three years time. Not yet perfect but showing all the signs that they will be in a couple of years!
South Africa are likely to regret not taking the trip to Australia
South Africa chose not to participate in the Rugby Championship held in Australia this year. There were various reasons for this, though mainly due to COVID-19 which has decimated the country. However, with precautions it is likely they could have made the tournament. Instead lack of playing time required to get the players match fit for a grueling Test schedule was cited as the main reason for not making the journey. Given Argentina’s exploits in Australia and that they faced similar issues, this argument seems to be rather groundless, especially when you consider that South Africa are current World Champions. Australia, Argentina and New Zealand are all looking sharp, as are England. When South Africa run out to potentially meet a powerhouse Lions squad in July of next year, it will be their first Test since the World Cup final which by then will have been almost two years ago. As Argentina showed, a year in the wilderness can be managed – but almost two years????
Consequently, we don’t have too much to say about them as at the end of 2020 we simply have no idea where they’re at. Will they regret their decision to not make the trip to Australia or simply use the Lions series as the start of preparations to defend their World title even if they find themselves on a hiding to nothing at the end of it? Little is known about the new Coaching setup for the Springboks, even if it does have the wise hand of World Cup winning Coach Rassie Erasmus overseeing it all, albeit not as closely as many would probably like. Nevertheless, from the little we have seen of the Super Rugby domestic competition in South Africa which only started in September, as well as the Currie Cup, despite the ravages of Covid 19 there is absolutely no shortage of world class talent in the country. Add to that the likes of key players such as winger Cheslin Kolbe making the front pages of every rugby publication every time he takes to the pitch with French side Toulouse and underestimate the green machine at your peril.
There is no denying that the landscape of Test rugby has just not been the same without the Springboks this year, and like the rest of the world we can’t wait for the Lions series this year, pandemic permitting. The Boks are a team that invariably rises to the occasion and regards the jersey as a symbol of national pride never to be taken lightly. They’ll be back rest assured and we hope and suspect that they will reignite the passion and the fury that caused the rest of the world to look on in awe over a year ago in Japan.
We’ll be back with our final piece wrapping up 2020, as we reflect on the end of the Six Nations and the Autumn Nations Cup and what we learnt from it. Till then Happy New Year and let’s hope for all of us around the globe that Covid-19 makes its way into history and our glorious game is allowed to return to the business of making it.