Archive for the ‘General Commentary’ Category

It was another fast and furious weekend of Super Rugby action, with the New Zealand teams once more showing off some dazzling displays of skill, but South African supporters can be heartened by some notable heroics from the Stormers and the Sharks this weekend. Australian teams, courtesy the of the Brumbies, started the long climb out of the basement in terms of points standings so far in the Championship but they would appear to be Australia’s only hope this year. Meanwhile Japan’s Sunwolves showed that rugby is alive and well in the land of the Rising Sun making it a fitting venue for the next World Cup as they too displayed some spectacular running rugby at times.

Super Rugby

Take a look at the highlights of the Stormers clash with the Chiefs and be prepared to be amazed at some of the remarkable skill levels on display from both sides. In three instances spectacular tries were scored from turnover ball deep in the 22 with not a ruck to be seen as players ran the length of the field showing some extraordinary offloading skills. New Zealand teams continue to remain the dominant force in the competition but South African supporters can take enormous heart in the performances being put in by the Stormers, Sharks and Lions this season. South African rugby may be in crisis mode at the International level but at a provincial level they have managed to turn out three exceptional sides this season. Even the traditional laughing-stock of the competition, the Southern Kings, have put in some impressive displays of running rugby despite being dead last in the standings in their Africa 2 group, but are still managing to be ahead of the Sunwolves and Rebels in the overall standings.

For Australia though it is still lean times. Despite the Brumbies win this weekend they still are at best placed 9th overall. However, as the vagaries of the conference system dictate the Brumbies still will be guaranteed a playoff place no matter how far down they finish in the overall standings as the likely winners of the Australia conference. Japan’s Sunwolves may be languishing second from the bottom in the overall standings but they certainly put on a show against South Africa’s once mighty Bulls this past weekend. Lastly Argentina’s Jaguares’ strong start to the season came unstuck against South Africa’s Sharks and with a seemingly soft fixture against the out of form Bulls in Pretoria this weekend they will really need to up their game to stay in the hunt for a playoff spot.

Six Nations

It was such a memorable and entertaining tournament this year that you’ll have to excuse us for taking one last look at it, especially as this is our last dose of Test Rugby till the Lions tour in June – so enjoy!

As you may recall we are taking a sabbatical from our regular weekly musings on International rugby until the end of May in time for us to spool up for the British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand in June. In the meantime we will continue to bring you the best of the action unfolding in Super Rugby and the European Champions Cup, based on our YouTube picks for the week.

This past weekend saw plenty of action in Super Rugby as well as some outstanding quarter-finals in the European Champions Cup. So here’s the best video summaries we could find as well as an excellent look back at an incredible Six Nations which we still can’t get enough of!

Super Rugby

Round Six saw the Australian teams enter crisis mode as they languish well behind all the other teams in terms of points with the exception of Japan’s Sunwolves. Despite middling form from many of the South African teams, the Stormers, Sharks and the Lions in particular are showing some promising form regardless of the stormy seas that South African rugby finds itself in these days. However, it is the men from the land of the long white cloud, New Zealand, who are continuing to dominate this year’s competition. The usual three suspects, the Crusaders, Chiefs and Hurricanes look to be unstoppable for the most part. Australian teams desperately need to find some form and some big points, while Argentina’s Jaguares remain a distinct threat along with South African sides, the Stormers and Lions. It’s still early days in the competition so for everyone except the Australian sides there is still some breathing room as we head into round 7 this weekend.

European Rugby Champions Cup

What an outstanding weekend of quarter-final action it was. Irish eyes are smiling as their two powerhouse sides, Munster and Leinster comfortably secured semi-final berths while English giants Saracens made sure that Glasgow’s impressive run this season sadly ended on a whimper. In France, Clermont and Toulon did battle to determine who would represent France. Still this year’s competition has suddenly developed a distinctly Irish tinge to it and the semi-final clash between Saracens and Munster at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin is likely to have all the intensity of the recent Six Nations clash there between the Irish and English national sides. This competition is very much alive and kicking this year with two mouth-watering semi-finals in prospect at the end of this month.

Six Nations

If you still haven’t had enough of this year’s epic then here’s two more trips down a spectacular memory lane!

With this year’s Six Nations just around the corner we finish our look at the fortunes of the Northern Hemisphere’s big six in 2016 and rate them accordingly. While most of the teams struggled with the inevitable rebuilding that takes place after a World Cup, there was still plenty of excitement on hand. England clearly led the way in one of their most successful years ever, made all the more poignant in light of their World Cup disaster in 2015. Ireland struggled to hit the right notes in the first half of the year, but by the time the Autumn Internationals rolled around they had clearly regrouped and were once more competing for headline space with England. France, Wales and Scotland all provided moments of genuine excitement, with France and Scotland really showing some clear intent and promise by the time the November Internationals came to town. Italy recorded a historic win over South Africa in November, but apart from that there was little to celebrate other than the arrival of new Coach Conor O’Shea in the summer and some exciting talent on display at times.

England – 10/10

Unlike their Southern Hemisphere rivals the All Blacks, England had the perfect season and it was hard for us to not give them full marks. There have been plenty of question marks about the quality of opposition that England faced in 2016 coupled with the fact that they didn’t play the best team in the world right now, the All Blacks, to gain a measure of where they really stand in the world pecking order. All that aside however, a perfect season is still a perfect season and as a result it would be hypocritical and a tad disrespectful for us to give them anything less than full marks. Look at the facts on display. A Grand Slam in the Six Nations, a series whitewash of Australia on the road and a clean sweep of the Autumn Internationals at home – it doesn’t get much more cut and dry than that. Sure the quality of the opposition England will face in 2017 is likely to give them some much sterner tests, but for 2016 it was a job well done, even more so when you consider the complete disarray England found themselves in just over a year ago at the end of the last World Cup.

England’s perfect year got off to a very convincing start in the Six Nations as they swept all before them. There was a great deal of controversy surrounding the appointment of Dylan Hartley as England Captain by new Coach Eddie Jones, and we have to admit to having been one of the many doubters, as Hartley’s reputation as England’s bad boy and king of the yellow card was well documented. However we have to confess to having been pleasantly surprised as Hartley rose to the challenge exceptionally well. While he still may have disciplinary issues in a club shirt, no such concerns seemed to manifest themselves in an England shirt. Hartley led his troops well and proved to be a very calm and well-disciplined figure even when England were under pressure.

England were clinical and devastatingly effective in everything they did in the Six Nations and looked the most composed of all the sides in the competition. As the tournament progressed they looked more confident with each outing, despite almost coming unstuck against Wales. There was a clear sense of team identity and purpose on display throughout the tournament. The strike axis of Owen Farrell at centre and George Ford at fly half proved devastatingly effective with Ben Youngs proving to be the scrum half of the tournament. Maro Itoje and George Kruis’ lock partnership was a clear and exciting signpost towards England’s future and forward prowess while Chris Robshaw, relieved of the pressure of the Captain’s role, proved to be outstanding in the back row. Billy Vunipola continued his efforts as England’s one man Blitzkrieg unit and wrought havoc on Six Nations’ defences. Meanwhile Jack Nowell on the wing really came into his own and provided us with some of the best tries of the tournament along with centre Jonathan Joseph.

As England basked in the glory of their Six Nations triumph they prepared for an equally stern test in the shape of a three Test tour of Australia – a team who had finished as runners-up in the recent World Cup. After an exceptionally long season in which players had little or no break in almost 13 months, this was a very tall order. England got themselves warmed up by beating Wales before heading off to Australia. They then proceeded to stun Australia and the rest of the rugby world in a hard-fought but ultimately convincing victory in the first Test in Brisbane. It was a thrilling match and one of the best Tests of the year, but England emerged the dominant side. Buoyed by the win they went on to thrash a hapless Australia 23-7 in the second Test in Melbourne despite a pitch that was clearly not up to the challenge. The final Test in Sydney was an absolute classic, and a nail biter all the way to final whistle, as a wounded Wallaby side desperately sought to salvage some pride from a Test series that had been a nightmare for them. The Wallabies provided the English defences with an all out non stop assault for the final forty minutes and England’s efforts were nothing short of heroic as they stood up to the test. As the final whistle blew on an England victory, England’s players got to bask in the afterglow of what can only be described as a truly remarkable turnaround in their fortunes in the space of only seven months.

The November Tests saw England’s form continue. First up they demolished a Springbok team that is being described as the worst in history. While the sense of victory may be somewhat lessened by the poor quality of the South African challenge, it was still one to be savoured as yet another Southern Hemisphere giant was dispatched by a rampant England. What was particularly pleasing to see from an English perspective was the return to form of winger Jonny May and the turn of centre Elliot Daly to shine. England would go on to put Fiji to the sword, and then with 14 men see of a feisty Pumas challenge. Lastly, England would make it four from four in 2016 against Australia and 13 out of 13 overall for the year. After the pain and heartache of the last World Cup it was a remarkable comeback as England once more firmly established themselves as one of the world’s major powers in Test Rugby.

2017 will be no less of a challenge and if anything England are likely to be put under the microscope far more than they were in 2016. As the end of year Autumn Internationals clearly showed, France, Ireland and Scotland are back with a vengeance and are likely to be much more challenging Six Nations opponents than they were in 2016. Furthermore with places up for grabs on this year’s Lions Tour to face the mighty All Blacks, this year’s Six Nations Championship is likely to produce considerably more fireworks than what was on display in last year’s rather lacklustre tournament. The gauntlet has been thrown down for 2017 and England will have to be even better than they were in 2016 – a challenge we are sure they are likely to rise to even though things are unlikely to go their way as much as they did last year!

France – 7/10

Let’s face it things didn’t quite get off to the most promising start for France in 2016 as they began life under new Coach Guy Noves. However, by the end of the year it was clear that transformation of the most positive kind was taking place in the French camp as they put in some exceptionally encouraging performances against Australia and New Zealand. It wasn’t a great Six Nations campaign for France as they narrowly avoided the wooden spoon. However, the June tour to Argentina saw the structures and personnel that Guy Noves was trying to put in place really start to gel. The confidence gained on this tour was there for all to see in November as France narrowly lost to Australia and then proceeded to almost give New Zealand another scare akin to the one they’d received earlier in November against Ireland.

France’s Six Nations campaign in 2016 is probably one that they would prefer to forget, especially the nail-biting opening win by the narrowest of margins over Italy. In appalling conditions they managed to eke out another unimpressive win over a faltering Ireland, but then it all went downhill at a rate of knots as they lost to Wales, Scotland and England. What was clear however is that they have an inspirational Captain in the shape of Hooker Guilhem Guirado, shoring up an impressive front row of Eddy Ben Arous and Rabah Slimani. Winger Virimi Vakatawa also proved to be a revelation in attack and one of the most dangerous ball carriers at speed of the Championship while Gael Fickou emerged as a potent threat at centre. However, continued experimentation in the second and back rows, a lack of clarity as to what France’s long-term half back options are and continued confusion over the composition of the backs meant that more lessons were learnt by France about what didn’t work in the Six Nations as opposed to what did.

However by the time of their second Test against Argentina in June, those uncertainties were clearly starting to become a thing of the past as France put Argentina to the sword 27-0. Loann Goujon and Kevin Gourdon looked the business in the back row and Louis Picamoles at number eight was on fire. Baptiste Serin at scrum half was also looking like a key component of France future half back plans. Meanwhile Remi Lamerat and Gael Fickou looked set to gel as an exciting centre combination. Come November and the Test against Australia, France not only looked settled they looked extremely dangerous as they narrowly lost to the Wallabies. Winger Vakatawa continued to impress while the half back partnership of scrum half Maxime Machenaud and fly half Jean-Marc Doussain also looked promising with Serin coming on to add some real depth as a replacement. In the Test against New Zealand, which once again showed a French team at full throttle, continued depth in the half-back partnership was made as fly half Camille Lopez had a huge game, and Serin once more came in as a highly effective impact scrum half once he came off the bench. Wingers Vakatawa and Noa Nakaitaci looked exciting on attack and the centre partnership of Remi Lamerat and Wesley Fofana in particular were outstanding with Gael Fickou once more coming off the bench in a starring role in this department. Although there is still plenty of work to be done by Coach Guy Noves and his team, the results are starting to be seen and they look extremely promising.

It is still early days yet for France, but a challenge they will be in this Six Nations and will certainly provide England with a stern opening Test next weekend. While we can’t see them winning the Championship, they are more than capable of finishing in the top three and providing a potentially embarrassing banana skin for tournament favourites England and Ireland. French flair may still be a work in progress but we fully expect to see some Gallic magic in the coming weeks!

Ireland – 8/10

We have to confess to being sorely tempted to have given Ireland a nine based on their historic first ever victory over the All Blacks last year in Chicago, but one epic match sadly does not a season make. Ireland’s middling form over the Six Nations, losing a Test series to one of the worst Springbok teams in history, despite the opening win in Cape Town with just 14 men, meant that at times they just didn’t quite deliver what was expected. Sure there were plenty of concerns around injuries, especially post the World Cup, but Ireland were not alone in the casualty ward. Despite this though Ireland got progressively better as the year progressed, and the Autumn Internationals were ample proof of that development. However, what we did see by the end of the year was an enormous breadth of depth across all positions and plenty of rapidly rising young talent to build with for the next World Cup in 2019.

Ireland got their 2016 campaign off to a spirited start against Wales in their Six Nations opener but the injury crisis that had caused them to implode so dramatically in the quarter-final stages of the World Cup only three months earlier was still having an effect. Ireland looked the dominant side in the opening thirty minutes, but the game devolved into a defensive battle of epic proportions in the second half as the two sides struggled to gain a clear advantage. Consequently the match ended in a draw. Next up were France in Paris in appalling weather conditions. A kicking game ensued in which Irish fly half Johnny Sexton was the master. However France would snatch it at the death with the only try of the match and suddenly Ireland’s prospects started to look shaky to say the least. A resurgent England at home in Twickenham were always going to be a daunting prospect. Ireland once again defended like men possessed and Ireland even managed to take the lead through scrum half Conor Murray. However, England ultimately proved too strong with Billy Vunipola providing a consistent assault on the Irish defences which eventually began to buckle. Ireland gave as good as they got but ultimately it was to be England’s day. Ireland managed to finish their Six Nations campaign strongly as they destroyed Italy 58-15 and then put in a convincing shift against Scotland at 35-25 and finish the tournament in third place. In the process some exceptional new talent was given the chance to shine, most notably lock Ultan Dillane and flanker Josh van der Flier.

Ireland then made the journey to South Africa in June to face a Springbok side with plenty of problems of their own. In a thrilling opening Test in Cape Town, Ireland produced one of their best performances of the year beating South Africa convincingly with just 14 men. A week later the altitude on the highveld and the effects of 13 months of almost constant rugby were clearly having their effects on an Irish squad getting to the end of their endurance. Ireland started well and dominated a poor Springbok team in the first forty minutes.  However, South Africa rallied and put in probably their only really solid performance of the year turning the game on its head and snatching a compelling victory over an exhausted Irish side. The final Test was a nail biter as Ireland dug deep and threw every last ounce of reserve at South Africa. As the final whistle loomed Ireland were camped permanently in South Africa’s 22 and it was only some truly heroic defending that kept the Irish from claiming a historic Series win in South Africa. Instead they limped home knowing that a match and ultimately a Series they could have won went begging.

However, once more there had been heaps of positives as a raft of young players stood up and were counted. Flanker Josh van der Flier was rapidly proving to be a force of nature and alongside his back row partner CJ Stander, the pair looked unstoppable at times. Fly half Paddy Jackson had an outstanding tour and proved that there is life after the brilliant but injury-prone Johnny Sexton. A certain Tadhg Furlong made some appearances that proved to be a harbinger of the massive impact this young prop would have on Ireland’s fortunes come the Autumn Internationals.

It was the Autumn Internationals where the disappointment of the World Cup and the tour to South Africa suddenly came to an abrupt halt for Ireland as they showcased some exceptional talent and depth that would be the envy of some of their opponents. The party started in Chicago as Ireland finally ended 111 years of grief against the All Blacks in an emphatic win where they managed to get forty points past the World Champions. It was an outstanding Irish performance and one which we were lucky enough to witness in person. It was a complete team effort but the sheer tenacity and skill on display from Irish scrum half Conor Murray was quite exceptional and surely makes him a dead ringer for the number nine jersey this year when the British and Irish Lions visit New Zealand.

Ireland returned home to Dublin and demolished a spirited Canadian challenge in preparation for the return fixture with New Zealand. Despite the euphoria of the win in Chicago, there were few among us who felt Ireland could pull off a miracle and beat the All Blacks twice in a row. We were sadly proven right as New Zealand pulled out all the stops and brought all their biggest guns to the fray. In a game that left pulses pounding and bodies strewn across the field, especially those in green jerseys, New Zealand ultimately pulled away the winners despite an exceptionally brave performance from Ireland who defended like tigers and threw everything including the kitchen sink at New Zealand. The All Blacks got the win they wanted but had been made to work exceptionally hard for it.

Ireland ended their Autumn series seeking to derail Australia’s Grand Slam express as the Wallabies came to Dublin on a three from three winning streak on their Autumn tour. Ireland utterly dominated a confused and disorganised Wallaby side plagued by ill discipline in the first forty minutes. However, in doing so the body count rose alarmingly and by the end of the first half Ireland found itself having numerous players having to play out of position. The Wallaby side that emerged from the tunnel at the Aviva was a completely different animal to the one that had fumbled its way through the first half. As the body count continued to rise on the Irish side, and Australia started to go on a rampage it suddenly looked almost desperate for Ireland. Despite this another remarkable team effort from this Irish side, which once again highlighted the extraordinary depth that has been developed in Ireland since the World Cup, meant that Ireland managed to hang on against all odds. Australia were relentless in their assault on Irish territory but Ireland hung on even scoring a superb try of their own to snatch a victory by the smallest of margins at 27-24.

It had been a remarkable year for Ireland which slowly built to the crescendo of the Autumn Internationals. Despite the disappointment of the Six Nations and ultimately narrowly losing the June series in South Africa, enough ground work was done in terms of developing an exceptional Irish team to head into the Autumn Internationals. The historic win in Chicago set the tone for a month in which Ireland produced some outstanding performances. Tenacious to the last second Ireland now possess plenty of depth to cover for the inevitable injuries that seemed to have plagued Ireland in the last two years. This Irish team, under the brilliant tutelage of one of the best in the business, Coach Joe Schmidt, look set to be a real force in 2017 and beyond. Ireland possesses some exceptional young talent, many of whom are under 25 and after 2016 are now battle hardened enough to compete at the highest levels in Test Rugby. England for now remain the side to beat in the Northern Hemisphere but Ireland are clearly breathing down their neck. The showdown in this year’s Six Nations between England and Ireland is likely to tell us a great deal about the pecking order in International Rugby. While it is still too early to predict the outcome, there is no question that Ireland are likely to provide England with their sternest Test to date.

Italy – 6/10

It was a difficult year for Italy, made more so by the transition from an increasingly disinterested outgoing Coach, Jacques Brunel, to a highly motivated one in the shape of Conor O’Shea. Brunel saw Italy through a difficult Six Nations where apart from a thrilling opener against France, Italy were poor to say the least. They could have won the game against France without question but despite Captain Sergio Parisse’s valiant but misguided attempt at a drop goal it wasn’t to be. After that Italy were quite literally pummelled by England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales conceding a record 201 points alone in those four matches and causing many to question Italy’s legitimate place in the tournament, especially with other European nations such as Georgia becoming increasingly more competitive.

The end of the Six Nations saw the departure of Coach Jacques Brunel to the relief of many and Irishman Conor O’Shea’s arrival as the man in charge. June saw a tour of the Americas for O’Shea and his men and overall Italy acquitted themselves well. Their opener against Argentina saw them provide the Pumas with a solid challenge and despite a purple patch during the first twenty minutes of the second half Italy finished strongly with a superb try from danger man winger Leonardo Sarto. However, it wasn’t enough and Italy walked away the losers at 20-24 to Argentina. Next up were the United States and Italy while not brilliant were still the more composed of the two and secured a vital if narrow win. The same could be said in their next match against Canada. It was a rather uninspired performance from the Italians but once more their execution, discipline and composure was just that much better than Canada’s. Consequently Italy ended their June tour on a high of two wins out of three, and despite the loss to Argentina, feeling pleased that they had at least been competitive against the Pumas for the full eighty minutes.

Italy’s efforts during the Autumn Internationals left much to be desired despite the high point of their historic first ever win against the Springboks. Italy started their Autumn campaign with the unenviable task of having to face an All Black side smarting from having their world record winning streak broken the week earlier by Ireland. The All Blacks were hurting and determined to prove a point and sadly Italy ended up being the sacrificial lambs in the process, as they took a thumping 68-10 defeat and to be honest were never really in the match. Next up were South Africa who were suffering a crisis of confidence of almost biblical proportions. To say that South Africa were a shadow of their former selves would be an understatement of the highest order. However, Italy played this to their advantage and were the much better side especially in the last ten minutes and were able to secure a historic victory. However, this was all put into painful perspective a week later as they lost to Tonga in a shambolic performance.

Italy remain consistent wooden spoon holders in the Six Nations and this is not making their claim for legitimacy amongst Rugby’s top nations any easier. That being said it is hoped that with the arrival of Conor O’Shea Italy will realise some of their obvious potential. In Captain Sergio Parisse, Italy possess one of the best number eights in Test rugby though the need to find a replacement for the veteran will be key over the next two years. Parisse’s inspirational abilities on the field are second to none, even though he may not quite possess the sheer all round ability to seemingly play every position that New Zealand’s Dane Coles possesses. While Italy’s scrum continues to struggle along with their accuracy in the set pieces there is no denying that Marco Fuser in the second row, Simone Favaro, Francesco Minto and Alessandro Zanni in the back row are all powerful and dangerous players in the loose. Carlo Canna and Tommasso Allan are both proving to be talented fly halves on the rise and Giorgio Bronzini and Eduardo Gori provide some real pace in the scrum half positions. Meanwhile the centre pairing of Michele Campagnaro and Gonzalo Garcia provides an exciting combination of power and speed while winger Leonardo Sarto needs little if any introduction as a try scoring machine.

As the rest of the Northern Hemisphere sides have considerably upped their game in the last six months it is going to be a tough challenge for Italy to stay in touch with the competition during the upcoming Six Nations. However, the initial learning curve for new Coach Conor O’Shea is clearly over and he seems to have a good road map of where he wants to take Italy in the next three years. We hope his optimism proves well founded and he certainly has some exciting talent to work with, so that hopefully debates around Italy’s place in tournaments such as the Six Nations can be put to bed once and for all.

Scotland – 7/10

It was another frustrating year for Scotland. They provided us with excitement by the bucket load at times and some of the most thrilling running rugby of 2016. A team bristling with talent but seeming to lack the confidence or composure to go for the killer blow seems to be the best way to describe Scotland’s fortunes in 2016. However, there were enough positives on show for Scotland in 2016 to lead us to believe that 2017 is likely to be a year to savour for the Scots.

Scotland’s Six Nations campaign should have delivered so much more than the fourth place finish they ended up with. The opener against England was a gritty affair with England being the more composed of the two sides as both teams sought to put a bitterly disappointing World Cup a few months earlier behind them. Scotland walked away the losers and in the process sadly showed us little of what they would later be capable of. Scotland opened up in their second game against Wales despite ending up on the wrong side of the scoreline when the final whistle blew. We saw the sheer brilliance of Scotland’s back line especially fullback Stuart Hogg at full throttle even if it wasn’t enough to ultimately get the win. However the warning signs were there for all to see. Scotland really hit their straps against Italy and pulled off an impressive win. Their best game of the Championship was up next against France where they put in a scintillating display of running rugby and emerged comfortable winners at 29-18. Their final match against Ireland showed much of the same character and was one of the most exciting matches of the whole tournament. However, Ireland were the better side in the end and showed an ability to keep their discipline much more effectively than Scotland in the heat of the moment, despite fullback Stuart Hogg once more providing one of the most dramatic bursts of speed seen in the tournament.

June saw Scotland travel to Japan for a two Test series against an Asian side that needed to be given the utmost respect after their heroics in the last World Cup. Japan provided Scotland with two stern Tests, though the men from beyond Hadrian’s Wall managed to stay the course, especially in a tensely fought second Test. Scotland returned home with two solid wins under their belt and plenty of confidence built for a challenging Autumn series.

First up were Australia who were desperate to prove that their trials and tribulations against England in the summer were simply nothing more than the inevitable hiccough in the rebuilding process that always follows a World Cup. What transpired was one of the best matches of the Autumn Internationals as Scotland suffered a heartbreaking loss which mirrored their last meeting with the Wallabies at the World Cup by just one point, in a game which they could and should have won. On a positive note, one of the revelations of the year made himself known to the rugby world in the shape of Scottish centre Huw Jones. In an already outstanding set of backs, Jones was simply electric, scoring two superb tries for Scotland. However, Scotland’s age-old problem of not closing out the big games would haunt them once again and they would be on the wrong side of the score line by just one point. Next up was a gruelling encounter with the Pumas, which in all honesty provided a dire first half in contrast with the previous week’s thrills and spills against Australia. Both sides seemed to find their feet in the second half and Scotland piled on the pressure in the closing stages of the match, but once again you couldn’t help feeling that Scotland were leaving it a little too late as Laidlaw’s 84th minute penalty saw Scotland edge the Pumas out 19-16. Last up was Georgia who are increasingly becoming a thorny Tier Two side but Scotland took them comfortably in their stride and were simply magnificent finishing their year on a real high note as they emerged the winners by 43-16.

There is no doubt that Scotland possess an exceptional set of talents in the backs, a half back partnership that is provides both youth, experience and plenty of razzle dazzle in the shape of Finn Russell and Greg Laidlaw and a forward pack that increasingly takes few prisoners. Scotland are clearly the dark horses of the forthcoming Six Nations with France and are more than likely to provide a few upsets and should challenge for one of the top spots on the table, even though it is unlikely they will emerge the Champions.  One thing is for certain however and that is that they will be one of the most exciting teams to watch over the next 7 weeks, and we certainly will be riveted to our TV screens every time they head into battle!

Wales – 7/10

In a way it’s difficult to judge Wales as harshly as we have perhaps done. A second place finish in last year’s Six Nations and a very spirited challenge of New Zealand albeit painfully bereft of actual wins is no small acheivement. It was their horrendous lapses of concentration at times especially in the Six Nations and their erratic form in the Autumn Internationals which have left us handing them a relatively poor score, despite the fact that in essence they remain a quality side with some of International Test Rugby’s best players.

Wales’ Six Nations campaign was frustrating to say the least, while they finished second it almost seemed by coincidence at times rather than actual ability. Their opening Test against Ireland showcased a strong defensive ability, with second rower Alun-Wyn Jones and flanker Justin Tipuric at the forefront of Welsh efforts in securing the draw in an exceptionally tight match. Number Eight Taulupe Faletau also had a massive game and was a potent force in defence and attack. Wales managed to contain Scotland’s speedsters in their next match, despite seeming to switch off in terms of concentration at times during another closely contested match. Next up were France and once again it was the absolute solidity of the Welsh defence that saved the day rather than a clear and potent attacking threat, but Wales were clearly on a roll heading into round 4 with three wins from three games. Dominated by England in the first half, Wales fought back valiantly in the second producing yet another close finish, but England were clearly better organised and composed under pressure than the Welsh and their aspirations for a Championship title seemed in tatters as they faced their first loss of the season. Wales would finish strongly against an exceptionally poor Italian team, and as a result despite their erratic form at times could still feel pleased with a second place finish overall in the Championship.

Like all the other Northern Hemisphere teams, exhausted after a year of almost non-stop Test Rugby, Wales headed to New Zealand for the daunting challenge of a three Test series against the World Champions, after a meaningless warm up game with England which they lost. To their credit Wales made New Zealand work exceptionally hard for the first sixty minutes of the first and second Tests. However, the last quarter in both matches simply proved to be a bridge too far and the All Blacks would emerge comfortable winners. The final Test was more an exercise in contractual obligation than anything else as a Welsh side, clearly dead on their feet took on a rampant All Black side really getting into their stride. The 46-6 trouncing by the All Blacks is one Wales will want to quickly forget.

The Autumn Internationals were a mixed bag for Wales. They were soundly trumped by their bogey team the Wallabies in their opening Test, as interim Coach Rob Howley took charge as regular Welsh Coach Warren Gatland took up the Lions coaching job. Wales looked confused and seemed to have little if any kind of game plan. Next up were Argentina in a game that Wales laboured through and were lucky to edge out a thoroughly unimpressive win against a tired and poorly disciplined Pumas team. The confusion continued as they seemed constantly surprised by a ferocious Japanese challenge and to be honest were lucky to win the match by the seat of their pants at 33-30. Finally Wales prided themselves on a convincing win over a South African side experiencing probably the biggest crisis of confidence and morale in the history of Springbok rugby. As a result the Welsh victory while still impressive has to be taken in context as much lesser teams could have easily beat a Springbok side which essentially put up little if any resistance.

Are Wales a poor team? Not by any stretch of the imagination. What they seem to lack however, is a sense of purpose and structure as well as a sense of the kind of game they want to play. There is no doubt that Wales are blessed with some exceptional talent. Second rower Alun-Wyn Jones is a veritable giant of International Test Rugby and as a result is clearly in the sights for the Lions Captaincy this year against New Zealand. Flanker Justin Tipuric possesses a phenomenal work rate and is devastating in the loose, and number eight Ross Moriarty was one of Wales only consistent performers last year especially in the Autumn Tests. The half back pairing though, as talented as they are in the shape of Gareth Davies and Dan Biggar seem to lack a degree of cohesion and understanding of what kind of game they should be playing. The same can be said of the backs – the talent is there by the bucketload in the shape of centre Jonathan Davies and Scott Williams, while on the wings George North and Liam Williams remain world-class. We hope for their sake that they find the cohesion and clarity that seems to be eluding them during the course of the upcoming Six Nations and as a result one of the powerhouses of Test Rugby will once more stamp their authority on a tournament they have so often dominated in the past!

Endnote

As a summary of this post we provide you with GG Rugby’s excellent video wrap up of some of the best moments of last year’s Six Nations – Enjoy!

We continue our look at how the teams we regularly follow over the course of the year fared in 2016. This week we look at the Southern Hemisphere’s big four – Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Without a doubt the talk was all about New Zealand’s continued dominance and South Africa’s slide into despair. Meanwhile Australia struggled to rebuild after the World Cup and Argentina provided plenty of excitement at times but were frustratingly short of results overall. It didn’t quite go all New Zealand’s way in 2016 as evidenced by their historic upset against Ireland in Chicago in November, but it still was a remarkable year for the Men in Black and as they came to the end of a long season they still were clearly the side to beat in International Test Rugby and continue to set the benchmark for everyone else to aspire to.  Australia and Argentina showed they had some world-class players but their cohesion and efficiency as a team still is lacking at times.  South Africa went from bad to worse as the year progressed despite managing to claw out a gritty series win against Ireland in June, but 4 wins out of 12 during the course of the year was simply not good enough for a team that traditionally has been duking it out for top honors in World Rugby with the All Blacks.

Argentina – 6/10

As mentioned above, Argentina provided us with plenty of excitement at times this year, but left many of us pounding our pints on the table in frustration as a promising start faded out and the Pumas, much like Canada, let yet another match they could and should have won slip away. Still what we did see when Argentina was on song looked very good indeed and considering that it is only the first year in their buildup to the next World Cup in Japan in 2019 there is more room for optimism than despondency when it comes to the Pumas future, as difficult as 2016 was at times.

Like Canada, Argentina got 2016 off to an excellent start as with their Pumas B side they emerged unbeaten in the inaugural Americas Rugby Championship, despite a draw in their opening match with the USA, and took the title comfortably in the end.

From there a full strength Pumas side took on Italy once and France twice in the June series of Internationals in Argentina. It was here that we saw the flashes of brilliance at times that we would come to see all year from the Pumas. The Pumas team that we would see for the rest of the year from June onwards would for all intents and purposes be a mirror image of the Argentine Super Rugby franchise the Jaguares. Argentina’s first year in Super Rugby had been one of mixed fortunes, some of the rugby on display was outstanding at times but also overly ambitious and often lacking the composure needed to finish out big games. Much the same could have been said for the Pumas track record in 2016.

It was a scrappy test against Italy, and the Italians gave as good as they got for the most part resulting in Argentina having to work exceptionally hard for the win in what was ultimately a close game. Next up were France for a two Test series and although France themselves were in a process of rebuilding they were more than a match for a Pumas side that often seemed unsure of themselves. Argentina ultimately went on to win the first Test convincingly with number eight Facundo Isa and second rower Guido Petti really coming to the fore and showing what exceptional strike weapons they are for the Pumas. However, in the second Test Argentina literally imploded and were put to the sword by a rampant French side 27-0. This dramatic swing in fortunes from one week to the next would be a consistent theme for the Pumas in 2016.

The Rugby Championship really highlighted some of the strengths and future prospects of this young Pumas side despite Argentina finishing at the bottom of the table. On the way however they provided us with some spectacular entertainment at times. The Argentine front row of Ramiro Herrera, Francisco Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro and inspirational Captain and Hooker Agustin Creevy were exceptional and provided their opponents with a constant headache at scrum time. Creevy’s solid leadership and work rate were exemplary throughout the Championship. The young lock partnership of Guido Petti and Matias Alemanno shows enormous promise for the future as does the back row partnership of Pablo Matera and Javier Ortega Desio. Meanwhile the phenomenal Facundo Isa at number eight was easily one of the best International players of 2016.

Added to the mix were the lightning quick reflexes of the half back partnership of scrum half Martin Landajo and fly half Nicolas Sanchez who also possesses an exceptionally reliable kicking boot which would always keep Argentina in touch of the opposition. Lastly an all-star set of centers, wings and the ever impressive fullback Joaquin Tuculet meant that Argentina were always worth watching and at times stretched the defenses of their opponents to the absolute breaking point. However, when it was all said and done despite numerous fireworks Argentina kept coming up short in the last quarter of all their Rugby Championship matches with the exception of their home game against the Springboks in which they managed to squeak out a narrow win.

The November tour to Europe and Japan exacerbated what had been an exhausting year of travel and nonstop competition for this Pumas squad. Always competitive and obliterating a good Japanese side on the opening game of their tour, they would remain bridesmaids for all of the remaining fixtures of the tour, despite running their opponents to the wire. They were the better team in their game against Wales but ultimately ran out of steam and a poor Welsh team capitalised on some key lapses in concentration by the Pumas. The game against Scotland hung in the balance until the end, but once again in the last ten minutes the Pumas looked exhausted and were clearly hanging on by their fingernails. Against England, they made an impressive comeback after the first quarter and for a good forty minutes proceeded to give England a serious wake up call, but ultimately after a gruelling year of rugby and a travel schedule that would exhaust even the most seasoned international jetsetters, the last twenty minutes simply proved a bridge too far for a Pumas side that simply had nothing left to give.

2017 is likely to see the same nucleus of players making up the Pumas squad who also make up the Argentine Super Rugby franchise the Jaguares. While their travel schedule doesn’t look much lighter for this group of exceptionally talented players, their baptism of fire together that was 2016 is now behind them and the lessons learnt will be invaluable. At times it will be grueling for them to keep up, but we firmly believe that the results are likely to be much more plentiful this year for a Pumas side that is only going to get better and tougher with each outing. The warning shots were fired in 2016 so be prepared for the full artillery barrage in 2017, with hopefully considerably more shots on target!

Australia – 6/10

Let’s face it, 2016 was a very tough year for Australia and one they would no doubt rather forget. It wasn’t without some highs, and there was definitely some promising talent on show, especially towards the end of their season, but overall 2016 brought more heartache than cause for celebration for Australia. To win a paltry 6 out of 15 Tests last year after finishing as World Cup runners-up the year before, doesn’t look good no matter which way you cut it. Sure like pretty well all the big teams, 2016 was a year of rebuilding after the World Cup, but it was clear that as the rest of the world was closing the gap with the Southern Hemisphere, Australia were increasingly finding themselves hanging on to little more than a reputation in 2016.

Things got off to a horrendous start for Australia in June with a three Test series against England. Australia were humiliated by the English in the first two Tests and despite a brave comeback in the third in which they literally threw the kitchen sink at England it just wasn’t to be. Their setpiece work was poor, defensively they were a shambles and their discipline was rapidly becoming the laughing point of International Test Rugby. Add to that a lack of any kind of cohesive attacking game other than handing the ball to fly half/center Bernard Foley and expecting him to produce miracles and Australia looked confused at the best of times. If it hadn’t been for Foley’s selfless heroics in the England series there would have been very few if any positives to take from the series.

Australia’s misery continued in the Rugby Championship, made worse by the decision to play fly half Bernard Foley out of position at center and rely once more on the mercurial Quade Cooper to somehow provide some salvation to Australia in attack. It wasn’t to be. Foley to his credit adapted well to the center and once more was one of the most dynamic Wallaby players on the field throwing himself into attack with little or no regard to his own personal safety. One saving grace for Australia was the return of veteran scrum half Will Genia who ended up becoming a revelation for the Wallabies once more as the tournament progressed and played some of his best rugby to date. The Quade Cooper experiment was finally abandoned, hopefully for good, and Foley returned to his fly half position for the final Bledisloe match against New Zealand. Despite two good wins against Argentina and a scrappy win against South Africa at home, it was a poor tournament for Australia.  However, it’s clearly experimental focus by Coach Michael Cheika did show some promise in player development for the future. Although we found few positives in Australia’s forward play in the front and second rows in 2016, new lock Adam Coleman was definitely something to get excited about from a Wallaby perspective. Possessing a phenomenal work rate and exceptionally hard to bring down, he provided some real consistency to Australia especially in the lineouts and breakdown areas.

In the back row, Australia will always impress with the irrepressible Michael Hooper, but seemed unsure of themselves as to who should wear the number eight jersey. David Pocock was often assigned the position and he regularly impressed although was not quite the force of days gone by this year whether in the back row or at number eight. Always a headache for opposition defenses he still failed to be as much of a threat, especially at the breakdown, as he has been in the past. Sean McMahon increasingly made his presence felt as the year wore on in the number eight shirt and we feel that he has plenty of promise for the Wallabies. However, with Pocock likely to play less of a role in the Wallabies back row this year the confusion as to how the back row partnerships should look is likely to continue for Australia.

Similar uncertainties seem to prevail in the half back partnerships. Australia has no permanent scrum half, and the role seems to be split between the exceptional Will Genia when not on club duty in France and Waratahs stalwart Nick Phipps. There is a clear distinction in quality between Phipps and Genia with the latter having the clear edge. Phipps is simply too easily flustered under pressure leading to continuous lapses in discipline and poor decision-making. At fly half Bernard Foley is clearly the way forward and is Australia’s Mr. Reliable. We felt that he was often asked to carry the entire team last year and as a result his mistakes were understandable given he was constantly being seen as the Wallabies go to man every match.

In the backs though there were two standout players of 2016. Wingers Dane Haylett-Petty and Reece Hodge. Hodge also has the added benefit that he is equally comfortable at centre and possesses a boot that can accurately hit long-range targets from anywhere on the park. In addition to Reece Hodge at centre, Samu Kerevi also looked an exceptionally exciting prospect as did Tevita Kuridrani when he returned to the Wallaby fold for the November tests in Europe. Israel Folau had another strangely quiet year at fullback and it was hard to determine if it was simply that Australia lacked the attacking skill to fully utilise his exceptional talents or that he lacks the cutting edge that we have come to expect from him in years gone by.

However, there was still room for optimism in the Wallaby camp especially once the November series in Europe got underway, and Australia annihilated Wales in their opening Test of the tour. However, the cracks and lack of cohesion were still there to see as they hung on by their fingernails to a one point win over Scotland and a tense victory against a resurgent France. However, in Ireland the wheels fell off and the year ended with an implosion at Twickenham as England made it four from four against Australia. After a long and challenging season, Australia looked out of ideas and ultimately puff in their final two Tests against Ireland and England. As a result, the pressure clearly told as Australia’s discipline especially in the set pieces and the forwards went out the window, and the execution simply wasn’t there across the park when it mattered most.

2017 is likely to see less experimentation and more focus on the basics now that Coach Michael Cheika has the semblance of a core squad which he is likely to develop for the World Cup in Japan in 2019. While Australia may lack depth in their player base there is no denying that there is plenty of talent to work with. Get the discipline and execution right and there is no reason that Australia should not be challenging once more for top honors come the next global showdown in 2019, provided they can keep pace with a rapidly improving Northern Hemisphere opposition and somehow keep in sight of New Zealand’s coattails.

New Zealand – 9/10

New Zealand were once again simply the best. They don’t quite get a ten out of ten from us, due to Ireland spoiling their otherwise perfect season in Chicago at the end of last year. Also as that match highlighted, there had been times throughout the year that New Zealand didn’t quite look the finished product. However, it is New Zealand’s exceptional ability to adapt to whatever the opposition throws at them, and to ultimately emerge the comfortable winners which continues to make them the benchmark team to beat in Test rugby. Nevertheless New Zealand often got rattled more in 2016 than we are used to seeing. Ireland, France, Wales and Argentina all caused the All Blacks serious problems at times during their 2016 campaign for continued world dominance. This made the All Blacks look distinctly uncomfortable and unsure of themselves on several occasions, even if it was only Ireland who were able to break New Zealand’s world record winning streak.

That said however, there was little to complain about in New Zealand’s clinical demolition of world opposition in 2016. They like everyone else were in the inevitable process of rebuilding after the World Cup, it’s just that the depth of New Zealand’s player base is so exceptional coupled with the sharpest coaching team in International rugby that everyone else is just simply trying to keep them in sight let alone beat them.

New Zealand got their 2016 campaign underway with an emphatic series whitewash over Wales in June, despite some very spirited play from the visitors at times especially in the first two Tests. From there it was straight into the Rugby Championship. Questions were asked as to how New Zealand would cope without the world-class centre pairing of Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu. Those questions were answered in no uncertain times by debutant Anton Liennert-Brown alongside the proven Ryan Crotty who is back to his barnstorming best along with Malakai Fekitoa. Liennert-Brown was sensational and a total revelation and in these three the All Blacks possess a centre field partnership that is rapidly becoming a serious threat, making the antics of Nonu and Smith almost seem like ancient history.

New Zealand simply dominated the Rugby Championship, despite being clearly rattled in the opening forty minutes of their first encounter with Argentina in Waikato. However, as we were to see all year, New Zealand’s ability to regroup in the second half and adapt their game plan to their opponents’ strengths and weaknesses was remarkable and proved to be the secret to their success all year. The All Blacks are able to play a game of two halves better than anyone else in Test Rugby right now and until their opponents can match them in this department they are likely to remain unbeatable. When you have the likes of the incomparable Beauden Barrett at fly half who was one of the most exciting players of 2016, coupled with two of the world’s best fly halves in Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara, New Zealand’s strike axis becomes exceptionally difficult to contain. With veterans Ben Smith and Israel Dagg in the back line and interchangeable at wing and full back, New Zealand’s finishing skills are second to none. Add to this mix the fact that winger Julian Savea was back to his unstoppable best in 2016 and Waisake Naholo also made a welcome comeback. With winger Nehe Milner-Skudder also set to return in 2017, New Zealand are going to continue to be exceptionally hard to beat especially out wide.

The talent continues to manifest itself in the almost superhuman figure of hooker Dane Coles. We were left with the question is there anything this player can’t do? To be honest, we fully expect to see him lining up drop goals in 2017. As we saw in 2016, Dane Coles seems as comfortable on the wing as he does in the front row and his passing abilities are at times the envy of many a scrum half. New Zealand’s forward dominance was also clearly evident in the impact made by the second row partnership of Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick, when this duo was available for the return fixture with Ireland in Dublin, their absence being highly noticeable in Chicago.

The November series saw New Zealand come unstuck against a rampant Irish side in Chicago for the first time in 111 years, in one of the most thrilling games of the year, that until the final five minutes was balanced on a knife-edge. New Zealand got their revenge a fortnight later in the return fixture in Dublin, but once again were made to work exceptionally hard. In their final Test of the year against France, there is no question that New Zealand were clearly getting to the end of their rope but still managed to do enough to get the win and close out an almost perfect season.

In short, we learned this year that New Zealand are not unbeatable and there are some chinks in their armor if you somehow manage to get them under pressure. Could we find any weaknesses that are long-term? To be honest not really. The absence of Richie McCaw in the back row was there for all to see and some question marks still remain here as they do at number eight and the Captaincy. Kieran Read  was at times brilliant but at others lost some of the composure and discipline needed at the Captain’s level, and his decision-making wasn’t always the best under pressure. However, it is still going to take an exceptional team to beat the All Blacks in 2017, with it still being the exception rather than the norm. However, they are perhaps in for a few more surprises and upsets in 2017 than they have been accustomed to for quite a while.

South Africa – 5/10

It was simply depressing to watch this once proud rugby nation slide almost into oblivion by the end of the year. The uncertainty around who would succeed Heyneke Meyer as Coach persisted well into 2016 with the final decision only being announced in April as Alastair Coetzee was chosen to take up the reins.

South Africa started their 2016 campaign against Ireland and the omens were there for all to see as they lost the opening Test to a 14 man Irish team. A consistent theme was visible in this opener of 2016, as South Africa looked bereft of any kind of coherent game plan whatsoever. Add to this a reliance on a game based on simply bashing the opposition into submission as opposed to creating any kind of genuine attacking threat and the alarm bells began ringing early.

South Africa were able to regain their honor to win the series in the final two Tests, with the second Test in Johannesburg being perhaps their best performance of the year. However, once again in both Tests Ireland pushed them hard and in the final Test South Africa were clearly hanging on in desperation in the final quarter.

From there things went from bad to worse. Bizarre and inconsistent team selections which had little if any view to the future, misguided and confused coaching and a continuing lack of any sort of game plan meant that South Africa’s Rugby Championship campaign was a disaster. Despite eking out a narrow win against Argentina in the opener and a scrappy win at home against Australia, South Africa looked a shadow of themselves and stumbled from one humiliation to the next. Narrowly avoiding the wooden spoon, South Africa limped from the Rugby Championship to a November series against England, Italy and Wales.

This in short ended up being South Africa’s horror show of 2016. After an embarrassing draw in an exhibition game against the Barbarians, South Africa were put to the sword by an England side brimming with confidence. Up next was the low point of the Springboks campaign of 2016 – a disastrous albeit narrow first ever loss to Italy. There was simply no return from there and the Test against Wales had an air of inevitability to it as South Africa lost a match where they put up little if any semblance of resistance.

Completely disowned by their fans and ridiculed in both the domestic and foreign press the Springboks limped home, while the future of Coach Alastair Coetzee hangs in the balance after only nine months in charge. The demise of Springbok rugby in 2016 is all the more difficult to explain when there is clearly an abundance of talented players in the country. However, a coaching and management structure crippled by politics and nepotism has left South Africa poorly equipped to deal with the rapidly changing landscape of International Test Rugby.

2017 is unlikely to be much better for South Africa particularly if Coach Alastair Coetzee and his assistants remain in charge. However, given the fact that the Springboks have now hit rock bottom, surely things can only get better from here on, albeit at a snail’s pace under the current setup. There are simply no quick fixes for South African rugby at the moment, but to write them off would be foolish given their history as one of the most competitive and successful rugby nations at Test level. Furthermore, South Africa has a deep player base that with the right development and management processes in place can be drawn on for the future and once more make South Africa a force to be reckoned with. There are clearly troubled times ahead for Springbok rugby but we firmly believe that by the time of the next World Cup we are likely to see a resurgent South Africa, and for the good of the global game we sincerely hope we are proved right!

Endnote

As a summary of this post we provide you with GG Rugby’s excellent video wrap up of some of the best moments of last year’s Rugby Championship – Enjoy!

While this weekend’s Bledisloe Cup match between New Zealand and Australia may be a foregone conclusion and as such a bit of a dead rubber, history is still there to be made. Currently on a 17 match winning streak New Zealand look set to become the first ever nation in history to make it 18 in a row. At home and on the sacred ground of Eden Park in Auckland, New Zealand will be almost impossible to beat. Australia have improved over the course of the year but are still light years behind their Trans-Tasman rivals.

Also of interest this weekend are some mouth-watering match ups in the second round of Europe’s Rugby Champions Cup. After the tragic loss last weekend of their head Coach and Irish legend Anthony Foley, Munster take on Glasgow at Thomond Park. Emotions will be high for players and supporters alike as the team looks set to honor the great man’s memory with his funeral the day before painfully fresh in the minds of players and supporters alike.

Bledisloe Cup

New Zealand vs Australia
Saturday, October 22nd
Auckland

The result is hardly in doubt as the All Black express gets ready to put Australia to the sword and make history with 18 consecutive wins. Australia will no doubt be aware of the sense of occasion and do their best to rise to the challenge. However as New Zealand, brimming with confidence and ability, run out in front of the Eden Park faithful on Saturday it is going to take an exceptional team to deny them their shot at rugby history and sadly Australia are just not that team. Consequently Australia are likely to hand the baton to Ireland as the next team to have the unenviable task of trying to derail the All Black steamroller in two weeks time in Chicago.

New Zealand remain pretty much unchanged from the squad that has been decimating their opposition all year, while Australia return Bernard Foley and impressive utility back Reece Hodge moves to centre with Quade Cooper dropping to the bench, which in our opinion is the better use of resources from a Wallaby point of view.  Australia however resort to Nick Phipps back at scrum half after Will Genia who has been outstanding for Australia in the Rugby Championship has had to return to duty in France.  Australia appear to be replacing one liability Quade Cooper with another in the shape of Phipps as we just don’t feel he has the discipline and emotional maturity for big games like this.

Australia’s discipline in general has been poor all year and in the cauldron of Eden Park we’re expecting few if any improvements.  Couple that to a dominant All Black forward presence and an incredible back line of black jerseys and it should be New Zealand all the way on the road to history.  A comfortable New Zealand win by at least 20 points!

The good folks at the Tight Five have put together a count down to potential victory number 18 for the All Blacks which showcases their remarkable skill and talent in getting there.  Enjoy!

Rugby Champions Cup

Round Two of the pool stages kicks off this weekend, overshadowed by the tragic events surrounding the sudden loss of Munster’s head Coach Anthony Foley.  With Foley’s funeral today, Munster have bravely elected to play their round two match tomorrow against the in form Glasgow Warriors.  Emotions will be running high at Munster’s home ground of Thomond Park as the home team seeks to honor the memory of an Irish rugby legend, making the game one of our picks of the weekend.  As a tribute to the man and to get a sense of what Munster will be playing for tomorrow we leave you with this video tribute to the man in question and which captures the emotion, pride and passion which is such a key component of our great sport!

Other matches worth catching this weekend in the Champions Cup are the match up between London Wasps and Toulouse and French giants Clermont Ferrand and the up and coming Bordeaux.

I had the great fortune of getting a fascinating look at the trials and tribulations of South African rugby post the World Cup and the start of a new coaching regime for the Springboks.  On a recent holiday visiting my wife’s family in South Africa, I had the privilege of attending an excellent school match between Grey and Brandwag High Schools played in Port Elizabeth, followed by the luxury of a company box to watch the Southern Kings face up against the Lions at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth.  The Kings may be the worst team in Super Rugby at the moment, while the Lions are arguably one of the best, if not the best South African side in the competition, making it a fairly one-sided contest which nevertheless highlighted the myriad issues facing the future development of rugby in one of its greatest heartlands.  There is little doubt that South Africa is still a hotbed of rugby talent and will continue to be so for many years if not generations to come, the issue is more about the management of the game and player development especially once players leave the vibrant and dynamic school scene.  What I saw on the playing fields at Grey High School on a sunny Saturday afternoon in Port Elizabeth in terms of support and organization would be the envy of many school setups around the world, especially in Canada.

My rugby Saturday in Port Elizabeth started off at Grey High School, where I was able to watch a schools’ match between the first XVs of Grey from Port Elizabeth and Brandwag from Uitenhage.  The stands were packed with family, friends and schoolchildren and a festive and spirited atmosphere prevailed.  The enthusiasm of the spectators both young and old was infectious and clearly inspired the players from both teams.  The first half saw a very talented Grey side run in an unanswered 40 points.  Clearly the better side, Grey’s execution and passing skills would be the envy of many a senior men’s’ squad.  In terms of an entertaining rugby spectacle it was hard to beat and a glorious demonstration of free flowing attacking rugby.

The second half saw Brandwag make a spirited comeback and mount a relentless assault on the Grey defences which held admirably.  Very much a game of two halves, Grey’s significant attacking skills in the first half were transformed into a solid defensive effort in the second.  Brandwag’s efforts had to be commended as they dominated possession in the second half and certainly did not appear to be daunted by the imposing 40-point deficit they found themselves facing at the start of the second half.  However, their execution in attack simply did not have the finesse of their Grey counterparts.  Grey were able to hold their composure in defence and were clearly the more complete of the two teams, but then let’s face it they are ranked ninth in the current South African schools table.  Brandwag were able to bag two solid tries to make the score line slightly more respectable at 45-12 for Grey by the time of the final whistle, and their never say die attitude was outstanding for the full eighty minutes.

After the match I had the opportunity to spend some time in the Grey clubhouse speaking to the coaching staff.  They highlighted the challenges facing rugby in South Africa as a result of political pressures to transform the senior game in the country, particularly in terms of making it more representative.  At the school level many successes have been made in this department and certainly in terms of the composition of the teams I saw there was a healthy representation of black and white players.  In the past many accusations have been levelled that there is a danger of tokenism in terms of having black players make up the numbers.  From what I saw at the schools’ levels, such accusations would appear to have little if any credibility.  Grey’s black players were often the stars of the match and displayed some exceptional rugby prowess.  On speaking to the coaches, the problem seems to be more at the senior levels.  Once such players leave school many of them are not automatically snapped up by senior professional teams or their academies.  Naturally they lose interest in the game and without the financial or peer support at home such talent is then lost to South African rugby.  The few who do make it to the senior levels have bright futures but the coaching and management structures in South African senior rugby are currently not set up to develop such players effectively.

On top of this there is the problem that once you get to the senior levels the increasing political pressure for transformation in South African rugby is starting to get in the way of the natural development of a strong and diversified player base.  The coaches I spoke to rolled their eyes as they outlined rules likely to come into effect where at levels such as Super Rugby and more critically for the Springboks, the color make up of a South African side on the field at any given time has to have a certain numerical balance.  In essence coaches will soon have to sit with their calculators at the ready rather than the game plans and strategy notes worked out in practice.  It will be less a question of are the right players on the field as opposed to are the percentages right in terms of color composition?  In the critical last quarter of a match it begs the question as to how on earth coaches are to use their bench in terms of impact substitutions.  As the debates have raged on this issue there is little doubt that the overall effect of this will be to demoralise black players as the issue of merit in a squad will always be brought into question, along with the fact that it will be difficult for South African teams to field their strongest sides.  This problem will be particularly prevalent for South African teams in Super Rugby, as they try to manage the rigors of travel and injury over a long season.

This issue was brought to light in my next outing in Port Elizabeth that Saturday afternoon as I enjoyed corporate hospitality courtesy of my father in law’s son at the Nelson Bay Mandela Stadium to watch home side the Southern Kings take on Johannesburg’s Lions in Round 9 of this year’s Super Rugby competition.  The Lions have arguably been the most exciting of the South African teams in this year’s Super Rugby competition as they were for much of last season.  Playing an open and expansive game, they perhaps more than any other South African side have embraced the type of playing style that has brought New Zealand teams so much success in this competition.  The Southern Kings on the other hand are arguably the worst team in the competition let alone South Africa, and their inclusion in this year’s tournament appears to have been a case of making up the numbers after the tournament was expanded to include a Japanese and Argentinian franchise.

After last year’s tournament the Lions were boasting some all star names in the shape of scrum half Faf de Klerk, Captain and number eight Warren Whiteley, fly half Elton Jantjies, flanker Jaco Kriel and for me one of the standout players of last year, winger Ruan Combrinck.  Add to this in my opinion the best coach in South Africa for the last two years in the shape of Johan Ackermann and you are looking at a world class unit.  The Southern Kings on the other hand boast plenty of enthusiasm but a player base that has few if any familiar names in it.  However, to give the home side full credit they never looked like a team who felt that in reality they were completely outclassed by superior opposition.  I, like many fully expected the score line to be a runaway for the Lions after only the first quarter but was surprised to see it only 21-5 for the visitors at half time.  There was plenty of heart and courage on display by the home side despite relentless pressure from the Lions.  The Kings would even go and score a well worked try of their own in the first half.

However, as the match wore on execution, superior fitness and organisation would see the Lions suffocate a valiant but ultimately poor Southern Kings side.  The home team’s defence fell apart in the second half along with their discipline which had already shown significant cracks resulting in a yellow card in the first half.  The Lions would go on to score seven superb tries with all star winger Ruan Combrinck scoring two of them.  Despite a fairly shambolic second half the home side did restore some pride by the end of the third quarter by bagging a second well worked try.  However, there were two different teams on the pitch for much of the second half, with the Lions clearly in a league of their own against a courageous but often inept opposition.

As we left the Stadium I couldn’t help but wonder of the Lions team, how many of their outstanding key players will get a shot at a Springbok call up as the national side start their annual campaign against a visiting Irish side in a month’s time.  Given the pressure for transformation and the appointment of a new coach, it remains to be seen how objective South African selectors will really able to be this year.  Many have argued that Lions Captain Warren Whiteley should get the Captain’s role but given the political pressure facing the selectors this is probably highly unlikely.  Furthermore, how much of a chance will players like Ruan Combrinck, Faf de Klerk and Jaco Kriel get to be a part of the Springbok plans this year despite their obvious talent, given the pressure new Coach Alastair Coetzee will face to get his squad to represent the political demands being placed on the make up of this and future Springbok squads?  If South African sides simply become a question of numbers and less of talent, then the future of South African rugby is likely to enter a stormy period.  The end result of which will be a player drain as talented players who see no future in South Africa head overseas to ply their talents and ultimately play for their adopted countries.  South Africans may get a costly demonstration of that come June as the Springboks face up against one of Europe’s best players this season in the shape of South African CJ Stander as he tours his homeland wearing an Irish shirt.

Like many I understand the need for transformation in South African sport and particularly in rugby, however, I would be saddened if it was done at the expense of producing a successful Springbok side.  South Africans are passionate about their rugby and this starts as I saw at the grassroots level on school pitches around the country.  The country boasts a phenomenal talent base in players that represent the full color spectrum of South African society, and that at the schools’ level is as representative as it could possibly be.  It would be a shame if one of international rugby’s greatest heartlands was to lose its rightful place at the top table of Test rugby simply because of poorly managed and misguided political interference.  South Africa has the potential to continue to be a rugby powerhouse and it’s our hope at the Lineout that it will be allowed to do so and that a very fragile and sensitive process can be handled in the best interests of players and supporters.  As I witnessed on my Saturday afternoon in Port Elizabeth, South African supporters are some of the most passionate and generous our sport has to offer and I hope that they will be able to continue to celebrate the success of their teams on the global stage for many years to come.  The next few years will probably be the most challenging South African rugby has ever faced and for the sake of this proud rugby nation we will all be crossing our fingers that they get it right!

Yes you read it correctly we’re taking a month off in April, as travel and family responsibilities call.  I have the fortune to be travelling to South Africa for two weeks this month and hope to get caught up in some of the enthusiasm and excitement surrounding this year’s Super Rugby tournament.  It’s already been a cracking competition and I look forward to covering the business end of it on my return at the end of the month. We’ll also be preparing for the next round of International Test Rugby as the Northern Hemisphere sides get ready to go on tour South of the Equator in June.  As we look ahead to what’s on offer in the coming months there is a lot to look forward to as well as plenty of food for thought in relation to the year so far.

Europe

February and March were of course dominated by the Six Nations.  England had it all to prove with their new Coach Eddie Jones, and they accounted themselves admirably winning the Grand Slam.  The tournament as a whole, as it often does post a World Cup, rarely came to light however and we can only hope for a return to the kind of excitement that we saw in the 2015 edition.  This year England were clearly the best side by a country mile and while not perfect have come a long way since the agony of the World Cup.  England are clearly the dominant Northern Hemisphere side but the ultimate test of how far they’ve come will be seen in June when they face Australia three times.  Wales were worthy runners up and showed us how devastating they can be when given space and allowed to run free.  Their play is often stifled at times by the current game plan preferred by Welsh Coach Warren Gatland.  It may be effective but it kills creativity and makes Wales a tad predictable.  If they play like they did in the last ten minutes against England, then they can pose a challenge to New Zealand, but the sheer skill level we have seen already in Super Rugby by New Zealand sides means that it is likely to be a very painful and potentially depressing month for the Men in Red in the Land of the Long White Cloud. Scotland thrilled us throughout the tournament but execution and decision making at key times still seemed to be their Achilles Heel.  However, the signs of progress were there to be seen in leaps and bounds as they were the most exciting team to watch without any shadow of a doubt.  Ireland and France were clearly rebuilding and there were plenty of reasons for optimism in the Irish camp as a raft of new players acquitted themselves well in their first outings in an Irish shirt.  Indeed it was Ireland’s newcomers who stole the show in most of Ireland’s performances and South Africa must surely be awaiting their visit in June with more than a little anxiety.  France showed signs of a willingness to return to the glory days of being the team with the most flair and panache in attack, and offloaded the ball more than perhaps any other team.  However, inconsistency in selection, not helped by a crippling domestic structure, meant that France rarely were able to string together a unified team.  Nevertheless life under new Coach Guy Noves seems a happier prospect for France and they seem to have regained some of their enthusiasm and motivation, and we can only hope that what we saw was the first stages in the rebirth of one of the great rugby powerhouses.  Last but not least Italy imploded and by the end of the tournament their place in the tournament at the expense of an up and coming performer such as Georgia was once more put under scrutiny.

Meanwhile this year’s European Champions Cup has been dominated by English and French clubs and as we head into the semi-final stages only one French team remains, making the possibility of an all England final an almost foregone conclusion.  England’s success at the International level in Europe looks set to continue at the club level.

Southern Hemisphere

Yes Super Rugby is upon us once more for four glorious months and this year’s expanded competition which now includes a team from Japan and Argentina, as well as all the usual suspects from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, is without doubt the premier club competition in World Rugby.  New Zealand sides so far have been outstanding, and they have set the benchmark for the competition.  Australian sides have struggled to fire at times which surely must make England Coach Eddie Jones breathe a bit easier as he prepares England for a month long tour there in June.  However, Australian Coach Michael Cheika is one of the world’s best and despite the stuttering nature at times of Australian Super Rugby sides, he will still be able to weld together an incredibly talented and dangerous unit.  South African sides with the possible exception of the Lions have yet to really hit their paces and show us what they are capable of.  As politics threaten to get in the way of the natural development of a quality South African side, Ireland must surely feel that their chances of at least one if not two wins in June are a distinct possibility.  Argentina’s team the Jaguares have been mesmerizing to watch despite the fact that they seem to be rather lean on results.  Exceptionally competitive and possessing some great attacking skills and an almost superhuman defense, the Jaguares have shown that they thoroughly deserve their place in the world’s greatest club competition.  Lastly the Sunwolves from Japan, are struggling to make an impact despite some promising efforts at times, but unlike Argentina, Japanese teams still have a long way to go before they are likely to be a major threat in this tournament.  Given the extraordinary skill levels already on display in this year’s Super Rugby tournament, the Rugby Championship later this summer between Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa should be absolutely enthralling.

Canada

Canada have got 2016 off to a great start.  Their performance in the inaugral Americas Rugby Championship could not have been better.  Argentina were always going to take the spoils but for Canada to finish second especially with an interim Coach, Francois Ratier, in charge is an exceptional achievement.  Ratier as we always knew he would, based on his successes with the womens’ team, did a fantastic job of putting together a solid squad of talented youngsters matched up alongside a core of seasoned and experienced campaigners.  As new permanent Coach Mark Anscombe, who comes off the back of two solid years with successful Irish club side Ulster, takes over he must surely feel positive about the groundwork that has been laid in building a cohesive national squad.  The fact that there has been a separation of duty from the Sevens and Fifteen a side game, is a huge bonus to the development of the sport in Canada, and is clearly paying dividends in a mere three months of implementation.  I personally feel that this year’s edition of the Pacific Nations Cup could be one of Canada’s most successful and a strong showing against Italy and Japan in June is also probably on the cards.  Lastly with Anscombe’s knowledge of Ireland based on his Ulster experience, Canada should be able to put in a good effort when they visit the Emerald Isle in November.

So lots to look back on and even more to look forward to.  As we sign off for a couple of weeks we’ll leave you with this glorious tribute to the World Cup that took place last September/October in England, courtesy of the Promo Guys on YouTube, and which many of us were lucky enough to be at.  From a Canadian perspective, nice to see two fine tries by our boys feature in this, especially the incomparable DTH van der Merwe.  Enjoy and see you all again at the end of the month!