Archive for the ‘General Commentary’ Category

A busy week in the Heineken Cup sees a number of teams book their quarter final spots, and a fascinating five horse race for the last two runner up spots is on the agenda for this weekend.

Meanwhile this week saw plenty of developments ahead of the Six Nations as all but England have now named their squads.

Lastly Toronto Rugby fans and youngsters had a great day out last Saturday as the Arrows players held a morning of skills sessions with various age groups.

Heineken Champions Cup

Last weekend saw Exeter, Leinster, Toulouse and Racing 92 book their place in the playoffs, with Ulster securing the first of the three runner up spots. The remaining two spots though are very much up for grabs with Northhampton, Saracens and Gloucester leading the race but Glasgow and Munster are in with a shot albeit much slimmer and requiring a helping hand from some of the other teams doing battle this weekend, in addition to their own efforts.

As a result we’re in for a treat this weekend as some high stakes matches are on the cards. First up Northampton travel to France to take on Lyon who although finding it hard to replicate their Top 14 form, are still a daunting challenge at home. Furthermore, it is potentially a match of equals in terms of European competition as Northampton have also struggled to produce the kind of results on the European stage that have seen them made them such a force in the English Premiership this season.

Glasgow face a difficult trip south of Hadrian’s Wall to Sale, and in order to keep their playoff hopes alive, need to win with a bonus point as well as have La Rochelle do them a favor by upsetting Exeter.

Munster while having an easy go of it in their final pool match with an almost certain home bonus point win over the hapless Ospreys, will still need Racing 92 to overturn Saracens in North London on Sunday. Although Racing 92’s spot in the playoffs is assured there will still be plenty of motivation for them to upset the reigning champions as by doing so they would get the benefit of a home quarter final.

Lastly, although Toulouse are comfortably through to the playoffs, they will want to make it six from six by beating Gloucester. Gloucester have a difficult challenge ahead of them as they make the journey to a hotbed of French rugby which has seen a real resurgence in its fortunes of late. If Gloucester pull it off, which is a very tall order indeed, then the confidence it should give them would bode well for their fortunes come the playoffs.

In short some epic games lie in wait this weekend so make sure you don’t miss any of it, which is all covered here in Canada on DAZN, see TV listings pages for times.

Six Nations

The excitement mounts as everyone except England have laid out their stalls for the competition which starts in just over two weeks.

France have named a strong side that has taken stock of some of the exciting performances seen in the Heineken Cup so far, albeit with some notable exceptions. However, there is an exciting blend of experience and raw fresh talent that could provide us with a French team possessing both flair and considerable nous.

Ireland provided few surprises in giving Jonathan Sexton the captaincy, and while he is a class player through and through, much like Owen Farrell for England, we are not quite convinced that he is the right man for the job, but by the same token there are few if any in the current Ireland lineup who can match his experience and depth of understanding of the game’s subtleties. However, like Farrell he can get his team offside with the officials, and his attitude often doesn’t help the cause at such times. Nevertheless we feel that Coach Andy Farrell in his first outing as head Coach has made some positive choices in bringing in some new faces. Competition for the 9 jersey looks set to be fierce between Conor Murray and John Cooney. Ireland’s stocks at number eight continue to be strong despite an ongoing injury list and we are really looking forward to seeing Leinster sensation Caelan Doris get his first Irish cap.

Italy’s offerings are solid but still unlikely to help Italy over the hump of the wooden spoon once more this year. For us the forwards offer some real graft for Italy especially in the shape of Federico Ruzza and Jake Polledri. If the Italian backs can get some quality ball then there are plenty of slick runners for the Azurri, but consistent error free delivery remains a problem.

We also weren’t surprised to see Stuart Hogg get the Scotland Captain’s role, and expect fireworks from his fellow backs Graham Darcy (who was one of the standout players for us last competition) and Huw Jones. There are some exciting names up front as well, especially in Jamie Ritchie and Magnus Bradbury and expect George Horne to create some real excitement at scrum half along with the powerhouse duo of Finn Russell and Adam Hastings at fly half.

The big talking points in Wales’ selections are the inclusion of Gloucester superstar Louis Rees-Zammit. The 18 year old winger has been a revelation in the English premiership as well as making massive contributions to Gloucester’s European aspirations. Rhys Webb makes a return to the Welsh jersey at scrum half after a stint in France. However, Wales do not seem to suffer from a lack of quality scrum halves and Webb will really need to put his best forward to outshine Gareth Davies or Tomos Willams who in our opinion have the more impressive form going into the tournament.

The countdown to one of our favorite tournaments is on and we can’t wait!

Major League Rugby

As mentioned above, the Toronto Arrows held a community day last Saturday morning at the Toronto Soccerplex, and the players had coaching sessions with a variety of age groups. It was well attended and the kids clearly had a blast. In terms of making themselves accessible to their fans the Arrows are doing an admirable job as well as contributing to the development of a strong rugby grassroots community here in Toronto. It was great to meet with and chat to some of the players and the excitement is building to what promises to be another great season for Toronto in Major League Rugby.

That’s all from us this week. Head over to the TV listings page for our two picks of the weekend in terms of Heineken Cup action and broadcast times on DAZN.

 

 

 

First up sorry for the silence since the World Cup. Work, Christmas, families etc all took precedence over us having a good look at matters pertaining to the oval ball for the last couple of months. 2020 will be a busy year for all, on and off the ball, so to accommodate we are changing our approach to how we cover things.

No dramatic changes – the focus is still 100% on International Rugby. To that effect we’ll continue looking at the usual suspects, the Heineken Cup, Pro 14, Super Rugby, the Six Nations, Rugby Championship, Americas Rugby Championship and all the tours in between. We’ll also be looking at Major League Rugby here in North America, as we are after all a Canadian site and our prized Toronto Arrows add a regular international flavour to the competition. However, apart from match reports on the Arrows home games, which we will be religiously attending, we’ll be moving away from previews of the big Tests. Instead, and in an effort to provide your weekly update over a cup of coffee, we’ll try and put out at least every other week, if not every week, a short synopsis of what got us talking about the important games played at the weekend and the ones coming up. In short a weekly digest of sound bites on the major competitions. We may throw the odd preview in there for things like the final weekend of the Six Nations and other big events, but with workloads this year, to do it regularly would just be too much. The only things we won’t be looking at is the English Premiership and the French Top14 – not because we don’t think they are important in the grand scheme of things, but for all intents and purposes they are domestic competitions strictly within the borders of England and France. Also it would just be too much rugby, and our families would probably have something to say about us turning into complete couch potatoes.

So without any further ado, here’s our first go for 2020.

European Champions Cup

The first four rounds of the competition have been enthralling and now with everything to play for in the final two before the playoffs, there’s plenty to talk about especially with the start of the Six Nations just around the corner.

English teams continue to struggle to make much of a dent in the competition, with the exception this year of Exeter Chiefs. The Chiefs have a tricky encounter in Glasgow this weekend with their Pool 2 rivals, but look set to book their place in the playoffs with ease. Despite topping the English domestic scene along with the Chiefs, Northampton have struggled to match up to the intensity of Irish Giants Leinster with whom they share Pool 1.  Harlequins and Bath have been shown the door already, and Saracens and Gloucester appear to be hanging on for dear life, with both teams having do or die matches this weekend, though in Saracens case they look in a strong position as they take on the hapless Ospreys.

For French teams, they are either really good or having a season to forget in Europe with very little in the way of middle ground. Despite sitting pretty in France’s domestic Top 14 Competition, Lyon have struggled to make a statement in Europe this season, while La Rochelle and Montpelier have shown nothing to really make anyone sit up and take notice of their European efforts and sit firmly camped at the bottom of their respective pools. Racing 92 has played some exquisite running rugby, all sparked by Scotland superstar fly half Finn Russell. Toulouse are back to their glory days and Clermont are the European force they always are.

It’s Irish teams though who have perhaps shown the most dominance, particularly Leinster. It’s going to take a very special team to end their seemingly unstoppable run to the final. Meanwhile Ulster has proven to be the surprise package of the tournament so far, with scrum half John Cooney, providing some of the most spectacular razzle dazzle seen in the tournament, and giving incumbent Ireland scrum half Conor Murray a real run for his money for the number nine jersey come the Six Nations. Connacht sadly seem to be fading away, despite the comeback of the season against Gloucester in December, while Munster struggle with injury and form despite clinging to a vulnerable second place in Pool 4 that could well be undone this weekend in a difficult trip to Paris to take on Racing 92.

Scotland’s sole representative Glasgow, have looked awfully good at times but their second place in Pool 2 is more than a tad vulnerable, especially as they host English powerhouse Exeter this weekend. Meanwhile the Welsh and Italian contingents of Ospreys and Benetton Treviso have been embarrassing to watch at times, though the Italians have acquitted themselves with some aplomb by running both Northampton and Lyon exceptionally close. Ospreys sadly have little if anything to cheer about this season, having being comprehensively drubbed by Racing 92, Saracens and Munster in no uncertain terms.

Six Nations

With the final two rounds of pool play in the European Champions Cup taking place over the next two weekends, thoughts have naturally turned to the Six Nations.

England despite not dominating European Club competition still look like the team everyone is going to have to beat this year. As we saw in the World Cup there is enough talent in the English ranks to build a formidable Test day 23, and Coach Eddie Jones has been getting the results, barring that World Cup Final. Perhaps the biggest questions facing English selectors are who gets the Captain’s jersey and who takes the helm at scrum half. Current incumbent number 9 Ben Youngs, was for the most part England’s weak link in the World Cup barring that match against New Zealandand it is clearly time for some of England’s youngsters to get into the next four year building cycle. The bigger question is the Captain conundrum. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, despite his enormous value to England, Owen Farrell is not the man for the job. He performs admirably in the role when things are going England’s way, but the minute the tides change he is nowhere to be found as evidenced against South Africa in the World Cup Final. He loses composure, his negativity when England are up against it clearly affects the rest of his teammates, and let’s not mention the liability of his tackling technique which somehow continues to slip under the radar of the officials. A great player but perhaps much more effective without the burden of the Captaincy. The million dollar question however remains if not Farrell then who? Quite frankly we are struggling to find an answer, but perhaps it lies somewhere in the second row amongst the likes of Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes or George Kruis. Like we say it’s a real conundrum, there are plenty of Captains in the making in England’s young guns, but as to who could fulfill the role right now is a bit of a grey area.

France also look to ring the changes this Six Nations, both in terms of players and a new Coaching direction under Fabien Galthie. There has been lots of razzle dazzle in French play in the European Champions Cup, but as always it remains to be seen if France can bring it to the Test arena. There is a potentially epic French Six Nations team in there somewhere and perhaps Galthie is finally the right man to tease it out.

Ireland may have failed to turn up for the World Cup, but outside of England, they perhaps look the most menacing side heading into the Six Nations. A new Coaching regime will be one of the main talking points under the tutelage of English import Andy Farrell, though many are surely wondering how long it will be before Leinster Coach Leo Cullen takes the reins, given Leinster’s dominance in Europe. Perhaps the biggest task facing Farrell will be to bid farewell to some of the old guard in Ireland and really use the next four years to develop a youthful but experienced Irish World Cup squad. Perhaps his most pressing concerns in this department are in the halfbacks. Conor Murray will likely have got close to the end of his career come the next World Cup, but there are a raft of young aspirants to the position, and who are arguably playing better at the moment, most notably Ulster’s John Cooney, with Leinster’s Luke McGrath also putting his hand up. Johnny Sexton will not be making the next World Cup, and given his issues with injury and mercurial form of late, you’d be hard pressed to argue against not seizing this Six Nations as a golden opportunity to give Leinster’s Ross Byrne the starting berth for the Championship, with team mate Ciaran Frawley and Ulster’s Billy Burns some serious game time as well during the course of the tournament. Joey Carberry has long been favoured as Sexton’s replacement, however the exceptionally gifted Munster fly half is so prone to injury that is hard for the Irish coaching staff to bank on him with on any degree of reliability.

Italy also see a change in management, and Benetton Treviso’s often feisty performances in Europe this season will give Italian supporters something to cheer about, as well as the exploits of Italian internationals in some of the English and French domestic leagues. Expect Italy to be competitive, even if the wooden spoon is likely to be their chosen cutlery this year once more.

Scotland are likely as always to provide us with some of the most enthralling encounters of the tournament, sparked predominantly by their bundle of fireworks at number ten Finn Russell. He’s packed more excitement this season for Racing 92 than many of his opponents would care to remember. There are also some Scottish youngsters champing hard at the bit to provide the kind of X-factor usually reserved for Scottish fullback Stuart Hogg. Glasgow’s Sam Johnson and Huw Jones along with Edinburgh’s Darcy Graham are likely to be making plenty of headlines in February and March.

Wales may not be having much luck in Europe at club level, but they have a competent new Coach in Wayne Pivac. However, Scarlets are still a force in the PRO14 and there is a healthy dose of Welsh big guns scattered across the French and English domestic competitions. Wales showed they were one of the grittiest sides in World Rugby at the recent festivities in Japan with a defense that seems almost indestructible at times. In short don’t judge Welsh fortunes in Europe as a measure of how they are likely to fare in the Six Nations. Just like last year they look set to be the competition’s number one dark horse.

Super Rugby

It’s still a few weeks away, but it’s hard to raise our enthusiasm for this Southern Hemisphere club showpiece. With Australian rugby in shambles, doubts about the continued presence of a Japanese franchise and the rows and rows of empty seats (Buenos Aires being the only notable exception) in the stadiums, it just doesn’t seem to have the energy of its Northern Hemisphere counterpart, despite there being some very attractive and highly skilled rugby on display. It’s still a relevant competition but one desperately in need of an overhaul, as it’s current format is unwieldy and cumbersome making the run up to the playoffs more of a grind than an enjoyable spectacle of top flight rugby which at its core is what it should be. We’ll have more to say closer to the time but for now our focus is likely to remain on both sides of the Atlantic.

Major League Rugby

Yes it’s only a few weeks away but we’ve been heartened by the buildup to the forthcoming season, especially here in Toronto. There seems to be a genuine interest in the new and expanded league. The Toronto Arrows are hosting a community day this weekend aimed at kids, and my own 7 year old can’t wait. https://toronto-arrows-community-rugby-day-2020.eventbrite.ca/

Some big names have also been signed up to the League, most notably French International Matthieu Basteraud to Rugby United New York and Springbok World Cup Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira to Old Glory DC.

The Toronto Arrows will continue to be boosted by the presence of Uruguayan internationals Leandro Leivas and Gaston Mieres both of whom played a big part in Uruguay’s recent World Cup heroics. Toronto made it to the semifinals last year and there is every reason to think that, with the benefit of that experience behind them and a seasoned squad, they can aspire to a similar goal this season.

Despite two years of the MLR, Canada and the USA still fared poorly in the recent World Cup. However, we have a hunch that after another two years, both countries will find themselves on a much stronger footing against international opposition.

Well that’s it for this week. Head on over to the TV listings page for our picks of the weekend’s European Champions Cup on DAZN here in Canada.

When we first looked at the pools draw for this World Cup, we felt that possibly the pool stages may have ended up being rather one-sided. In many ways they were, certainly in the case of Pool B. However, as always some of the Tier 2 nations packed some genuine punch. Uruguay were well worth their admission, as were Georgia and Fiji in Pool D and Japan completely turned the form book on its head in Pool A, much to the chagrin of Ireland and Scotland. The tournament in that respect has completely exceeded expectations and Japan have been a genuine revelation – their offloading game against Scotland was truly spectacular and had to be seen to be believed. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the tournament was the fact that despite the advent of a professional league in North America, Canada and the United States were sadly uncompetitive in their respective pools, with Canada having the added injury of being unable to play the only match they had a genuine shot at glory in against Namibia due to Typhoon Hagibis.

All that aside after a month of some glorious rugby, the business end of the tournament really gets underway on Saturday with the quarter finals. We’ll be having a look at all four matches, but as we only have the team sheets for the first round of Quarter Finals on Saturday, we’ll take a look at Wales vs France and Japan vs South Africa tomorrow.

As expected England topped their pool and now face an Australian side that got the job done but often looked less than convincing in their journey to the knockout stages. England really only had Argentina to test their resolve, after their final match with France was called off due to Typhoon Hagibis. Australia provided us with one of the best games of the pool stages in their thrilling second half comeback against a Welsh side who just managed to hang on to the narrowest of wins. By the same token Australia almost got embarrassed by Fiji and found the going tough at times against Georgia. The Wallabies will have the advantage of being slightly fresher out of the blocks than England, as their final game was not subjected to the vagaries of Typhoon Hagibis. 

England have looked dominant in their run up to their quarter finals after having dispatched Tonga, USA and Argentina with relative ease. They probably could have done without the enforced 14 day break between their game against Argentina and Saturday’s clash with Australia, but the flip side of the coin is it has given them time to sort out any niggling injuries picked up in the pool stages as well as allowing the team ample preparation time. While hardly ideal, were England to come short against Australia on Saturday, it would be a rather weak excuse.

Next up is New Zealand against Ireland, in a match that has so many subplots it would be worthy movie or thriller material. New Zealand will be seeking revenge for Ireland messing with their dominance of the global game in the last four years, in addition to the pressure of ensuring a spot in the semi-finals. Ireland, no doubt would have preferred the Springboks as a quarter final opponent, especially as the form that catapulted them to the top of the world rankings last year has all but deserted them of late. Sure they put away Scotland and Samoa convincingly, but their loss to Japan highlighted some glaring gaps in both strategy and execution on Ireland’s part. Their labored win over Russia did little to convince the rest of the world that Ireland are potential title holders. Ireland simply don’t look the part at the moment and it will take a monumental shift in both execution and effort on Saturday to get Ireland’s World Cup campaign back on track. Ireland have beaten New Zealand in two of their three encounters since the last World Cup, but for all intents and purposes that is now ancient and irrelevant history.

New Zealand on the other hand are having no such problems in their campaign. Their only major concern is likely to be the fact that so far in this World Cup they have only been put to the test once and that was four weeks ago, which is a very long time in the scope of a tournament like this. Their opening game of the tournament against South Africa is the only time that New Zealand have really felt any kind of genuine pressure. Their Sunday strolls in the park against Canada and Namibia, were simply that – good-natured training sessions amongst friends, and we say that in no disrespect to these two opponents who certainly threw everything they had into both matches, even if the outcome had been essentially predicted in the last century. As a result it is a fit and well rested New Zealand that takes on Ireland, but without the benefit of some genuinely hard fought clashes behind them to draw on in terms of big match preparation in the tournament so far. Add to the fact that Ireland would seem to have become New Zealand’s new bogey team, a title held until recently by France. As a result it is likely that there have been just a few jitters in the All Blacks camp this week, should the ghosts of 1999 and 2007 come back to haunt them, albeit in green rather than blue jerseys this time.

So without any further ado here’s our five talking points coming out of Saturday’s big bill of two mouth watering encounters!

England vs Australia – Saturday, October 19th – Oita

Since 2000 these two sides have met 25 times, and England have the healthier balance on the outcome sheet by a considerable margin, especially come World Cup time with the exception of that rather topical loss in the Pool stages of the last World Cup. If the statistics of these two teams aren’t enough of an argument in England’s favor come the World Cup since the turn of the century, there is the small matter of Australia’s form these last four years which is about as consistent as the value of airline shares on the stock exchange. One moment absolutely scintillating and capable of turning the All Blacks inside out and the next minute being blown off the park by any of the Tier one sides, the Wallabies are simply too unpredictable. In many ways they have become the Southern Hemisphere’s version of France in years gone by – in other words which Wallaby team will turn up on Saturday?

England meanwhile do not seem to be suffering the same identity crisis and with the exception of New Zealand, in many ways have looked the most self assured of all the competitors at this year’s World Cup. While they had a relatively easy journey to this quarter-final, courtesy of Typhoon Hagibis, there is no denying that they look a very capable side and one which barring one or two concerns certainly seems to know the type of game they want to play and how to execute it. In short, barring a few lingering questions around big match temperament and lapses in concentration, England look very much like a side who has every intention of being in Yokohama on November 2nd, and the skill set to ensure that becomes a reality.

England’s tight five to establish front foot dominance

Australia’s scrum has improved dramatically in the last year, but England’s has been all powerful. With a powerhouse front row, with a lethal second row providing some real stability and aggression in the set pieces, Australia are going to find the going tough here on Saturday. Like we say Australia have got better but not good enough to cope with England’s all out power, aggression and technical proficiency at the coalface. Australia may be a bit more competitive in the lineouts courtesy of Rory Arnold, Isaac Rodda and Adam Coleman, but with a power packed bench England are likely to be simply too much of a handful for Australia. It will be the platform from which England’s technical proficiency will be built on Saturday, leaving Australia with too much to do in terms of simply attempting to gain parity, let alone build a foundation of their own.

Australia will get some parity in the back row but even with Pocock and Hooper in the mix they won’t get the kind of dominance in the loose they tend to thrive on

If this was England’s back row of the first three years since the 2015 World Cup then we’d argue that Pocock and Hooper would be licking their lips. The problem is it isn’t and anything Pocock and Hooper can do, England’s back row for Saturday can do as well and in many cases probably better. As regular readers of this blog know, we simply cannot rate England’s Tom Curry highly enough. He’s England’s best find of the last four years and future Captain material at the tender age of 21. While the Australian duo, and Hooper in particular thrive in the loose, so too do England’s Sam Underhill and Curry. Add in to the mix England’s one man panzer division in the shape of Billy Vunipola and we just can’t see Australia keeping up here despite Pocock and Hooper’s exceptional talents.

It may seem harsh for George Ford, but Coach Eddie Jones has probably made the call he will stick by to the final should England get that far

George Ford has put in some big performances in the past few months in an English jersey, but when it comes down to the wire for the big games, Eddie Jones is likely to stick with Owen Farrell as his pivot to call the shots in the big games. Given what is at stake, it would seem to be the right call as Farrell seems to have a tighter hold on his game management skills from the ten slot than in the centres. For this match Jones probably could have got away with Ford at ten and Farrell at twelve as Australia do not really posess a world class number ten at the moment. However, for the clashes with England’s potential opponents in the next round, Jones needs some consistency in selection. Furthermore, Ben Youngs who has been seen as England’s weakest link of late at scrum half does seem to play better alongside Farrell than Ford. Ford will still have a chance to bring some impact in the final quarter but expect to see him on the bench for the remainder of the tournament as Jones hedges his bets on a combination that has served him well.

Wallabies Coach Cheika rolls the dice, but this could work out well for him as Eddie Jones also appears to throw caution to the wind

We think that it’s a bold decision by Jones to suddenly insert Henry Slade into the centre channels for a match of such importance, given the fact that the English centre has very little game time under his belt heading into this match. An absolutely brilliant player on his day with some outstanding skill sets, Slade has the potential to set the pitch alight. But then so too does Jordan Petaia for the Wallabies, which in many ways is an even bolder gamble by Cheika. The nineteen year old has very limited Super Rugby experience and even less Test experience. In terms of a leap of faith it doesn’t get much bigger than this. He has a huge amount of talent of that there is no doubt, but whether or not he will be able bring it to this kind of stage remains to be seen. If he does and Slade fails to find his groove and gel with Tuilagi, then with the electric Samu Kerevi alongside him Australia could end up with some momentum changing moments in this part of the park.

Hopefully this is the game where Elliot Daly finally has his detractors leave him alone

We’ve struggled with a lot of the criticism directed at Elliot Daly, England’s fullback on Saturday. Agreed he’s made mistakes in the past, but in our opinion he’s been there when England have needed him, has an exceptionally reliable boot and overall puts in the effort as well as creating some special moments of his own. In short we fail to see the problem. Very few if any of the teams in this competition have a water tight fifteen, and Daly is no exception, but in terms of reliability and doing what it says on the tin, then we find it hard to argue against Daly. In short, we’re fans and think Jones is doing the right thing by sticking with Daly and we really hope he has the kind of performance on Saturday that puts such debates to bed once and for all.

Verdict

Although much has been made of England’s bench, in terms of it closing up shop in England’s favor on Saturday, apart from the front row replacements, we’d argue that it is one area where the two sides are on par. However, it still doesn’t detract from the fact that overall we feel England is simply going to do too much damage in the first hour, for a bench to really make that much of an impact on Saturday. Unless Australia have studied France’s exploits of the 1999 and 2007 World Cups and embraced their underdog status and with it a plan to turn the form books upside down, then it’s hard to see anything other than a fairly convincing England victory. Barring any surprises from Australia and the dreaded English “choke” factor under pressure, then the Men in White to keep moving forward to next weekend by 13 points!

New Zealand vs Ireland – Saturday, October 19th – Tokyo

Australia may have taken some notes out of French play books of years gone by, but Ireland are likely to have made them mandatory viewing each night as they desperately seek to come up with something that New Zealand are not expecting. Let’s be honest the Ireland of 2019 has become beyond predictable and as a result it is going to take a bag full of surprises and an Irish side that New Zealand and the rest of the world has never seen before, if they are to reverse history and go beyond the quarter finals for the first time in the Emerald Isle’s spirited but ultimately disappointing World Cup history.

New Zealand will be fully aware of this and the fact that Ireland have been the annoying thorn in their side since the last World Cup. In short as far as the All Blacks are concerned it’s time to bury this cheeky green demon once and for all, and what better stage to do it on than the World Cup. New Zealand have had their ups and downs this year make no mistake, but they haven’t quite hit the lows that Ireland have in their dizzying fall from their successes of 2018. New Zealand when they click, and they still do with alarming regularity, look unstoppable and while the golden years since 2011 may be coming to an end, this group of rather extraordinary sportsmen aren’t quite done yet.

The “Tadhg” is back and Ireland will need every ounce of the raging bull on Saturday

After a rather quiet 2019, in Ireland’s final pool game against Samoa, the Irish tighthead prop exploded back into his groove. Tadhg Furlong’s influence on Ireland’s fortunes was immediate and set the tone for much of the match. He and New Zealand’s Joe Moody are likely to have a great deal to say to each other on Saturday, but if the Wexford tank hits his mark in Tokyo, New Zealand could face a long day at the coalface as well as having a few broken bodies across the park as the Irish prop seems almost impossible to bring down once he’s built up a head of steam.

Ireland like to suffocate the ball and slow the game down, but referee Nigel Owens likes the game to flow – consequently Irish discipline and keeping on the right side of the laws will be paramount

Ireland are blessed with a superb disciplinary record, which of late has, fairly or unfairly depending on your point of view, lost some of its lustre. The dangers of slowing the ball down bring with it all kinds of issues around the fringes of the laws, territory which New Zealand excels at operating in. Ireland will need to keep it tight but also ensure that the game flows while at the same time not leaving themselves exposed especially in the loose. Ireland’s speed at the breakdown, their rush defense and efficiency at the ruck have all been exemplary under Coach Joe Schmidt, but the aggression and physicality New Zealand are likely to bring to the contact areas on Saturday are going to put this under the most extreme pressure. If Ireland are able to match this and not get bullied by New Zealand and consequently avoid costly disciplinary mistakes then they are in with a chance, but it will be a key area of concern for them and should they not master it, New Zealand will quickly run away with the match by dominating its momentum.

It’s Ireland’s back row that is perhaps their biggest concern

Once a thing of pride it seems to have lost its way not helped by injury, but Ireland’s back row efforts just don’t seem to be matching up to the competition of late. The heroics of Peter O’Mahony on that famous day back in Dublin last year against a group of individuals in black jerseys seem to be nothing more than a distant memory, while CJ Stander seems to have gone into hibernation – even if we did see flashes of his old self against Samoa. Even Josh van der Flier has been strangely quiet this year. It’s a good back row make no mistake, but New Zealand’s offering is simply humming with precision and an all out physicality that is hard to match. Ardie Savea is such a live wire he is almost impossible to read and opposition defenses are never quite sure where he is likely to pop out, and once he does good luck trying to catch him. Sam Cane is back to the bruising ball carrier he loves to be and Kieran Read although not quite the force he once was still lends that steady hand of leadership and provides the glue that keeps this unit together.

If you want entertainment then look no further than the respective nine and tens

What a match up – plain and simple!!! New Zealand’s Richie Mo’unga may not have the pedigree and track record of the other three gentlemen he will be sharing this part of the park with on Saturday, but he certainly has the skill set to mix it with the best of them. We have to confess to being surprised at Aaron Smith getting the nod for the starting berth for the All Blacks at scrum half as we still feel that TJ Perenara is the more explosive of the two and thus a greater handful for the Irish defenses. Nevertheless, if the Irish forwards are managing to go toe to toe with their All Black counterparts and holding their discipline, then the playing field suddenly starts to level, especially if Ireland’s Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton hit their traditional high notes in terms of game management.

It’s a great set of Irish backs as a unit, but New Zealand look like they have more individual try scorers

If you look at the backs from both sides, then it’s really only Jacob Stockdale and Jordan Larmour who stand out as dead ringer candidates likely to get familiar with the opposition try line for Ireland. Gary Ringrose also has some genuine dancing feet for Ireland in the center of the park and knows how to use them in space and create opportunities for the rest of his teammates. However for New Zealand, Richie Mo’unga, Sevu Reece, Beauden Barrett, George Bridge and Anton Liennert-Brown all seem to do it with alarming regularity. New Zealand have a set of backs who are more than comfortable operating as free agents, whereas Ireland’s backs thrive off a more orchestrated approach with the exception of Stockdale and Larmour. Consequently if Ireland are going to keep New Zealand at bay, denying any space whatsoever to five key players will be a much more challenging task than New Zealand having to keep only two or three Irish players in check who can really capitalize on broken play at speed.

Verdict

We would dearly love to see Ireland break their long suffering penury at the stocks in World Cup quarter finals, but it is hard to see it happening based on their buildup to Saturday’s match. They just haven’t looked the part so far this year, leading to the inevitable call that they peaked too early for this World Cup. All the evidence would tend to support that claim as other teams have left them in their wake in the last few months. Still to write off what is essentially an exceptionally talented group of world class players would be sheer folly, and New Zealand have clearly recognized this. Ireland may be down, but when it comes to passion and fire there are few teams who can top the Irish, and as a result they are definitely not out yet. They desperately need some new tricks up their sleeve though as they have sadly become far too easy to read. Whether or not they have been saving themselves for this moment and we will see a side full of surprises remains to be seen, but there is that nagging feeling that it all may be too little too late. New Zealand are building towards one last great hurrah for this group of players and it is going to take a very special team to derail them. Ireland may well end up giving them a fight to remember, but it is hard to see anything other than an All Black victory by 12 points!

While the opener with Japan and Russia had its merit, there is no denying that this is the first of the weekend’s key fixtures that have got everyone talking. Australia come into this tournament rather like the Southern Hemisphere’s version of France. Brilliant one day, hopeless the next – the question on everyone’s lips is which Australian team will show up in Sapporo tomorrow and will it be good enough to maintain consistency over seven matches on the trot? We have to be honest we have our doubts.

Up against them is a Fijian side that packs more excitement than a river barge full of fireworks in Sydney Harbor on New Year’s Eve. Fiji have become everyone’s banana skin in waiting and Australia know that if they are not at their best, they could very well slide into touch and out of the tournament before it’s really got going. Perhaps because of that it is no coincidence that Australia’s starting XV for tomorrow boasts 3 Fijian born players, who may have that edge in understanding how to get past their fellow countrymen in white jerseys.

Fiji have always been entertaining to watch at World Cups, but there is something distinctly different about the 2019 edition. Renowned for extraordinary speed and ball handling skills, Fiji has now developed a holistic approach to their game that also boasts a competent forward pack. The worrying thing for opposition sides is that many of those forwards also boast the same speed and ball handling skills that in the past have made their backs so famous. Fiji still lack a lot of the overall structure necessary to win at this level, but there is no denying that they have the power, pace and above all skill to upset many an apple cart, as France found out the hard way last November.

Australia vs Fiji – Saturday, September 21st – Sapporo

Australia will want to keep this game tight, as any propensity for loose play could see Fiji run riot

Don’t expect any fireworks from the Wallabies tomorrow in Sapporo. Their biggest concern will be keeping this game as tight and structured as possible, as space and loose play are just a few of Fiji’s favorite things. Australia have their own attacking threats up the middle and out wide make no mistake, but their defensive skills will be put to the Test first and foremost. We just think it is unlikely that Australia are going to lay on too much of the razzle dazzle in attack, when they have a set of Fijian opportunistic speedsters waiting to pounce on any mistake, and let’s face it when Australian execution on attack is off, it’s really off. As a result if you’re looking for excitement from the Wallabies tomorrow, you’re probably backing the wrong horse. True blue conservatism is likely to be the order of the day, especially with opening night jitters coming into play for Australia.

This edition of the Flying Fijians is a lot more than just fleet footed dazzling ball handling skills

Like we said above, Fijian rugby is clearly a different beast than what we’re used to. They can still take your breath away starting deep in their own 22, from some outlandish ball playing up the entire length of the field, but now they can also set that in motion from the set pieces. They are better organised and are much more of a team effort than a collection of individuals naturally blessed with the kind of skills most players only develop after years of grueling effort. In short, they have been and continue to be one of our favorite sides to watch, but the odds on them getting past some of the big teams are significantly increased as they have become much more clinical and accomplished in their approach to the game.

Their scrum may still be a little suspect, and question marks still linger around their overall defensive skills. However, on attack they can menace from the set pieces and in open play. Expect to see second rower Leone Nakarawa transform from a lineout wrecking force of nature to instant winger in the blink of an eye, while Peceli Yato causes just as much grief in the back row. They have an accomplished half back pairing, and then there’s the small matter of some of those backs, with Semi Radradra being any defensive coach’s worst nightmare, but plenty of others dominating the headlines while on club duty in France such as Waisea Nayaclevu, Josua Tuisova and Levani Botia.

If you are suffering from opening night nerves, something Australia have seemed prone to, then Fiji is probably the last side you want to meet

Australia do seem to be rattled by big occasions lately, and the opening game of a World Cup is a prime example of where the Wallabies’ nerves could get the better of them, especially against a side as unpredictable as Fiji. Australia would probably have been much more comfortable with someone like Uruguay or Georgia as their first order of business. Their recent warm up encounter with Samoa was a tight affair and didn’t exactly make the Wallabies look like giant killers, and Fiji are twice the side that Samoa is. Fiji are likely to come into this match feeling like they have nothing to lose, and eager to chance their hand at spoiling Australia and Wales’ assumed progress to the knockout stages. Australia on the other hand are under all kinds of pressure from the get go. A dismal couple of years since the last World Cup and a public back home demanding results lest the game slip further into obscurity in the Australian sporting psyche, means that they have much more to prove than Fiji.

Verdict

Australia should and can win this match. However, we very much doubt that it will be a comfortable affair for the Wallabies. We fully expect to see Fiji run them very close at times and genuinely strike fear into the hearts of Michael Hooper and his charges. Expect to see the odd dazed look from Wallaby players as Fiji pull off a seemingly impossible try. Nevertheless, Australia seem pretty hell bent on laying down a marker that they want to maintain for the rest of this World Cup and tomorrow’s match will be the first step in the process. Let’s face it, everyone had written them off at the last World Cup and they made it to the final. An edgy but conservative display from Australia should get them their first win of the tournament by six points, but Fiji to give them numerous hair raising moments that will test their resolve to the full!

 

If like us you love your Test Rugby, then you’ve already negotiated with the family that for all intents and purposes this weekend, you will be around but in body only. Your mind, spirit and attention however will be firmly focused on a TV, computer or tablet screen be it in your house, your mates’ houses or at a bar. If you’re one of the lucky ones who took out a second mortgage to spend some time with your heroes live in Japan over the next seven weeks, then we salute you and wish we could join you.

Yes it’s a rugby lover’s Christmas present that sadly only comes around once every four years. Seven glorious weeks of Test Rugby with the stakes getting higher and higher each weekend. This opening weekend however sees a raft of key matches that will very much determine the likely pecking order of the finalists as they enter the knockout stages in four weeks time.

It’s shaping up to be one of the most open World Cups in as long as we can remember, and we really hope it lives up to its promise. The last World Cup was very much the South vs the Rest of the World, but this year’s edition is very much a case of North vs South and may the best team win.

As much as we’d like to, we can’t possibly cover all 48 matches. Instead we’ll focus on what we consider to be the critical Pool games in terms of potential progression to the knockout stages. Naturally once the tournament does get to the knockouts then we’re into every match lock, stock and barrel.

For this weekend we’ve picked out four matches that are likely to have an enormous bearing on what the quarter finals should look like. First up we have a look at Australia vs Fiji. Fiji could well be the banana skin that Pool D’s two heavyweights, Australia and Wales slip up on. Next up it’s a key Pool C fixture between Argentina and France. Both teams have caused no end of grief for the established favorites in tournaments gone by, and Pool C is the tournament’s only real Pool of Death as three teams, England, Argentina and France have the chance to go through. England look well placed to top the table, but France and Argentina excel at raining on other people’s parades and the Men in White will be keenly aware of this fact.

Also on Saturday is the tournament’s clash of titans, as New Zealand and South Africa do battle with each other in Pool B, in arguably the most anticipated match of the Pool stages. Both of these teams are strong favorites to lift the trophy and a terrifying prospect for Ireland, Scotland and Japan in Pool A as whoever emerges from the Pool stages will have to brace for a nightmare quarter final with either of these two Southern Hemisphere giants.

Lastly on Sunday, we’ll be taking a look at Pool A’s first but probably deciding game, between Ireland and Scotland. Japan could well pull off a miracle and emerge as the second team to go on to the quarters from Pool A, but most people’s money, ours included and with no disrespect to Japan, is on Ireland and Scotland to get to the knockout stages. Consequently Sunday’s match will most likely decide who tops the Pool and thus what kind of quarter final opponent they will have to look forward to in either South Africa or New Zealand.

A thrilling weekend in prospect and one that will definitely get the tournament off to an explosive start. Starting tomorrow, rather than our usual five pointer previews we’ll be distilling our thoughts down to three key questions per match. We’ll get back to our regular format come the quarters, but for now with everything we have to look at between now and October 19th, we’ll need to keep it simple. We’ll be pushing them out starting tomorrow, so stay tuned and here’s to a great tournament in the making!

As we do at the end of every year 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.

Argentina – 7/10

2018 started off poorly for Argentina, picked up dramatically during the Rugby Championship and then slowly faded out again during the November Internationals. However, despite a mixed bag of results Argentina showed plenty of promise and enough signs that they should end up being a serious threat come the World Cup in September, and a major worry for their main Pool C rivals England and France. Some of their traditional strengths have clearly faded dramatically, in particular their prowess at scrum time, however their skills on attack and overall game management have improved dramatically. Add to that a potent threat up front in the second and back rows, and Argentina is not far off from being the complete package. With new Coach Mario Ledesma having been a formidable front rower in his time with the Pumas, we doubt their scrum problems will continue for long. The changes he has already instituted since taking the reins in July have quickly brought positive results.

Argentina started 2018 with a gritty encounter with Wales in June, and while there were some positives at times in defence, the cracks in Argentina’s setup were clear for all to see, especially at scrum time. The following week, saw Argentina cave under concerted Welsh pressure and sadly the Pumas never really looked in contention. It was not an auspicious start to 2018, and led to further calls for Coach Daniel Hourcade to part ways with the Pumas, especially after a string of disappointing results the year before. Argentina’s final Test of the month saw the Pumas put on a disjointed and shambolic display against a rampant Scottish developmental side. Enough was clearly enough and despite his successes with the Pumas in the 2015 World Cup, Hourcade found himself heading for the exit.

His successor, Mario Ledesma brought with him a wealth of international Coaching experience, most recently with Australia’s Wallabies and at Super Rugby level with the Jaguares. Having turned around the Jaguares fortunes to the point where they would end the season with a quarter-final berth, Lesdesma seemed the ideal candidate to inject some much-needed life into the Pumas think tank.

The initial results looked promising as in their first match of the Rugby Championship, Argentina had a half time lead over South Africa’s Springboks. However, the Pumas were still finding their feet in their first outing under new management and South Africa turned the screw on their visitors in the second half and ultimately ran out comfortable winners. In the return fixture, in Argentina the Pumas took no prisoners and put in a blinder of a first half performance which left the Springboks in the dust. This performance continued into the opening stanzas of the second half, but the Springboks soon got over their shell shock and fought back. However, Argentina held firm and their defence was outstanding, allowing them to walk away comfortable winners in the end.

From there Argentina made the long journey to Australasia where their form continued to improve. Although Argentina would lose their opening match with New Zealand, the scoreline did not do the match justice. It was a very spirited performance from Argentina that often put New Zealand under enormous pressure. Argentina were never really out of the match until the final 10 minutes. Up to that point just as you thought New Zealand were about to pull away, Argentina would come storming back into contention. Winger Ramiro Moyano’s try was one of the best of the Tournament. In short it was a classic Test match which kept you on the edge of your seat for a good seventy minutes.

Building on the momentum of the New Zealand Test, the Pumas then travelled to Australia and recorded a famous away win as they put in an impressive performance against a faltering Wallaby side. Australia fought back and looked to snatch the match at the death but some outstanding Pumas defence kept the Wallabies at bay. Winger Bautista Delguy showed in no uncertain terms what a threat he is likely to pose this year in Japan.

Sadly as they tend to do every year in the Rugby Championship, the Pumas seemed to fade out with a whimper in their last two games, made more frustrating for their supporters as these are always home games. The game against New Zealand really exposed the nightmare the Pumas were having at scrum time, as this once potent Argentinian weapon seemed only capable of one direction – backwards. Some pride was restored in the final match of the tournament as they took on the Wallabies, and the Pumas produced a spectacular first half which completely outclassed their visitors. However, after a dressing room roasting from hell, the Wallabies came back fighting. To add to the Pumas difficulties, key playmaker Nicolas Sanchez would play no part in the proceedings after the first 30 minutes of the match due to injury. His replacement Santiago Gonzalez Iglesias made a spectacular entry within seconds of coming onto the pitch by scoring a superb try. However, his game management was simply not the equal of the exceptional Sanchez and despite a healthy 31-7 lead at half time the Pumas structure began to fall apart. The Wallabies took control of the match in the second half and ran in 38 points to Argentina’s 3, turning the match on its head and walking away the winners 45-34.

November saw Argentina feel the effects of an exceptionally long season. Considering that the majority of the Pumas squad are drawn straight from the Argentinian Super Rugby side the Jaguares, it meant that players had been playing non stop high level international rugby since February without a break. Argentina were convincing defensively against Ireland in their November opener, but their scrum was made a mockery of by the Irish. A weary Pumas side ultimately succumbed to the Irish juggernaut by 28-17. From there it was off to France and a gritty encounter in Lille. The Pumas scrum continued to creak and although they showed some resilience in defence, they continued to look like they were running on empty. France were clearly the better side in the final quarter. Their last full Test of the year (we’re not counting the exhibition match in December against the Barbarians) saw them take on Scotland in atrocious conditions at Murrayfield. As a spectacle it had little going for it, and Argentina had clearly run out of steam. It was a poor game from both sides and sadly did not reflect some of the outstanding quality that Argentina had put on display throughout 2018.

Although there were plenty of ups and downs for Argentina in 2018, there were enough highs to clearly demonstrate that under new management Argentina are starting to hit all the right notes just in time for the World Cup. While their scrum needs some desperate work, under the guidance of Coach Mario Ledesma we are fairly certain they will have it sorted in time for the abbreviated Rugby Championship this year.

Perhaps the more pressing problem for Argentina to address is squad fatigue. Their current policy of selecting only Argentinian based players means that there is little to choose from for the selectors when it comes to determining the Pumas makeup. With 90% of the squad being drafted straight from Argentina’s only Super Rugby franchise the Jaguares, player fatigue by the time November rolls around is inevitable. It is a credit to the Pumas that they manage to do as well as they do in the Autumn Internationals. As we head into the buildup to the World Cup this year, Argentina will be able to use more of its overseas based players who are currently lighting up the European club scene. For the World Cup Ledesma will have access to both domestic and foreign based Argentinian players, and as a result the issue of fatigue should be less of a concern come September. With the talent at his disposal and based on some extraordinary performances in 2018, we have a hunch that the Pumas are peaking, as they always seem to do in the last ten years, at just the right time for the World Cup. Their Pool opponents England and France are likely to be having their fair share of sleepless nights as they get closer to Japan. We for one can’t wait to see a “Super” Pumas side in action come the World Cup!

Player of the year – Nicolas Sanchez

There are certain players who are just essential to their side’s success and Sanchez is one of those players. We’ve always been a fan of the Pumas fly half but this year he has really come into his own. His departure from the Pumas final match of the Rugby Championship against Australia showed just how important this player is to Argentina’s performance on the pitch. Without him Argentina lack the structure that played such a part in some of their best performances in 2018. His kicking from the tee in 2018 was for the most part highly reliable while at the same time scoring some of the Pumas most audacious tries last year. In short quality through and through!

Player to watch in 2019 – Bautista Delguy

We were mesmerised by the Pumas speedster in 2018. Fast, difficult to bring down and providing an increasingly solid defensive component for the Pumas, Delguy is likely to grab a lot of headlines once proceedings get underway in Japan in September. He scored some spectacular tries last year, and his ability to counterattack from deep is alarming for opposition defences. This is a quality player who exemplifies how much Argentina can now boast some extraordinary back line players in addition to their traditional bruising packs of forwards.

Match of the year – Australia vs Argentina – Gold Coast – September 15th – Australia 19/Argentina 23

If you want to see the kind of threat Delguy poses look no further than this match. Argentina played a brilliantly controlled match, superbly marshalled by fly half Sanchez and allied to some heroic defence in the last ten minutes. It was a measured and composed Argentinian performance, and perhaps even more important than the victory over South Africa a few weeks earlier, as it showed that the Pumas can travel well and get results. England and France you have been warned!

Next up – Australia!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Endnote

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.