Archive for the ‘Report Cards’ Category

With the Northern Hemisphere season now done and dusted till September, we hand out our verdict on the Six Nations Competitors and what we feel they got out of their year on a score out of ten.

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 the 2018/2019 season, with the added twist of the World Cup being only a year away once England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales get back to business in September. 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 over the past season as well as the player that we feel is most likely to catch the eye in the next. So take from it what you will but we’ll wrap up this series with our sixth and final instalment which takes a look at how Ireland fared.

Ireland – 9/10

Whichever way you cut it, it has been a truly remarkable year for Irish rugby. Ireland got their season off to a flying start with a clean sweep of the November Internationals, followed up by a Grand Slam in the Six Nations and a season finale of a Series win in Australia. To back up the exploits of the Men in Green, Irish teams dominated European club competitions, winning both the European Champions Cup and the PRO 14. The structure in place in Ireland is clearly paying dividends, as Ireland reflect on a year that has them sitting comfortably in second place on World Rugby’s rankings table. This time last year the England/All Blacks encounter this November was being hailed as THE game of 2018, but the Ireland/New Zealand fixture a week later is now being billed as the most eagerly anticipated Test of the year.

Ireland came roaring out of the blocks in their season opener last November against South Africa. While many had written off South Africa, it was worth noting that in their last match prior to meeting Ireland, they had lost to the All Blacks by a mere point in a thrilling encounter in Cape Town. However, Ireland literally blew them off the park in a four try romp and recorded their greatest ever winning margin against the Springboks 38-3. Next up Ireland put out a developmental squad against Fiji. While they acquitted themselves well, they almost came unstuck after a purple patch of concentration at the mid-point of the match saw Fiji run in two tries. Nevertheless, it was a valuable lesson for Coach Joe Schmidt’s less experienced charges in how to salvage a win under intense pressure from a very competitive Fijian side. Their final match of November, also showed a worrying trend of losing concentration, as they took on a struggling Argentinian outfit. Although by the hour mark, Ireland were comfortably in charge and in a dominant position on the scoreboard, they appeared to take their foot off the gas and could have paid dearly for it as Argentina scored two tries in the final minutes. Even though Ireland never looked like they were going to lose the match, they could ill afford such lapses in intensity against teams like New Zealand or in the upcoming Six Nations.

On that note, Ireland’s start to the Six Nations was a tense affair which almost saw the Men in Green record their first loss of the season. Ireland traditionally struggle to record a win in Paris and this year’s Six Nations opener was no exception. As the game headed into injury time, France were ahead by a point. However, in a remarkable display of composure and discipline, Ireland kept the ball for an extraordinary 41 phases, ultimately passing the ball to fly half extraordinaire Johnny Sexton for the drop goal to seal the win for Ireland 15-13. Once again in the second half Irish concentration had dipped allowing a try from French winger Teddy Thomas which appeared to have sealed the deal in France’s favor, especially as the French defence seemed impervious to repeated Irish assaults. It was a nail biting finish, but that run of possession by Ireland was a foretaste of how they would come to place a stranglehold on matches when they most needed it.

Ireland then returned to Dublin for three home games, starting with Italy. Italy put up a brave fight but were utterly eclipsed by Ireland who comfortably won the match 56-19. Next up it was a tight and intensely physical contest with Wales, but as the match wore on Ireland were clearly the side in charge. Furthermore the match highlighted the ability of winger Jacob Stockdale to seemingly score tries at will, as the youngster ran in two fine tries which would ultimately set him on the path to be the tournament’s top try scorer. Ireland’s last match at home was against a Scottish side buoyed by two superb wins against France and England. However, Ireland by now had really hit their stride in the tournament and completely shut down Scotland’s renowned attacking prowess with Stockdale continuing to be a try seeking missile. With a match in hand, their 28-8 defeat of the Scots meant Ireland had the Six Nations title in the bag. All that remained was the scintillating prospect of taking a Grand Slam at England’s expense at Twickenham.

Ireland’s Grand Slam decider at Twickenham was a fitting end to a remarkable Irish performance in the Six Nations. With the usually reliable Owen Farrell seeming unable to hit a barn door for England in the kicking department, Ireland controlled a thrilling match and put in a complete team performance which gave England very little opportunity. The Irish defence was outstanding, while once again their strike runners continued to cause havoc for their opponents. Ireland looked focused and disciplined for the full eighty minutes, and made an increasingly frustrated English side pay dearly for their mistakes. Ireland were starting to look unstoppable, with extraordinary depth across the park, and the only question that remained was could they take this remarkable form on the road and record a series win on a tough three Test end of year tour to Australia?

In a nail biting opening Test in Brisbane, Australia looked the fitter and hungrier side. Ireland just couldn’t unlock the Australian defence and all their strike threats out wide, who had proved so devastating during the Six Nations, seemed to struggle to find work in the series opener. In the end, Australia emerged comfortable winners at 18-9. Many had predicted that as good as Ireland were, this tour would be the bridge too far that burst the bubble of euphoria surrounding Irish rugby. However, the second Test proved the critics wrong as Ireland got themselves right back into the series. It was a Test for the ages, as both sides went hammer and tongs at each other and the match was on a knife edge for long periods of a thrilling eighty minutes. However, it would be Ireland who would ultimately get the edge on composure and put in a classy finish to see them emerge the winners at 26-21, setting up an epic series decider in Sydney the following weekend.

Ireland’s final game of a remarkable year showed just how important Irish fly half Johnny Sexton is to this Irish side. Just as he set up Ireland’s road to the Grand Slam at the death in the Six Nations opener against France, his goal kicking abilities and composure under pressure would ultimately be enough to nudge Ireland ahead of an exceptionally spirited Australian challenge. In a game that had fans around the world, regardless of who they supported on the edge of their seats, Ireland would squeak the win and the series 20-16. In this final hurrah of the season, they learnt a great deal about their own depth as well as the class and quality of their veterans against an exceptionally worthy and difficult opponent who had pushed them to the limits in all three Tests. To do this a long way from home and at the end of a long hard season, made the victory and Ireland’s achievements this season that much sweeter.

As we head into the upcoming season, there are a myriad of questions surrounding Ireland. Have they peaked too early? Will they ultimately bow out of next year’s World Cup with a whimper as history has dictated up till now? Do they finally have the depth to cope with the inevitable injuries and make them a real contender with the All Blacks for World Cup glory? The list goes on.

However, we think that this time Ireland does have the players and experience to go the distance, not only this season but also at the World Cup. We doubt they have peaked too early and feel that many of the younger players who stood out this year are only just getting into their stride. As for the depth issue, with the possible exception of back up for scrum half extraordinaire Conor Murray, Ireland appear to be exceptionally well stocked. There is the nagging worry that without Murray and Sexton on the field Ireland are only half the team they could be, but with Carberry likely to get much more exposure this year as Sexton’s understudy then at least some of that concern is being put to rest. Even without Sexton and Murray, Ireland has a forward pack that is the envy of the world, and a set of backs that can mix it with the world’s best in defence and on attack. In short, Ireland’s roll call for this coming season would be the stuff of fantasy for a majority of top Test team selectors. Ireland are in fantastic shape and provided they can keep building on the momentum of this past season, it is going to take a very special team to knock them off their perch. Coach Joe Schmidt’s down to earth focus is likely to keep the players in check mentally and thus prevent them from falling prey to the hype surrounding the team. As a result we very much doubt complacency is likely to be an issue with this rather extraordinary and committed team.

Match of the year – England vs Ireland – Twickenham – March 17th – England 15/Ireland 24

We were rather spoilt for choice in making this selection, as Ireland put in so many memorable performances this season. However, securing a Grand Slam at Fortress Twickenham is always a rather special achievement and one to be savored. Ireland looked the part from start to finish in a tough encounter as they sought to make history. It’s coping so well with this kind of pressure, especially away from home, that will hopefully make them a genuine contender next year in Japan.

Player of the year – Tadgh Furlong

Once again, an almost impossible choice here as there were so many brilliant individual performances that contributed to the way Ireland played this year. While Johnny Sexton may have been the glue that held this remarkable team together this year, allowing them to shine as individuals and as a unit, we just felt we had to give Furlong the honor this season. The Tighthead Prop is in our opinion the best in the world at the moment at his trade, and Furlong seemed to be in the thick of everything extraordinary that Ireland did this year. He seems to embody all the qualities that have become so impressive about this Irish squad, power, intensity, committment and a work rate that appears impervious to fatigue. Furlong had a massive year for Ireland and was one of our talking points after every Irish performance. Like many of Ireland’s new generation of players he seems to be just getting into his stride and we look forward to watching the chaos he is likely to cause opposition teams this coming season.

Player to watch in 2019 – James Ryan

Once again another tough call here with so many brilliant individual performances. However, it seems remarkable that this was only the 22 year-old lock’s first full season in the green jersey – such was the impact he had. A truly impressive talent who has a future ahead of him that is surely likely to equal that of Irish greats like the legendary Paul O’Connell. Expect him to be even better this year after the experience he has gained this past season.

We’ll end this report card with some highlights of Ireland’s best match of the year in our opinion. Their Grand Slam decider against England at Twickenham was a special victory, as it was only their third in the tournament’s history, and to secure it away from home was a genuine achievement. In a high pressure match with everything to play for, Ireland put in a complete performance that personified the very high levels of composure, discipline and execution that have now become trademarks of this team. Ireland are not second in the world by a judicious roll of fortune’s dice and last year’s fixture list.  They have earned every last inch of it, and look set to continue to be the benchmark Northern Hemisphere team in 2019. They will need to push themselves even harder though and continue to raise the bar, as England and Wales will likely be snapping hard at their heels, with the dark horses of France and Scotland never very far away.

That concludes our look at the Northern Season – we’ll be doing the same for the Southern Hemisphere and Canada, USA, Fiji and Georgia at the end of the year. But for now bring on the Rugby Championship!!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With the Northern Hemisphere season now done and dusted till September, we hand out our verdict on the Six Nations Competitors and what we feel they got out of their year on a score out of ten.

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 the 2018/2019 season, with the added twist of the World Cup being only a year away once England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales get back to business in September. 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 over the past season as well as the player that we feel is most likely to catch the eye in the next. So take from it what you will but without any further ado let’s get into it in Part 5 where we take a look at how Wales fared.

Wales – 7/10

It’s been a good year for Wales make no mistake, and with them sitting at third place in the World Rankings – why have we only given them a 7/10 you may ask? Yes it has been an outstanding season for Wales, but their place on the world rankings table is likely to change fairly quickly once the Rugby Championship gets underway next weekend, as Australia and South Africa are likely to climb quickly on the global pecking order. There have been some outstanding performances by Wales this season, but look at the maths and then you may understand how we have had to temper Wales place on the world rankings with a dose of reality. Yes they only lost four Tests this past season, but of the eight they won, four of those matches were by less than seven points. The win against Georgia, at the beginning of the season was also far from convincing. Lastly their summer tour was against two sides deep in the process of transition – not that that takes away from three excellent Welsh wins, made more impressive by the fact that they were delivered by what was essentially a developmental squad. In short, it has been a year in which Wales have learnt a great deal about the depth they have at their disposal. While the results may not have been as convincing at times as some may have liked, Wales have used this season to lay some excellent ground work for the World Cup in Japan next year. On that basis we feel that Wales have had a very good year and should feel exceptionally confident going into 2019.

Wales got their season off to a blistering start in the November Internationals against Australia. While they may have lost the game, they played some outstanding attacking rugby but at times they looked fragile defensively. It was a fast and very physical game, with the Welsh forward pack, particularly the loose forwards Aaron Shingler and Josh Navidi putting in a huge shift. However, the pace at which Wales played meant that at times they were left wrongfooted in defence. Australia were clinical at spotting the gaps and making Wales pay for them. Furthermore, in the exuberance Wales fluffed a few key chances, while their goalkicking also left them bereft of some key points. Still it was an impressive display that hinted at some great performances to come from Wales as the season unfolded.

Although they won their next match against Georgia, much of the optimism surrounding their performance against Australia quickly evaporated. It was a scrappy and at times cynical effort from Wales, and they were lucky to win a match that was from a spectator point of view instantly forgettable. Georgia matched them physically and pushed them to the limit and were unlucky to lose. They then went on to face New Zealand, and despite having the lion’s share of possession and territory they were able to do a lot less with it than the All Blacks. New Zealand were simply better at turning what little opportunity they had into points on the board. Although Wales played some brilliant rugby in the second half and scored some outstanding tries, their finishing still left much to be desired. As a result, despite a solid effort they still found themselves on the wrong side of the scoreboard at the final whistle by 15 points.

Wales would finish the November Test window by putting on another superb display of high-speed attacking rugby in the first half against South Africa. However, alarm bells would start ringing again as they failed to maintain the momentum, allowing the Springboks right back into the match towards the end of the first half and ultimately for the rest of the match. Welsh fans breathed a sigh of relief as Leigh Halfpenny stroked a penalty over the posts with ten minutes to go, and put Wales back into a two point lead which they would maintain till the final whistle. Once again an impressive start was let down by a less than convincing finish despite the win.

Wales started their Six Nations campaign against Scotland by laying down a marker that they would be a force to be reckoned with. Once again they got off to a remarkably fast start which clearly unhinged a Scottish side renown for playing an equally quick brand of rugby. Wales ran out resounding winners in what was their best all round performance of the year, and one which they were able to maintain for the full eighty minutes. Wales then travelled to Twickenham where they took on England in a match they were desperately unlucky to lose, made worse by not being awarded a try which could have clearly swung the match in their favor. England were distinctly average for much of the match, though once again Wales failed to capitalise on some golden opportunities that went begging. Perhaps one of the most puzzling aspects of the Welsh performance was a bizarre obsession with a kicking game in the opening stages of the game that was clearly not working for them. The minute they stopped kicking the ball away, England started to look vulnerable. How different the result might have been had they stuck with this approach from the outset.

Wales then made the journey to Dublin to take on an Irish side that was building some impressive momentum that would take them all the way to a Grand Slam. What we were privileged to witness was one of the best games of the tournament as both sides went at each other hammer and tongs. Fast and physical for the full eighty minutes, Wales were ultimately unable to contain Ireland who managed to exert increasing control over the match as it wore on. Wales got themselves back into the match with the final quarter to go, but once again Ireland were able to put a stranglehold on proceedings despite sustained Welsh pressure and it was Ireland who stole the show at the end with a brilliant intercept try.

Wales returned home, to thump Italy and then in a scrappy and difficult encounter, struggled to get past a resilient France, winning the match by one point. The French dominated possession in the second half, but a resolute Welsh defence held firm. Luckily for Wales, France didn’t bring their kicking boots with them and as a result Wales would squeak the match by the slimmest of margins.

Wales would end their season taking a developmental squad full of new caps on a three Test tour of the Americas. They got proceedings underway in an exhibition match in Washington, DC against South Africa. It was South Africa’s first game under new Coach Rassie Erasmus, ahead of a three Test series at home to England. Both sides were highly experimental but Wales can feel well pleased with the way Coach Warren Gatland’s new charges stood up to the challenge. It was a dire match at first, but from the 20 minute mark, the game picked up its tempo and Wales got into their high-speed attack mode scoring two quick tries. However, as we saw all year, at times they struggle to keep that momentum for the full eighty minutes. South Africa came storming back into the match in the second half and the contest went to the wire, with Wales making a superb charge down on a South African kick deep in the Springbok 22 and scoring a try to seal the match in their favor 24-22.

Wales then headed to Argentina for a two Test series and Gatland’s young charges excelled themselves. Admittedly Argentina were poor and lacked focus, but there is no denying that Wales completely outplayed the South Americans in a master class display from an impressive crop of less experienced Welsh players. Wales boarded the plane for the long flight home knowing that they head into the coming season and preparations for Japan with some serious depth. Depth that is likely to get better with increased exposure in the year ahead.

Our only concern with Wales is consistency, particularly in terms of lasting a full eighty minutes. They are playing a vastly expanded game compared to years gone by and it seems to suit them, even if defensively they have been found wanting at times. Fast and powerful with some outstanding loose forwards, Wales look exceptionally dangerous providing they can finish off the opportunities they are creating. In Josh Navidi and Aaron Shingler, Wales have one of the best and most dangerous back row partnerships in International Rugby right now. Fix the consistency, improve the defence and cut down on the errors and Wales are more than capable of getting to the final four in Japan next year. Whatever happens they are an exciting side and we look forward to watching them build on the momentum of a season which reflects a job well done by the players and coaching staff.

Match of the year – Wales vs Scotland – Cardiff – February 3rd – Wales 34/Scotland 7

Wales completely outplayed a highly vaunted Scottish side in their Six Nations opener. Unfortunately they were unable to maintain this level of intensity and efficiency for the remainder of the tournament, but it showcased the skill set that Wales now have, especially with this looser and more open style of game they seem to have adopted. When they get it right the rest of the world will be more than just a little anxious about facing them.

Player of the year – Josh Navidi

Tough call here, as Navidi’s back row partner Aaron Shingler also stood out all season. However, it was Navidi’s powerful runs throughout the year that really caught our eye starting with Wales’ opening Test against Australia. Perhaps more than any other player Navidi epitomised the speed and power which this new look Welsh side seem to now thrive on. It was Navidi’s work rate in the loose and his explosive breaks that set up so many of Wales’ attacks through their backs this season.

Player to watch in 2019 – James Davies

While not exactly a youngster, at the age of 27, the flanker really stood out on Wales’ summer tour of the Americas, proving that Wales have some genuine depth in the back row. Expect to see more of the energetic blindside causing havoc in the midfield in 2019.

We’ll end this report card with some highlights of Wales’ best match of the year in our opinion. Their Six Nations opener against Scotland laid down a real marker of Welsh intent, as well as a showing a more polished and expansive style of play perfected from the November Internationals. Although they may have struggled to maintain it throughout the tournament, they still managed to finish second on the table, and on tour in the Americas in June it was very much on display with a crop of new talent. If Wales can make this their modus operandi throughout 2019, they will be a force to be reckoned with and well prepared for the global showdown in Japan.

Up next – we conclude the series with Ireland!

 

 

 

 

 

With the Northern Hemisphere season now done and dusted till September, we hand out our verdict on the Six Nations Competitors and what we feel they got out of their year on a score out of ten.

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 the 2018/2019 season, with the added twist of the World Cup being only a year away once England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales get back to business in September. 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 over the past season as well as the player that we feel is most likely to catch the eye in the next. So take from it what you will but without any further ado let’s get into it in Part 4 where we take a look at how England fared.

England – 6/10

There’s no getting away from it, it’s been a difficult year for England and how far the chariot has fallen since England were number 2 in the world less than a year ago. They now find themselves in fourth on the rankings table, which in itself would not be so bad were it not for the fact that two of their other Six Nations rivals Wales and Ireland are ahead of them, with the Irish being comfortably so. England’s form since the Six Nations has left many wondering if a further slide down the table is not imminent, especially as of 11 matches played this past season (we are not including the Barbarians match), England lost five in a row.

While it is clear that all is not well with the structure underpinning the Men in White, we feel it needs a sense of perspective. Yes, by England’s lofty standards it has been an exceptionally disappointing season after the highs of 2016 and 2017. However, take a closer look at the results, despite the losses, they were never really taken to the cleaners in a manner akin to the Springboks 57-0 drubbing by the All Blacks last year. They had a number of solid wins, and their biggest losing margin was the 25-13 loss to Scotland in this year’s Six Nations. They have been competitive make no mistake, what they have lacked is the finishing necessary in big matches and a real lack of direction in selection policy. Furthermore, Coach Eddie Jones has been guilty of sticking with combinations that either don’t work or are in desperate need of some fresh blood. Does he have enough time to develop the depth and resources of new talent he needs before England take a shot at the World Cup next September?

England got their season off to a shaky start in the November Internationals against Argentina. After the shock of losing to Ireland in their final match of the Six Nations in 2017 and the end of their longest ever winning streak, England really needed to make a statement in their November Internationals opener. Unfortunately no such statement was made. England got the win but that was about all that could be said about it. It was a poor performance from both sides, but given England’s calibre they should have won the game by a far greater margin than 13 points. Had Argentina managed some decent goalkicking the scores would have been much closer. England then redeemed themselves against Australia in a performance that reflected the standard we had come to expect from them. Nevertheless, in the first half they struggled to capitalise on numerous chances and as a result the score was only 6-0 in favor of the Men in White. Nevertheless, defensively they looked rock solid, especially given the multiple strike threats that Australia possessed. England’s defence withheld enormous pressure from some spectacular and relentless Australian attacking play, while at the same time England’s bench really came to the party in the final quarter. Ultimately England would score three tries and emerge the winners by 30-6. They ended their November Test window with a comprehensive thrashing of Samoa, and looked well set to be the number one contenders for Six Nations glory.

To that effect they got their Six Nations campaign off to a robust start in Rome against Italy, running in seven tries and comfortably putting themselves at the top of the table after the first round. From there however, dramatic cracks started to appear as they took on Wales at Twickenham. It was a messy game from both sides, but once more England looked far from convincing and the scoreline was a bit too close for comfort. England then made the journey to Murrayfield to take on a Scottish side brimming with confidence after dispatching France. Much like in Dublin almost a year ago, the wheels fell off the England bus in a rather dramatic fashion. Scotland threw the kitchen sink at them and looked the more polished and committed side for the full eighty minutes. Scotland matched everything England brought to the encounter, especially in the forward battles and were clearly the better side. England were completely outplayed especially up front and the English back row was proving to be dysfunctional, despite some impressive individual performances, while the half back pairing of George Ford and Danny Care was misfiring badly.

Things then went from bad to worse as England travelled to Paris and another dismal error strewn performance plagued by ill discipline followed. England simply failed to show up, and France who had problems of their own, especially in terms of discipline, still managed to be more effective when it mattered most. England experienced their second consecutive loss, and the wind had clearly gone out of a side that had, along with New Zealand, dominated the International Rugby headlines in the first two years following the 2015 World Cup. In their final Six Nations match England needed to redeem themselves at Fortress Twickenham, and attempt to rob Ireland of a Grand Slam, just as Ireland did to them the previous year. It wasn’t to be as once more the English forward pack were bossed off the field by Ireland, and the Irish defence snuffed out any opportunities the English tried to create. Even the traditionally reliable Owen Farrell playing at fly half couldn’t seem to find the answers needed to unpick Ireland’s game plan. England would score three impressive tries, but an inability to convert any of them would ensure that Ireland would end up winning comfortably. England as they have for much of the year seemed to struggle with pressure and, in such a big match as this, even at home it was clear that they singularly failed to cope with it and rise to the occasion – something their visitors from across the Irish Sea seemed much more comfortable with.

England would wrap up their season with a daunting three Test series in South Africa. After their disappointing Six Nations adventures which saw them finish fifth, just above wooden spoon holders Italy, Coach Eddie Jones and his men looked ill placed to take on a Springbok outfit under new management and looking to make amends for two dreadful years following the last World Cup. The decision to train at sea level, when the first two Tests were to be played with the infamous altitude of the High Veld as a factor, left everyone including ourselves utterly bewildered. England came storming out of the blocks in the first quarter, but then proceeded to essentially run out of gas while South Africa steadily built momentum. To be fair, despite the players often looking dead on their feet they scrapped to the end, and it is to England’s credit that although they lost, it was only by three points. It was close, and a Test match for the ages but England will only have themselves to blame for blowing an early 21 point lead. In the second Test also at altitude, England once again ran out of puff after a bright start and the Springboks ground out a gritty but convincing win, in which England’s forwards and half backs once again struggled to assert any kind of control over proceedings. It was ultimately a poor performance from England, and with it went the series as South Africa made it 2-0.

In appalling weather, England pulled their socks up in Cape Town for the third and final Test and to their credit gave their best performance of the season. It was a fitting end to an otherwise forgettable year, as England demonstrated that this team can triumph in adversity, and furthermore is blessed with some remarkable talent, perhaps most fittingly epitomised in winger Jonny May. England ran out worthy winners and salvaged some pride from a tour that had clearly given them more to think about than perhaps they had hoped.

In short, while it may have been England’s annus horribilis, provided they can learn from the mistakes made in sufficient time, it could end up being the best possible preparation for next year’s World Cup. The complacency that often comes with a long winning streak, if it ever was there, has surely been tossed out the window from a dizzying height in the case of England. As mentioned above, it would be ludicrous to write them off as anything other than serious contenders for the World Cup. In a country with the depth of talent and resources that England has, they simply won’t be down and out for long. While many feel, and we tend to agree, that Coach Eddie Jones was not the saviour of English rugby that he was made out to be, and perhaps not the ideal long-term solution for the problems England found itself with after the last World Cup, he will hopefully address with vigor the weaknesses that this season has exposed. He has the talent at his disposal, so surely it is only a matter of time before England are once again reasserting themselves as a dominant force in International Rugby. Whether or not he himself has the skill set and willingness to affect the changes needing to be made remains to be seen. As a conclusion, England may be down but they are definitely not out and as we saw in the rain and mud of Newlands at the end of June, there is still plenty of fire in the belly of the English Rose.

Match of the year – South Africa vs England – Cape Town – June 23rd – South Africa 10/England 25

Some of you may be surprised to see us pick this as England’s best this past season. However, for us it showed the grit and character of this English team with their backs against the wall in tough conditions and a long way from home. They may have lost the Series but what a courageous last stand to set the tone for next season. They were the better side on the day, when everyone had written them off. South Africa although having won the Series would not have taken their foot off the gas, as the prospect of a Series whitewash would have been too tempting. However, England proved the better side at mastering the conditions and staying the course, and ultimately salvaged some much-needed pride and inspiration from what had otherwise been a year to forget.

Player of the year – Jonny May

With 20 tries to his name this season, he was the one player who consistently turned up for England all year. With his defensive abilities vastly improved, it was his ability to make England devastating out wide in every match they played that makes us hand him the accolade of England’s most accomplished and reliable player of 2018. England will be looking to him for more of the same this year.

Player to watch in 2019 – Tom Curry

England’s back row problems of the last year have been exhaustively documented by us and others. For us Curry is the breath of fresh air that England so desperately needs in this part of the park. The twenty year old openside flanker has a huge future ahead of him, and in a tour that needed inspiration, Curry provided it by the bucket load. If Eddie Jones is serious about addressing England’s problems then giving Curry as much game time as possible between now and Japan will be one his first steps in the right direction.

We’ll end this report card with some highlights of England’s best match of the year in our opinion. The final Test against South Africa that took place at the end of June, had all those gritty qualities and never say die attitudes that you associate with the English jersey. It was pride restored with a long to do list between now and the World Cup next year, but showed us that to write England off would perhaps be foolhardy to the extreme. England will be back and may just end up peaking at exactly the right time in 2019!

To be continued – up next Wales!

 

 

 

 

With the Northern Hemisphere season now done and dusted till September, we hand out our verdict on the Six Nations Competitors and what we feel they got out of their year on a score out of ten.

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 the 2018/2019 season, with the added twist of the World Cup being only a year away once England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales get back to business in September. 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 over the past season as well as the player that we feel is most likely to catch the eye in the next. So take from it what you will but without any further ado let’s get into it in Part 3 where we take a look at how Scotland fared.

Scotland – 7/10

Scotland have consistently gone from strength to strength in the last eighteen months. The departure of former Coach Vern Cotter at the end of the 2017 Six Nations, had many wondering if the renaissance he’d brought to Scottish rugby could continue under his successor Gregor Townsend. The short answer to that would appear to be that such concerns were completely unfounded! Townsend saw his side finish strongly in this year’s Six Nations, after a very successful November series of home Internationals, and end the year with a satisfying tour of the Americas which saw plenty of development in terms of depth. Scotland are a contender make no mistake, and they are more than capable of making it to a semi-final berth in Japan next year.

Scotland’s season got off to an encouraging start in November with a high scoring win against Samoa, but despite the victory it was a confusing and at times unsettling performance for Scotland and their fans. Scotland were leading 32-10 at the fifty minute mark. Somehow though in the next 15 minutes they would let Samoa right back into it as the Pacific Islanders would score two tries. The final quarter of the match was a frenetic affair with both sides seemingly scoring at will and Samoa in it right till the death. Given that 11 tries were scored and Scotland bagged six of them, it was worrying that Scotland found it so hard to put Samoa out of the game until literally the final whistle. Defensively at times they looked naive, a trait which has caught them napping more than once this year.

Scotland clearly spent a lot of time looking at the video footage of the match and the effort they put in against New Zealand the following weekend was vastly improved. For us in many ways it was Scotland’s most memorable performance of the year, despite the narrow loss. It was a thrilling match that had everyone on the edge of their seats till the final whistle. Scotland were brave in attack, but truly epic in defence. If Stuart Hogg’s desperate last-ditch pass had gone to Scottish hands in the final minute after a fantastic breakout, then Scotland would have made history. Sadly though it wasn’t to be and Scotland could only imagine what might have been. Nevertheless, it had been a thrilling performance which saw Scotland dominate the All Blacks for large chunks of the match.

Scotland’s final encounter of the November fixture list was an absolute blinder as they recorded a staggering 53-24 win over the Wallabies, who themselves were looking much improved having just beaten New Zealand a few weeks previously. Scotland completely outclassed Australia and ran in an astonishing eight tries, some of which were sublime to watch. What was even more heartening for Scottish supporters was that this was all without talismanic fullback Stuart Hogg.

The start of Scotland’s Six Nations campaign, however brought them back down to earth with a resounding thump, as Wales comfortably cruised past a Scottish side that once again looked at sixes and sevens defensively. The following week, in front of an ecstatic Murrayfield crowd, Scotland regained their groove despite being sorely tested at times by a French side clearly going through their own renaissance. Although the Scots were made to work hard, they still ended up being the better side and walked away with a hard-earned 32-26 victory. Greig Laidlaw’s boot also ensured that France would pay dearly for their growing lack of discipline in the second half. The momentum continued a fortnight later as Scotland played host to Six Nations champions England. It was the Scots first Six Nations victory over England in 10 years. Scotland opened proceedings with an emphatic first half performance that ultimately left England with too much to do.

Scotland would head out on the road for their final two encounters of the Six Nations, and despite some brave efforts the wheels started to come off the bus. They are clearly a side to be reckoned with at home, but as a travelling side they still need to convince. They were thrashed comprehensively by Ireland in Dublin, by an Irish side that was rapidly building momentum for their ultimate Grand Slam Six Nations campaign. For Scotland’s final effort in Rome, they struggled to contain a feisty Italian side desperately attempting to salvage some pride from an otherwise disappointing campaign. Scotland squeaked the win and ultimately 3rd place in the Championship, but it wasn’t pretty and once again defensive frailties and over ambitious playmaking by fly half Finn Russell almost cost them dearly.

Scotland would end the year with a tour to the Americas which saw them take a development squad to Canada, the USA and Argentina. While there were very few surprises at them walking over a hapless Canadian side, eyebrows were raised as the USA gave them a real run for their money and emerged the winners by one point. Scotland would bounce back though as they went on to demolish a rudderless Pumas side 44-15. Although they will have been unhappy with the loss to the USA, the tour unearthed plenty of new and exciting talent ahead of their final year of preparation for next year’s World Cup in Japan.

There is no question that Scotland is in a good place heading into the 2018/19 season. A strong showing in November will give their rivals plenty of food for thought. If they are able to continue that form into another positive Six Nations performance which sees continued development of some of their newer players, then Scotland should be in an excellent position to provide a real challenge in Japan.

However, doubts remain about the consistency of their defence, as well as their ability to pull off big wins away from the hallowed ground of Murrayfield. Furthermore, as talented as he is, Scottish fly half Finn Russell may not have as much of a role in Scotland’s efforts this year as he will be playing his club rugby in France. Scotland, have consistently been brilliant one week and then rather average the next. They will really need to address this in 2018/19 as well as find some depth at fly half should Russell not be able to play the kind of role they would like. This may in itself not be such bad news as we have felt that although he is a remarkable player, Russell has a tendency to be overly ambitious at times and lacks the execution needed to pull off some rather adventurous plays. Therefore if Scotland can use this coming season to find a reliable back up for Russell as well as strengthen their defensive abilities then it should be another excellent year for them. We certainly hope so, as we hold to our view that they are without a doubt one of the most exciting attacking teams in International Rugby at the moment.

Match of the year – Scotland vs Australia – Murrayfield – November 25th – Scotland 53/Australia 24

In a truly emphatic win over the Wallabies, the “new” Scotland was on display at its best. The eight try epic by the Men in Blue was enthralling to watch and the fact that they achieved it without arguably their best player, fullback Stuart Hogg, on the field says a lot about where this Scottish side is headed.

Player of the year – Stuart Hogg

We really struggled with this one as there were so many impressive performances from Scottish players across the park this season. Nevertheless, the turbocharged fullback continues to light up pitches around the globe with his extraordinary line breaks and counter attacks. Hogg guarantees excitement and unpredictability and is clearly one of Scotland’s most daunting strike threats and a perpetual headache for opposition defences.

Player to watch in 2019 – George Turner

The Hooker who really stood out on the tour to the Americas this year, made us sit up and take notice from the minute he came off the bench against Canada. He backed that up with two solid performances against the USA and Argentina. Fast, powerful and able to cover vast amounts of the park, in the best tradition of New Zealand Hooker/utility back Dane Coles, we feel there is a very bright future ahead of this young man in a Scottish jersey and hope to see more of him this season.

We’ll end this report card with some highlights of Scotland’s best match of the year against Australia, in which they showed us that they can mix it up with the Southern Hemisphere and rack up some big points in the process. Scotland mean business and with the depth they are starting to develop are only going to get better. It still may be early days, and there are still some outstanding issues as mentioned above, but Scotland will be a force to be reckoned with this season and ultimately in Japan just over a year away.

To be continued – up next England!