Archive for the ‘Report Cards’ Category

With the Northern Hemisphere season now done and dusted apart from the French Top 14 final this weekend, 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. As the six teams take a much needed break before the August warm ups in preparation for September’s World Cup in Japan, the 2018/19 season has been a pivotal one for all six teams involved.

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 World Cup. 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 Japan three months from now. So take from it what you will but without any further ado let’s get into it in part 1 where we take a look at how Italy fared.

Italy – 6/10

Italy got their season off to a difficult start as they made their way across the Atlantic for an exhibition game against Ireland at the beginning of November. The game was played in Chicago’s iconic Soldier Field and which in many ways has become Ireland’s home away from home, after their historic win there over New Zealand’s All Blacks in 2017. Italy were able to hold their own in a scrappy first half, but which saw Ireland ahead by only 14-7. However, in the second half the floodgates opened as a disorganized Italian defense struggled to contain a rampant Irish side who would run in 6 unanswered tries. Ireland would end the match as comfortable winners 54-7, and Italy would return home with a less than auspicious start to their season.

A week later however, Italy regrouped and were able to put together a performance that was able to silence the critics that have increasingly called for their relegation from the Six Nations in favor of Georgia. Georgia traveled to Florence and ensured that it was a highly entertaining match, but Italy would ultimately prevail but were made to sweat right to the end. Both sides had everything to prove, Italy would kick themselves for some poor discipline at times which allowed Georgia to constantly keep in touch with two fine tries. However, Georgia would let their concentration slip with five minutes to go and Italy ensured that they were able to hang onto possession and close out the match.

Next up Italy would take on an Australian side that was under performing almost as dramatically as they were, and as a result some felt this could be Italy’s chance to cause an upset and build on the momentum of their win over Georgia. Once again, as in the contest with Ireland at the beginning of the month, the first half was a closely fought affair, but Australia were still able to run in two unanswered tries and take a 14-0 lead into the break as in the final ten minutes of the half, Italy’s defence once again proved porous. The Wallabies would continue to build on this out of the gates in the second half with yet another try, but Italy were able to strike back with a fine try of their own. Australia’s discipline began to slip as Scott Sio was the recipient of a yellow card, but Italy were unable to capitalize on their man advantage. Australia’s defence held firm against some opportunistic but ultimately poorly executed Italian attacks and ultimately the visitors would once more get control of the match and seal it with their fourth try at the death. After such promise only a week earlier, Italy would limp off the field suffering an agonizing 26-7 loss.

A clearly demoralized Italian side then had the singular misfortune of having to face an angry and wounded New Zealand, after the All Blacks’ historic loss to Ireland the week before. The All Blacks fury knew no bounds and Italy were sadly lambs to the slaughter and never really looked like they were in the match from the get go, as New Zealand ran out an emphatic 66-3 victory.

Italy would take a much needed break to lick their wounds, but in the interim would take heart from club side Benetton Treviso’s healthy exploits in the PRO 14 league and the European Challenge Cup.

The Six Nations promised a fresh start, and their opener in Edinburgh against Scotland did not disappoint, even if Italy were to ultimately walk away on the wrong side of the scoreline. Italy were under the hammer for much of the match, but a yellow card picked up by the hosts with just over ten minutes to go would transform the Azurri. In one of the best passages of play we’ve seen from an Italian side in a long time, Italy would run in three tries in the space of ten minutes. It showed what Italy can do if they put their minds to it, and what’s more do it at the end of a game, instead of doing as they usually do, and fade away by the final quarter. Still it was all too little too late and Scotland would ultimately come away with a bonus point 33-20 win.

Italy’s next opponents were ultimate Six Nations Grand Slam champions Wales in Rome. It was not exactly a spectacle that most of us will choose to remember. Wales did enough but didn’t really impress in the process and Italy were just badly organised and scrappy. However, it was starting to ring alarm bells as Italy registered their 4th straight loss in a row 26-15.

Italy would then take on an Irish side who would look distinctly average in Rome. Italy took the fight to Ireland and looked the part, frustrating their Celtic visitors beyond belief. Italy made Ireland work exceptionally hard and the sight of a clearly rattled and out of sorts Johnny Sexton leaving the field summed up just how effective Italy had been at getting under Ireland’s skin. Ireland would ultimately come out on top and take the match 26-16 but courtesy of constant Italian pressure, it was one of the worst Irish performances we saw all year and sweet revenge for Italy after their 54 point thumping by Ireland just a few months earlier in Chicago.

A difficult trip to Twickenham was next on the agenda, and once more Italy appeared to have little if anything to add to a very one-sided contest. A porous Italian defense would see England run in 8 tries to Italy’s two, and yet another thumping was dished out to an Italian side that by now most had written off, as England ran away the winners 57-14.

Italy’s last match of a depressing season overall, given the fact that with the upcoming World Cup there would be no June tour, would be against France back in Rome. France were also suffering from poor form and many felt this would be Italy’s last shot at redemption ahead of preparations for the World Cup. Italy would at times play some sparkling attacking rugby, but ultimately just fall short of finishing off some excellent opportunities. There were times in the match were the margins would close up and you felt it could go either way, with Italian scrum half Tito Tebaldi continuing to be one of Italy’s genuine play makers. However, France somehow managed to regroup and even under pressure with a man in the sin bin, it would be les Bleus who would have the final say through a brilliant Damian Penaud try in a match that Italy should have won. Italy would once again have to settle for yet another loss and a Six Nations wooden spoon.

In short, not a good year for Italy. One victory from nine attempts simply doesn’t look good. Once more given the fact that they didn’t exactly put Georgia to the sword, the call for a relegation system in the Six Nations raised its head once more. However, let’s put it in perspective for a moment. What Italy did show off this year was some very promising young talent that is making a name for itself on the club scene in Europe. At times this year they looked genuinely exciting on attack and they are able to defend when they get their structures right. Yes Italy are still the work in progress that everyone has been saying they are since their inclusion in the Six Nations in 2000, but we felt a lot more optimistic about them after this year.

They have a World Cup pool that will sadly do them no favors in terms of advancing beyond the pool stages as that would necessitate them getting past the New Zealand juggernaut and a revitalized South Africa. However, a strong third place finish in their pool is surely on the cards as Namibia and Canada should prove relatively soft targets for them. If Italy can emerge from the World Cup having won the games they will be clearly targeting and putting up a good fight against the heavyweights in their pool, then we’d argue that the next four year cycle for Italy between World Cups could just turn out to be those golden years they have been waiting for for so long. For their sake we certainly hope so!

Match of the year – Italy vs Georgia – Florence – November 10th – Italy 28/Georgia 17

It was definitely their best performance of the year, and it needed to be. With the rest of the rugby world asking questions regarding Italy’s merit and right to a place in the Six Nations, they simply had to beat their arch rivals for European ascendancy – Georgia. While they may not have done so emphatically, they nevertheless carved out a gritty and important win and showed that there is no lack of passion in the Azurri jersey. They had the lion’s share of possession and territory and outscored Georgia four tries to two. Georgia was forced to make twice as many tackles and Italy even got the upper hand over the much vaunted Georgian scrum. It may not have been pretty at times but Italy looked the part when it mattered most.

Player of the year – Tito Tebaldi

At the heart of everything that Benetton and Italy did well this year, the 31 year old scrum half really has had a year to remember even if he was only on a winning Italian side once. His speed of passing and eye for opportunity was a joy to watch this year, and his tackling proved ferocious. In short, he may not have many years left in an Azurri jersey but he has clearly reached the top of his game and certainly looks to be a big part of whatever successes Italy may have in the next few years. A player that Italy can be genuinely excited by every time he takes to the field and one who leads by example.

Player to watch in 2019 – Federico Ruzza

Italy had quite a few this year, but Ruzza really stood out for us. A constant menace in the lineout and a very handy and pacy wing forward when needed, the second rower has impressed for both club Benetton and the Azurri. His tackling has been solid, and his ability to turn loose ball into opportunity for club and country has been exciting to watch. With head of steam up, he’s a hard man to bring down and has a pretty nifty sidestep to boot. Ruzza is definitely a player we feel can translate Benetton’s success onto the international stage for Italy. Expect him to feature heavily in press releases for the Azurri come the World Cup.

We’ll end this report card with some highlights of Italy’s best Test of the year against Georgia during the November Internationals, and the type of performance they will need and then some for a very difficult World Cup challenge that lies ahead!

Up next – Scotland!

As we do at the end of every year and with their seasons over till February, we look back at the highs and lows of the Southern Hemisphere season and hand out our verdicts on the big four Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. With less than nine months left before the biggest rugby show on earth, 2018 was a critical year for all four countries and much was learnt about the pecking order in International Rugby and what we might expect from these four heavyweights once business gets underway in Japan in September.

We’ll be the first to admit it’s completely subjective based on what we saw and where in our humble opinions it leaves the teams heading into 2019. We highlight the match we most enjoyed from each of the teams and we try to pick the player who made the greatest contribution to their national cause in 2018 as well as the player that we feel is most likely to catch the eye in 2019. So take from it what you will but without any further ado let’s get into it.

South Africa – 8/10

Some of you may be wondering why we’ve chosen to give South Africa such a high rating when they lost 7 of the 14 Tests they played in 2018, and thus had a winning ratio of only 50%. However, look a bit closer and the picture looks a lot more rosy. First of all it was a clear turnaround from the disastrous years under former Coach Allister Coetzee after the last World Cup. Secondly of those 7 wins 3 were on the road, something the Springboks have struggled to do in recent years. Lastly of those 7 defeats, 3 of them were by less than 3 points. In short, the renaissance that South African rugby experienced in 2018 and the pride that was restored to the jersey, made it fairly easy for us to give them such a high scoring on sheer effort alone. There was an undercurrent of consistency in both team selection and performance that we hadn’t seen for a long time, and as a result we feel they thoroughly deserved the praise we heaped on them last year, along with the recognition they got on the international stage as a force to be reckoned with once more.

South Africa got their 2018 campaign off to an interesting start in an exhibition match in Washington DC, in June against Wales. Although the attendance could have been better, we still counted ourselves fortunate to be part of the enthusiastic crowd that showed up for the match. The first half was a rather dire affair from both sides to say the least, and both teams lacked the necessary precision at times for a match of this calibre. However, by the end of the match it had turned into an exciting contest. A poorly executed kick from behind South Africa’s goal line at the end saw Wales take full advantage and crash over for a simple try to rob South Africa of the lead they had fought so hard to gain in the second half.

South Africa returned home to host England in June for a three Test series. Many key players who regularly ply their trade overseas returned home as well to lend their support to the cause. The result was a Springbok side that positively hummed at Ellis Park in Johannesburg. It was a thrilling Test match, but its opening twenty minutes saw England run in three tries, and the new-found optimism that Coach Rassie Erasmus had given Springbok supporters appeared to evaporate quickly, as fans had a horrible sense of deja vu. However, the next 20 minutes produced some truly stunning rugby from South Africa as they hit back with four tries of their own and headed into halftime with a narrow 29-27 lead. The second half was a tense affair of give and take, but South Africa found their big match temperament and held on for an historic 42-39 victory. The next match in Bloemfontein was a gritty affair, but once again the Springbok pack ground England into submission and allowed South Africa to claim the series. The final Test in Cape Town, saw England find their groove at sea level and in poor conditions they were clearly the better side. However, South Africa had won the series on the back of two solid performances that gave grounds for plenty of optimism heading into the Rugby Championship.

South Africa’s opening fixture in the Rugby Championship against Argentina, built on the success of the England series as they came away with a convincing win over a Pumas outfit that was just coming to terms with life under new Coach Mario Ledesma. In the return fixture in Argentina a week later, that transition process was clearly complete, and the Pumas got the better of a rather disjointed Springbok performance and one which seemed to confirm fears that South Africa may be a side to fear on home soil, but on the road they were continuing to struggle.

South Africa headed to Australia, knowing they needed to shake off the mantra that they were a team that still battled to look convincing away from home. They looked much sharper than they did against Argentina, but still failed to capitalise on some key opportunities and let the lead slip away from their grasp once more. Australia simply took what little chances were on offer more effectively and in a tight tussle the Wallabies got the better of South Africa by 23-18.

Consequently, by the time they reached New Zealand, many had already written them off, especially as the last time they were in New Zealand they experienced their worst ever defeat to the All Blacks by 57-0. Instead what happened was a piece of Springbok history but this time clearly in their favor. As mentioned before in previous posts it was a Test match for the ages and one that brought out all the best qualities of one of International Rugby’s greatest and fiercest rivalries. There were tries galore from both teams and some truly heroic defence from South Africa in the final 15 minutes. They emerged the deserved winners and finally managed to shake off the curse of being unable to win big games on the road. The pride in the jersey on all the players’ faces at the final whistle was perhaps most emphatic in flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit’s tears.

South Africa would then return home and get revenge for their loss to Australia, as some heroic defence once more saw them home, despite a constant Wallaby assault on the South African 22 in the final quarter. Their final match of the Championship saw them take on a New Zealand side clearly out for revenge after the upset in Wellington the previous month. It was another truly epic Test match that hung in the balance for the full eighty minutes. South Africa had once more built up an impressive lead by the final quarter, but New Zealand came charging back into the match and this time showed those devastating finishing skills that they have become synonymous with. South Africa gave as good as they got, but the All Blacks simply went through their paces with just a shade more finesse. It was a thrilling Test match that saw New Zealand sneak it at the death and win by 32-30.

South Africa finished the Rugby Championship with a strong second place, and then headed out on the road for the end of year tour to Europe with a well-founded sense of optimism. First up were England who were clearly out to avenge their series loss in June. Sadly it was a match once more marred by controversy from the officials. South Africa were dominating most aspects of the game but their execution at key moments let them down, even though South Africa would be the only side to score a try, with all of England’s points coming from the boot. A slightly controversial call from referee Angus Gardner on a clumsy tackle from England’s Owen Farrell, meant South Africa were denied a penalty kick that could have swung the match back in their favor. In the end they had to settle for a heartbreaking 1 point loss to England. Nevertheless, despite their dominance of possession for much of the game their issues with execution at times did much more to scupper their chances of a win than one simple 50/50 referee call.

South Africa’s next two outings were much more positive affairs. First up they held their nerve to snatch victory at the death from France. South Africa showed some real composure in the dying minutes of the match, and to a man looked convinced that the win was theirs for the taking which it was, through a well worked team effort resulting in a crucial try at the final whistle. From there it was off to Murrayfield to take on a Scottish side that looked extremely dangerous. Once again it was another dogged and assured performance from the Springboks as they clawed out a second vital win, through some superb attacking rugby, game management from fly half Handre Pollard and some stoic defence. Scotland threw the kitchen sink at them but they held firm.

South Africa’s last match of the year however, did see the inevitable cracks start to appear in a side that had had a long and tumultuous season that had its fair share of highs and lows. Against Wales, South Africa started to look a shadow of the team that had produced that famous victory in Wellington only two months earlier. With some clearly tired bodies on display, the Springboks ultimately bowed out of 2018 quietly but keen to regroup for 2019 and build on the results of a remarkable year. Wales got the better of them and South Africa, although showing the odd spark, never really looked like they would trouble their Welsh hosts to any great degree. While it may have been an anti-climax to what had otherwise been a fantastic year, there were still more than enough positives for South Africa to take away from 2018 as referee Luke Pearce blew the final whistle on the Springboks season.

In short, a season that has had far more highs than lows, especially when compared to the rather dismal state of affairs the Springboks found themselves in heading into 2018. Life under new Coach Rassie Erasmus has produced a renaissance in Springbok rugby and at the same time unearthed some genuine world-class talent. There is still plenty of work to do, but there are few, ourselves included, who would doubt the legitimacy of South Africa’s challenge for Webb Ellis glory come September. South Africa are back, make no mistake and mean business. They have an enviable balance of youth and experience, a devastating but increasingly mobile forward pack, a half back combination that finally works and a truly gifted set of backs. If any of their opponents in Japan fail to take them seriously they will end up paying a heavy price. If South Africa can build on the momentum gained in 2018 there is no reason why it couldn’t be them instead of either New Zealand or Ireland who are hoisting aloft the Webb Ellis trophy on November 2nd.

Player of the year – Faf de Klerk

The pint-sized scrum half was a revelation in the Springbok jersey in 2018. As regular readers know, we are huge fans of the South African number nine and his time playing for English Premiership side Sale Sharks has paid huge dividends. South Africa’s version of a rugby playing Jack Russell is completely fearless, and his ability to keep opposition defences guessing along with a lightning quick delivery was a joy to watch this year. The ability to tackle players more than twice his size and actually to bring them to the ground single-handed is the mark of a very special player, and someone able to punch way above their weight. His obvious enthusiasm for his role is infectious and clearly rubs off on his teammates. In short, expect him to be just as much a part of the South African success story in 2019 as he was in 2018.

Player to watch in 2019 – Aphiwe Dyantyi

South Africa’s try seeking missile had us mesmerised at times in 2018. An exceptionally gifted footballer with some sublime hands and feet skills, Dyantyi featured regularly in press releases about Springbok exploits in 2018 and expect more of the same this year. With his defensive abilities improving with every outing and complimenting his lethal attacking skills in space, this is a player you won’t want to miss both in the Rugby Championship and South Africa’s World Cup campaign in Japan this year.

Match of the year – New Zealand vs South Africa – Wellington – September 15th – New Zealand 34/South Africa 36

We have run out of superlatives, for what we consider to have been THE Test match of 2018. South Africa’s skill and heroics for the full eighty minutes were something to behold. As one of Test Rugby’s greatest rivalries was reborn with a vengeance, this match and South Africa’s performance in it, will be in our video libraries for many years to come.

Endnote

Well that’s it for 2018. Our focus now shifts wholeheartedly to the Six Nations for the next two months. We’ll have our thoughts on this weekend’s opening round of the classic tournament out by this Thursday night. Stay tuned and once again thanks for all the great support last year!

As we do at the end of every year and with their seasons over till February, we look back at the highs and lows of the Southern Hemisphere season and hand out our verdicts on the big four Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. With less than nine months left before the biggest rugby show on earth, 2018 was a critical year for all four countries and much was learnt about the pecking order in International Rugby and what we might expect from these four heavyweights once business gets underway in Japan in September.

We’ll be the first to admit it’s completely subjective based on what we saw and where in our humble opinions it leaves the teams heading into 2019. We highlight the match we most enjoyed from each of the teams and we try to pick the player who made the greatest contribution to their national cause in 2018 as well as the player that we feel is most likely to catch the eye in 2019. So take from it what you will but without any further ado let’s get into it.

New Zealand – 8/10

It was an interesting year for New Zealand whichever way you cut it. They are clearly still the team to beat in world rugby, but their dominance was challenged in 2018, make no mistake. While they are still a truly remarkable team, we found out this past year, that if they are put under pressure they too can join the ranks of the mortals. Ireland and South Africa put them to the sternest of Tests, and in South Africa’s case pulled off the unthinkable by actually beating the All Blacks in New Zealand – something which New Zealand’s opponents have only managed to pull off a grand total of five times in the last ten years. New Zealand’s losses to South Africa and Ireland, along with their scare from England had many making statements that the All Blacks were vulnerable or that their glory days were on the wane. To be honest from what we saw of them in action we find such statements beyond premature. New Zealand are still a formidable force and without doubt still front-runners to lift the Webb Ellis trophy in Japan this year for the third consecutive time. Yes this year proved that they can be beaten, but it is going to take a very remarkable team to knock them out of the World Cup.

New Zealand’s season got off to an emphatic start, as expected, they put a weary touring French team to the sword, and won all three Tests of their June series. However, some of the controversies surrounding refereeing decisions in the opening match meant there was a slight cloud hanging over an otherwise emphatic victory. The second Test was a much tighter affair, but once again New Zealand were masters of composure under pressure as they sealed a convincing win and the series. In the final Test, the All Blacks put their foot flat to the floor and in the second half simply left an exhausted French team in their dust as they ran in 7 superb tries to France’s 2. It is always hard to gauge how teams stand after having played France, as Les Bleus traditionally field poor touring teams, mainly due to the fact that players are invariably exhausted after one of the longest and most gruelling domestic club seasons in the professional era. However, the second Test did see New Zealand make a host of  uncharacteristic errors, some of which could be attributed to the absence of key players such as lock Brodie Retallick and Captain and number 8 Kieran Read.

Next up it was the annual Rugby Championship, which also saw the return of Retallick and Read. The opening match against Australia, which also was the first of the three annual Bledisloe Cup matches, saw New Zealand eventually blow off the cobwebs and get back to their best. As a result it left few of us in doubt that the tournament would be theirs once more as it has been since the last World Cup. Australia then travelled to Auckland’s Eden Park where they were given a comprehensive schooling by New Zealand fly half Beauden Barrett as the number 10 ran in a remarkable four tries.

From there New Zealand played host to a feisty Pumas side who kept them honest until the 70th minute, at which point they finally managed to unlock the Pumas defences and once more hit their customary stride. A South African side that had been written off were their next visitors in Wellington, and the result was arguably THE Test match of the year. The historic and proud rivalry between these two rugby heavyweights was restored during the course of the match in an epic performance from both teams. South Africa gave as good as they got and put the All Blacks under enormous pressure which forced them into countless mistakes, as New Zealand found themselves in the rare position of having to chase an exceptionally healthy Springbok lead. The All Blacks as they traditionally do, came back with a vengeance in the second half, and for a good ten minutes of the final quarter they were up against a Springbok side down to fourteen men. In an absolutely heroic defensive display, South Africa managed to withstand a continual assault by the All Blacks and emerge the narrowest of winners by 36-34. New Zealand were clearly rattled by the defeat, but you never got the feeling that it would last for long.

Sure enough New Zealand came back firing as they travelled to Argentina and got the better of another feisty performance from the Pumas. However, New Zealand destroyed Argentina’s efforts in the set pieces. With a game to spare they now had the Rugby Championship sewn up, but were clearly keen to settle the score in the final match of the tournament, as they travelled to South Africa to face a Springbok side brimming with confidence. It was another titanic struggle that once more lived up to the pedigree of the rivalry between the two, but this time New Zealand would walk away the victors in a very tight contest at 32-30 in the All Blacks favor.

New Zealand continued their travels as they headed to Japan for a taste of what it would be like to play in the forthcoming World Cup. In the final Bledisloe Cup match they demolished a hapless Wallaby side, in front of an ecstatic Japanese crowd. Next up they took on this year’s World Cup hosts Japan. While it was a third string All Black side as the team’s heavyweights travelled to Europe, it reinforced the staggering depth New Zealand has at its disposal. Japan put up a brave fight at times but the result was never in doubt and the All Blacks ran in an emphatic victory beating their hosts 69-31.

The first match of their end of year European tour was against an English side, that much like South Africa earlier in the year, many had written off. In appalling weather conditions New Zealand once more found themselves under the kosh of a resurgent England. Once again the match was marred by controversy sparked by the officials, but New Zealand did manage to claw themselves back into a match that initially looked beyond them. It was Brodie Retallick’s complete dismantling of the English lineouts that set the All Blacks back on course. However, it had been a serious scare and the match was on a knife-edge for the full eighty minutes, and New Zealand breathed a sigh of relief as the final whistle saw them emerge the winners by the narrowest of margins at 16-15. They were aware that they had been given a serious reality check ahead of one of the most anticipated fixtures of the year, their clash with the second best side in the world Ireland in Dublin the following weekend.

The dustup in Dublin did not disappoint, and was one of the year’s epic Tests. New Zealand threw the kitchen sink at a very disciplined and structured Irish outfit, but the All Blacks simply couldn’t wear them down. Furthermore, New Zealand found themselves on the wrong side of the pressure curve for the full eighty minutes. What pressure New Zealand did manage to exert was absorbed with ease by Ireland, while New Zealand where clearly finding the relentless physicality and probing of their defences by Ireland exhausting – something they simply haven’t been used to in the last four years. Ireland recorded only their second victory over the All Blacks, and New Zealand were left to lick their wounds with the prospect of a dead rubber match against Italy in which to regroup.

As expected an angry All Black side, still smarting from the Dublin defeat, put a helpless Italian side to the sword in Rome, as the hosts appeared to be the sacrificial lambs of tournaments similar to what would have taken place in the Coliseum just down the road a few thousand years ago. The 66-3 thrashing by the All Blacks clearly took some of the sting out of the loss to the Irish, but that and the loss to South Africa on home soil, had clearly given the world’s number one side some much-needed food for thought.

New Zealand are still the force to be reckoned with by everyone else if they want to judge how far they have come since the last World Cup. Watch any All Black performance this year, even their two losses, and you will still see some breathtaking skills on display. Their lofty position at the top of the world rankings for so long now, has provided an enormous incentive for the rest of the world to catch up, which it would appear to be finally doing. Ireland are clearly their biggest threat, but South Africa has also proved that they can derail the All Black juggernaut. Throw England and Wales into the mix and all of a sudden the World Cup doesn’t look so comfortable any more for New Zealand. However, we would argue that 2018 was the best thing that could happen in terms of New Zealand’s preparations for the World Cup. Gone are any illusions of complacency, even if there were any there to start with. The All Blacks have proved time and again that once the rest of the world does eventually catch up with them, they are masters at reinventing themselves all over again. Few sides are better at going back to the drawing board and fixing whatever weaknesses they have discovered about themselves and emerging twice as strong. In short, 2018 was a year in which the All Blacks saw themselves shaken but not stirred. Rugby World Cup 2019 you have been warned!

Player of the year – Brodie Retallick

Although he missed the June series against France, the return of the giant second rower for the Rugby Championship reaffirmed how important he is to New Zealand’s efforts. He made our Team of the Year with ease and quite simply terrified the opposition all year-long. He single-handedly turned around New Zealand’s fortunes at Twickenham in a match which they were struggling to assert their authority. A master of the set pieces and utterly devastating in the loose this is clearly one of Test rugby’s most dangerous commodities, and is likely to leave most opposition defence coaches with endless sleepless nights in 2019.

Player to watch in 2019 – Jack Goodhue

We’d heard great things about the Crusaders youngster, and when he showed what he could do in the third Test against France, it was clear that all the hype surrounding the 23-year-old centre was completely justified. While those who have read our musings over the last few years know, we are of the opinion that Sonny Bill Williams is a tad over rated and slightly one-dimensional. Goodhue possesses the wrecking ball physical ability of Williams, some fancy foot work and is in our opinion a much more complete footballer. Allied to the highly experienced Ryan Crotty, Goodhue formed a lethal partnership at centre this year. Expect to see Goodhue be one of the key talking points of New Zealand’s buildup to this year’s World Cup as well as grabbing some major press attention once the tournament gets underway.

Match of the year – South Africa vs New Zealand – Pretoria – October 6th – South Africa 30/New Zealand 32

This match had just as much intensity as the one between these age-old rivals that saw New Zealand concede a rare defeat on home soil a few weeks earlier. It was another epic struggle which ensured that Tests between these two are likely be some of the most anticipated events of the Test calendar once more. When it comes to Test Rugby as a spectacle it doesn’t get much better than this! Here’s hoping that 2019 will produce similar high-octane encounters between these two.

Next up – South Africa and then into the Six Nations!

 

 

 

As we do at the end of every year and with their seasons over till February, we look back at the highs and lows of the Southern Hemisphere season and hand out our verdicts on the big four Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. With less than nine months left before the biggest rugby show on earth, 2018 was a critical year for all four countries and much was learnt about the pecking order in International Rugby, and what we might expect from these four heavyweights once business gets underway in Japan in September.

We’ll be the first to admit it’s completely subjective based on what we saw and where in our humble opinions it leaves the teams heading into 2019. We highlight the match we most enjoyed from each of the teams and we try to pick the player who made the greatest contribution to their national cause in 2018 as well as the player that we feel is most likely to catch the eye in 2019. So take from it what you will but without any further ado let’s get into it.

Australia – 4/10

No matter which way you cut it, 2018 was a truly dismal year for Australian Rugby. Of 13 Tests played the Wallabies managed a paltry 4 wins, and for much of the year looked in a complete state of disarray on and off the pitch. Meanwhile constant tinkering with the make up and balance of the squad, a misguided obsession with playing players out of position and a game plan that none of the players seemed to understand meant that Australia in 2018 looked a shadow of the great Wallaby teams of old. Rarely getting the basics right and attempting to play what seemed to be an overly complicated game plan without the requisite skills, meant that by their final Test of the year against England, all the players really wanted to do was pack their bags and forget about 2018 as quickly as possible. All this confusion heightened calls for Coach Michael Cheika to step down and based on the results of 2018 it was hard to argue against it, even if it meant a wholesale change in the coaching setup at such a critical juncture in Australia’s World Cup preparation. Cheika has miraculously survived, but is left with very little time and games available to turn things around before the Wallabies travel to Japan in September.

Australia got their 2018 season underway in June, with a much-anticipated three Test series against Ireland. The opening match gave Australian supporters much to cheer about. Ireland looked rusty and Australia were clearly the better side and walked away with a stylish and convincing win. However, Ireland were back to their best in the second Test, and Ireland simply looked better at the basics while Australia although impressive in attack all too often tended to over complicate things. With the series level, Australia headed into the third and final Test rattled but clearly confident of their ability to take the series. They certainly took the game to Ireland, but once again Ireland just seemed the more composed of the two sides, and Sexton’s boot ensured that Ireland had the edge when it came to vital points on offer. Nevertheless, it had been a highly entertaining series and although Australia were not the victors there were still plenty of positives on display to give one cause to think that 2018 would be the year where the Wallabies really started to hit their straps in time for the World Cup.

The Rugby Championship/Bledisloe Cup however would sadly shatter that sense of optimism for the most part. Australia’s opening game against New Zealand showed a glimmer of hope in the first 40 minutes, but after that it was all one way traffic favoring the Men in Black. The return fixture at Eden Park did nothing to dispel the growing sense of doom pervading the Australian camp as the All Blacks ultimately ran rings around a Wallaby side that gradually imploded as the match wore on.

The next two rounds of the Championship would produce one of Australia’s best performances of the year and one of their worst. In the match against South Africa, the Wallabies were without three key players David Pocock, Israel Folau and Adam Coleman. However, they started the match at an intense tempo and managed to maintain it coupled to some solid defence that managed to hold a Springbok team at bay, especially in the final ten minutes. It wasn’t pretty at times, but given their injury list the Wallabies showed some real character to get the win. Things would then unravel dramatically a week later with the visit of the Pumas. Once again there was some enterprising play from the Australians but the Pumas just looked that more clinical and sure of what they were trying to do. Australia’s continued experiment with Kurtley Beale at fly half and Israel Folau on the wing was clearly not working with neither player confident or sure of their roles. Furthermore, when Australia did have chances they were usually butchered by attempting plays that appeared far more complicated than they needed to be. Argentina’s defence in the final ten minutes was rock solid despite a concerted Australian assault, and they ultimately took the spoils as Australia saw yet another match go begging.

The final two rounds of the Rugby Championship clearly demonstrated the crisis in confidence that was starting to pervade the Wallaby camp. Even with the Springboks down to 14 men in the final quarter the Wallabies simply could not get across the South African whitewash and once more looked confused as to what kind of game they were supposed to be playing as the Folau/Beale experiment continued to trip over its own feet. Furthermore the Wallabies were getting seriously pushed around in the forward battles as they found themselves increasingly starved of possession. Their final match of the Championship against Argentina was very much a match of two halves. In the first half Australia were beyond dire. After an absolute roasting in the changing room at half time by Coach Michael Cheika, Australia emerged a side transformed and one which had clearly had the fear of God put into them. They produced arguably their best forty minutes of 2018 and ultimately THE comeback of the year to seal the match in their favor at 45-34, after trailing the Pumas 31-7 at half time. It showed what Australia can do with their gifted set of backs by keeping it simple and their forwards getting the basics right. It was clean and uncomplicated rugby and it worked like a charm.

Australia then travelled to Japan to get a taste of the atmosphere for the World Cup for the final Bledisloe Cup match. However, once again for reasons best known to himself, Coach Michael Cheika continued to tinker and this time put Israel Folau at centre, having been unhappy with the experiment of having him on the wing. Australia looked disorganised and their discipline also started to fall apart and the All Blacks ran out comfortable winners at 37-20. A clearly frustrated Wallaby side then headed to Europe for three Tests, starting with Wales. Australia had an enviable record at the Principality Stadium and were also buoyed by having beaten Wales in their last 13 encounters. Surely the record was set to be broken and while as a spectacle the game provided very little, Wales got the better of a gruelling arm wrestle.

Australia then travelled to Italy for a game they simply had to win, as a loss to the Azurri would have been the most telling indictment of how far the Wallabies had fallen in 2018. Once again although not the most riveting of games from a spectator point of view, and despite some costly lapses in discipline by Australia, the Wallabies still emerged comfortable winners and thus avoided a banana skin that it would have been hard for them to recover from. Their final Test of a turgid 2018 was against an English side clearly on the rebound from their own troubled 12 months. England put in a rampant display against a Wallaby side that had clearly run out of motivation and ideas and just wanted a miserable year to end. While Israel Folau was back to his regular position at fullback and scored both of Australia’s tries as a result, it was a lacklustre Australian effort compared to a powerhouse English performance. Australia quietly slipped away to Heathrow and the long journey home to reflect on a year they no doubt would rather forget as quickly as possible.

Hopefully all the hard knocks Australia took this year will have provided them with some valuable lessons. They are likely to play with a greater sense of purpose this year, and most likely go back to the basics and tried and trusted combinations of players in positions they are more comfortable with. There was a great deal of experimentation by Australia in 2018, and in general most of it did not work, but better to find that out now than during the World Cup. So for 2019 Australia should revert to what works best to unleash a lethal set of backs, shore up the discipline and make sure the first and second rows can compete with the world’s best. The imbalance in Australia’s back row also needs to be addressed with Michael Hooper needing to get back to his best and the team as a whole to stop relying on the outstanding David Pocock to single-handedly produce miracles for them.

With Rugby Union continuing to be in a state of crisis in Australia, as Australian sides continue to fare poorly in Super Rugby coupled to a relatively small player base as opposed to other national sports, it will be a challenge for Australia to really develop the depth needed to compete at this year’s World Cup. Australia can put out a very good match day 23, but once the inevitable injuries of a World Cup campaign kick in we can’t help feeling that Australia will continue to be found wanting in 2019 in terms of depth. While we were not one of the voices baying for Michael Cheika’s head last year, and are glad for both him and Australia that he will remain in charge till the conclusion of the World Cup, he really needs to demonstrate that he has taken the painful lessons of 2018 for both himself and his charges on board. If he and his team can do that and some much-needed depth can be found in the next nine months, then there is no reason that Australia cannot be the competitive force they always are come the World Cup – but after 2018 there is no denying it is a VERY tall order indeed!

Player of the year – David Pocock

Pocock’s return from injury this year was a godsend for the Wallabies and this outstanding player did not disappoint. However, at times his team lost the plot while expecting him to singlehandedly turn matches around. As a player who puts his body on the line like few others, Pocock did not disappoint but it clearly took its toll, as he was clearly battling through the pain barrier at times. Given his injury history it remains to be seen how much longer he can continue in this Superman role, and the rest of his team really need to step up and shoulder the burden. Otherwise we fear that one of Australia’s most valuable players may simply not make it to the World Cup this year. By far Australia’s best player even in some of their more dire performances in 2018, Pocock remains Australia’s most valuable commodity.

Player to watch in 2019 – Jack Maddocks

Maddocks’ one try against New Zealand in the opening Bledisloe Cup match epitomised the depth that Australia needs to develop and why Maddocks is such a key player in that regard. The utility back may not have been able to replicate that performance in subsequent games in 2018, and he clearly has a lot to learn defensively, but there is a real spark here with a player able to play a wide variety of positions and thus provide valuable cover from the bench for the World Cup. Definitely one to watch in 2019 and hopefully Australia can find a few more like him.

Match of the year – Argentina vs Australia – Salta – October 6th – Australia 45/Argentina 34

Yes there is no denying that Australia’s first half performance was appalling in this match, but you still have to hand it to them for one of the greatest comebacks in a second half that we have seen in a long time. Furthermore, it epitomised that although shaken this Wallaby side is far from down and out, and when on song can produce some truly breathtaking attacking rugby. As a result it would be foolish to write them off in this year’s World Cup despite the tribulations of 2018. They have plenty of work to do, but as this match showed, put some fire in their bellies and they are a very dangerous side.

Next up – New Zealand!

As we do at the end of every year with their seasons over till February, we look back at the highs and lows of the Southern Hemisphere season and hand out our verdicts on the big four Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. With less than nine months left before the biggest rugby show on earth, 2018 was a critical year for all four countries and much was learnt about the pecking order in International Rugby, and what we might expect from these four heavyweights once business gets underway in Japan in September.

We’ll be the first to admit it’s completely subjective based on what we saw and where in our humble opinions it leaves the teams heading into 2019. We highlight the match we most enjoyed from each of the teams and we try to pick the player who made the greatest contribution to their national cause in 2018 as well as the player that we feel is most likely to catch the eye in 2019. So take from it what you will but without any further ado let’s get into it.

Argentina – 7/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Player of the year – Nicolas Sanchez

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

Player to watch in 2019 – Bautista Delguy

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

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

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

Next up – Australia!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whichever way you cut it – 2018 was a long and painful year for Canada and one which they will no doubt want to forget. It was salvaged at the death by a solid performance in the World Cup repechage tournament, which saw them snatch the last place up for grabs in this year’s global showdown in Japan. However, apart from that Canada’s track record in 2018 makes for depressing reading. 11 matches played, 6 lost and 5 won doesn’t seem so bad on paper but of the six they lost 2 were critical and almost lost Canada a place in the World Cup. A summer series saw Canada whitewashed, and the team appear rudderless in both shape and direction. They acquitted themselves well in their bid to secure a place in the World Cup in November in three matches played in France, but this was tempered by the fact that at one point this year Canada sank in the world rankings to 23. At the time of writing they still only sit at 20. This is a side that now finds itself sitting in a Pool with two of Test Rugby’s genuine contenders for World Cup glory this year – New Zealand and South Africa. The World Cup always seems to produce something special from Canada despite the odds, but there is no denying that after 2018, Canada and Coach Kingsley Jones have a phenomenal amount of work to get through in only nine months to make Canada genuinely competitive once more.

Canada – 4/10

Like we say it was hard to find positives this year for Canada, and we’re hoping that the spark we saw in November in France carries through into Canada’s opening games of a World Cup year, as they head into the Americas Rugby Championship in two weeks time.

Canada’s opening shots of 2018 in the Americas Rugby Championship however, did little to inspire confidence. Their first game of the year at home against Uruguay saw them at sixes and sevens as an exciting and powerful Uruguayan side ran rings around them. In the return fixture a week later in Uruguay, which also happened to be a World Cup qualifier, things appeared to be looking up as Canada ran Uruguay close and ultimately only lost by one point, but poor decision-making and discipline cost them a match they could and should have won. Their misery on the road continued as they were given a schooling by the USA. Returning home they managed to put Brazil to the sword, but then returning to South America were made to look like amateurs once more by Argentina. Pride was restored through beating Chile by a comfortable margin but they returned home at the end of the tournament having to settle for a mediocre fourth place on the table.

June saw Canada play a summer series of three home tests which Canada will want to forget. Being comprehensively thrashed by Scotland, Russia and the USA at home left the side completely demoralised, and Canadian fans with very little to cheer about. Furthermore Canada lost their second chance at World Cup qualification in the heavy defeat to the USA. Furthermore, to add insult to injury Canada’s place in the world rankings slipped to a desultory 23, the lowest it’s been in as long as we can remember. Canada simply looked bereft of ideas in all three matches coupled to a discipline problem that left you wondering if any of the players had ever seen a rule book. There were a few standout performances, but all too often it was left to the likes of players such as DTH van der Merwe to single-handedly pull Canada out of the fire. As good as such players are, without a team behind them it simply left with them with too much to do.

Consequently, it was with a sense of trepidation that Canadian supporters looked ahead to Canada’s last chance to qualify for this year’s World Cup in a repechage tournament to be held in France in November of 2018, between Kenya, Canada and Hong Kong. All games were played in Marseille and Canada was fortunate that, as the tournament fell into the official November Test window, it was able to bring in the services of its big guns who regularly ply their trade with major European club teams. As a result the likes of Taylor Paris, Tyler Ardron and DTH van der Merwe amongst a notable few were on hand.

Canada got proceedings under way with a convincing win over Kenya. Next up were Germany and despite the match being much closer Canada still walked away comfortable winners. Their final challenge saw them handle a spirited challenge from Hong Kong, but two superb tries from Van der Merwe helped Canada emerge the victors and thus secure their tickets to Japan and the World Cup. It was an uplifting performance from Canada but which also highlighted the critical importance of Canada’s European based players, without whom results seem rather few and far between. Furthermore, although Canada’s three opponents in the repechage were worthy challengers they are teams that in the past Canada would have dispatched with ease, and run in much larger scorelines. Canada find themselves arguably in one of the World Cup’s Pools of death. South Africa and New Zealand are simply out of reach while Canada has never beaten Italy. Their only Tier 2 opponent Namibia is a feisty opponent and Canada just emerged the victors in a tight tussle the last time these two countries met in 2014.

In short, Canada have their work cut out for them in 2019 in order to get things right for the World Cup. Ahead of them lies the opportunity to get some good mileage under their belt in the Americas Rugby Championship, with some real quality opposition in the shape of Argentina and the USA. The summer sees them travel to the US and then the Pacific Islands in this year’s edition of the Pacific Nations Cup, where they meet the Eagles, Fiji and Tonga. If they can get through this daunting challenge in good shape, then they will have had some solid preparation for both their target match in the World Cup against Namibia as well as hopefully a credible challenge to Italy.

There is some clear and obvious talent in Canadian rugby, both in terms of seasoned veterans and promising youngsters. While the coaching setup appears to have struggled, November showed that with the right mix of players things did seem to come together in that department. However, management of the sport as a whole in Canada and of the national team seems to be a disaster, as evidenced by the ongoing disputes with reimbursement for the sevens team, as well as very little effort at structuring the XV a side game in a way that makes Canada a Tier 2 force to be reckoned with as in years gone by.

2019 will be one of the most important years in Canadian rugby history. With the sport seemingly in free fall at a national level, continued failure this year is likely to kill off what remaining interest there is in the sport in Canada. As evidenced by the growth in popularity of sports such as rugby league, most notably the success of Toronto’s Wolfpack team, Rugby Canada really has to seize the opportunity provided by this World Cup with both hands. Should Canada fail to show up and catch the eye like they did at the last tournament in 2015, then it could well be the beginning of a very long and lonely period in the wilderness of the lower rungs of Tier 2 International Rugby for Canada. Despite the success in France last November, it would still appear that Canada will be up against it again this year. However, we reserve judgement till the results of the forthcoming Americas Rugby Championship are in. If Canada can at least finish in a strong second or third place in this tournament over the course of the next two months, then we like most supporters in this country will breathe a much-needed sigh of relief!

Player of the year – DTH Van Der Merwe

Every time he plays he seems to singlehandedly reverse the rot that has set into Canadian rugby. Blessed with some exceptional pace and skill, he is without doubt Canada’s finest player and one who consistently delivers results for a beleaguered national side – something he has been doing for quite some time now. At 32 this will probably be his last World Cup, but expect the veteran winger to sign off with a bang!

Player to watch in 2019 – Brock Staller

Blessed with a handy boot and an exceptional turn of speed when counterattacking from deep, the powerful utility back caught our eye every time he turned out for Canada this year. With his defence improving with each outing, we expect to see him play a very big part in Canada’s World Cup plans, and his reliability from the kicking tee help ensure that Canada makes a healthy return to being a solid Tier 2 opponent. If Canada can get their coaching structures right, Staller is a player who is likely to really come on song in 2019.

Match of the year – Canada vs Hong Kong – Marseille – November 24th – Canada 27/Hong Kong 10

Canada’s last game of the year finally gave us something to cheer about as they put in a solid performance to beat Hong Kong. It was a fitting end to a run of three straight victories in November and best of all ensured that after all the heartache of 2018, the last spot up for grabs at the World Cup belonged to Canada. The smiles on the players’ faces at the final whistle were a mixture of relief and happiness that a tough year was able to end so positively. From here it’s hopefully onwards and upwards for a team that in the past has been able to consistently punch way above its weight!

Next up – Argentina!

As we like to do once the year is done and dusted, we look back at a handful of Tier 2 countries who caught our eye this past year using our usual report card system. Furthermore, with the added frisson of a World Cup in prospect at the end of this year, we’ve chosen the four Tier 2 countries who are most likely to cause problems for the bigger teams in the Pool stages of this year’s global showdown in Japan. Our candidates for top troublemakers in the Pool stages of the World Cup this year are Japan, USA, Georgia and Fiji.

So without further ado, here are our four teams to watch.

Japan – 8/10

Japan only played five Tests in 2018, we’re not including their November match against a World XV, which for a country that is hosting the World Cup this year seemed slightly amiss. However, in all five outings Japan acquitted themselves well and left us in no doubt that at home and in front of an ecstatic crowd they will need to be taken very seriously indeed by their pool rivals in this year’s global showdown in the Brave Blossoms own backyard. Expect Ireland and Scotland as pool favourites to field their strongest sides against Japan to avoid a potentially embarrassing hiccough on their way to the knockout stages – all and sundry being painfully aware of South Africa’s wake up call at the last World Cup courtesy of the Japanese.

Japan got their 2018 campaign underway in a Two Test home series against Italy. The first match saw them comprehensively dispatch a strong Italian effort in the final quarter, with fly half Yu Tamura putting in some exquisite place kicking which showed just how dangerous Japan can be on attack and in space. The second fixture a week later saw Italy just manage to settle the score, as they got the better of another spirited Japanese challenge. Japan scored two brilliant tries in quick succession in the final quarter to get themselves right back in the match and set up a thrilling finale. Japan’s discipline let them down at times in the match which ultimately cost them. However, what both Tests showed is that Japan are perhaps at their strongest and most dangerous in the final quarter. As a result their pool opponents this year in the World Cup will need their wits about them for the full eighty minutes, as any lapses in concentration could prove fatal against a team that is able to produce some spectacular attacking rugby.

Next up for Japan was their final Test of the June series against fellow Tier Two heavyweights Georgia. Once more it was a sublime second half performance which saw Japan leave Georgia in their dust, as the brave Blossoms ran in three superb tries and totally eclipsed their visitors at the final whistle by 28-0.

Japan’s next encounter was a tall order as they played host to the world’s number 1 side New Zealand. While it may not have been a full strength All Black side it was still a signficant achievement for Japan to run in five tries against the world’s best.

Next it was off to England for November and a match at Twickenham. Japan may have ultimately come short against England, and sadly were unable to replicate their second half prowess of earlier in the year, but their dominance of England in the first half and their resulting well-earned lead at half time, went to show what a threat Japan will pose this year at the World Cup. Japan managed to hold onto that lead until just short of the final quarter, but there is no doubt they had one of Rugby’s superpowers on the ropes for a good hour. Furthermore to achieve that kind of dominance on the road can only make you wonder what they will be able to do at home come the World Cup. However, Japan will need to find that final quarter big match temperament, as there is no denying that once England clicked into gear in the final twenty minutes they ran away with the match and Japan was clearly bereft of ideas in response.

Japan’s last match of the year was an entertaining romp against fellow World Cup Pool A rivals Russia in Gloucester. It was a tight affair in the first half but there is no denying that Japan rediscovered their second half form and ran in three tries to Russia’s one, sealing the match and providing a fitting end to a remarkable year for Japanese rugby, and one which will surely put them in great shape as hosts of this year’s World Cup. Ireland, and Scotland in particular, will need to be wary of the Brave Blossoms. Ireland have the fortune of dealing with the Japanese threat after their opening game against Scotland. The Scots however, have to wait till the end of the pool stages and their final match before they are able to confront Japan. If injuries have not been kind to Scotland in the pool stages, Japan are in with a definite chance of reaching the knockout stages of the World Cup for the first time in their history. Will fortune favor the Brave Blossoms? We can’t wait to find out!

Player of the year – Michael Leitch

Japan’s Captain extraordinaire was the stuff of legends in 2018. Constantly in the thick of the action and leading by example, Leitch put in some massive and inspirational performances for his team this year. As an example of a Captain who leads from the front there are few better examples than Michael Leitch. His efforts in the England game alone were enough to make him one of the standout players of 2018. He is clearly a talisman for his team, and provided he can steer clear of injury between now and that all important fixture with Scotland, he could well make history for his adopted country in 2019.

Player to watch in 2019 – Rikiya Matsuda

At 24 years of age and only a handful of caps to his name, Matsuda is one of Japan’s rapidly rising stars of the future. A master of the line break, his scintillating club form is likely to explode onto the international stage this year, especially in front of his home crowd at this year’s World Cup. One of those players who is absolutely lethal in any kind of space, as well as possessing a handy boot when it comes time for goal kicking duties, Matsuda is more than likely to get some headline space this year in the Brave Blossoms jersey.

Match of the year – England vs Japan – Twickenham – November 17th – England 35/Japan 15

The thriller at Twickenham really exemplified just how far Japan have come and how much of a threat they are likely to be on home soil come the World Cup. Despite the ultimate loss, it was without doubt the highlight of Japan’s 2018 season as their dominance of  England in the first half and their well-earned lead at the break made all of us sit up and take notice. The fact that Japan were well in the match until the final twenty minutes, will no doubt set alarm bells ringing in the Irish and Scottish camps as they are clearly the two heavyweights’ most dangerous opponent in Pool A should they let their concentration slip. Japan are only going to get better, and at home the miracle against South Africa we saw in the last World Cup is even more of a possibility should Ireland or Scotland not take them seriously.

USA – 9/10

11 games played in 2018, we’re not counting the game against the Maori All Blacks, and only one lost. Whichever way you cut it, that’s a pretty impressive record and one which continues to reinforce the belief that Rugby in the US is clearly developing some unstoppable momentum. The tight win against Scotland was clearly the highpoint of the year for the USA, and although the Scottish team had more of an experimental feel to it, it was still boasting some of the world’s best as a certain Stuart Hogg was wearing the number 15 jersey. Furthermore many of those same Scottish players are causing havoc at club level in Europe this year. The bottom line is that the USA can be competitive and although their final game of the year against Ireland may have been a bridge too far, there is no doubt that their heavyweight Pool C opponents in this year’s World Cup, England, France and Argentina will not be taking the threat they pose lightly.

The USA started their 2018 campaign in fine form as they recorded a clean sweep of the Americas Rugby Championship and were crowned champions for the second time in a row. In a feisty opener with Argentina, the USA were ultimately the better side. From here the Eagles simply got better and better as they summarily dispatched Canada, Chile, Brazil and Uruguay.

June saw the USA host Russia in a completely one-sided contest as the Eagles ran in 9 tries to the Russians one. Next up was the USA’s historic win over Scotland and their first ever win over a Tier 1 nation. Scotland fought them to the very last whistle as evidenced by the scoreline standing at 30-29 in favor of the Americans. The USA kept their composure in a very physical and tense contest and showed the kind of big match temperament they will need this autumn in Japan. Their final match of the month saw them demolish their age-old rivals Canada, and send the Canadians on their way to a repechage tournament for the last spot up for grabs in this year’s World Cup with the USA taking the much coveted Americas 1 spot.

A European tour in November continued to build on the Eagles remarkable run of form in 2018. This was put to the test initially against Samoa, which saw the Americans just edge out the Pacific Islanders by one point in a scoreline which was a mirror image of the Scottish Test earlier in the year. They then proceeded to dispatch Romania with ease before ending their year in Dublin. Sadly for the Americans this was perhaps a sobering way to end an otherwise remarkable year, as they were given a rather rude schooling by the Irish. The Men in Green ran in 8 tries to the Americans two, and sadly the USA never really looked in contention. Ireland ran proceedings from start to finish and the Eagles will know that they will need to step it up several gears, especially defensively, if they are to stand any chance against the strike threats that their Pool opponents England, France and Argentina have at their disposal.

While it has been a remarkable year for the USA, the Irish Test proved that there is still plenty of work for Coach Gary Gold to do to get the Eagles to the point where they can cause upsets on a regular basis. Their World Cup Pool is challenging to say the least, with Argentina starting to peak at just the right time, while England are on the rebound and France are once again the dark horse they invariably tend to be at World Cup time. If the USA were to finish third in such a group then it would be a notable achievement and help to consolidate and build on the growing interest in the game in the US. While we can’t help feeling that a place in the knockout stages is beyond their reach this year, we expect them to make life exceptionally difficult for their opponents in some highly entertaining matches. When the USA is playing in Japan at the end of the year you’re probably not going to want to miss it.

Player of the year – Cameron Dolan

The big number eight was at the centre of everything the USA did well this year, and in the game against Scotland in particular he put in a massive shift.  Highly mobile and very effective in the loose Dolan is exactly the kind of workhorse and solid back row platform teams need at this level. A reliable and consistent player that the USA will be expecting big things from come the World Cup.

Player to watch in 2019 – Will Hooley

Although the fly half until recently, has had to live in the shadow of AJ MacGinty, he is rapidly becoming an exceptional understudy and lends some real depth to the USA’s stocks at fly half. He is likely to get much more game time in the runup to the World Cup and expect to see him featuring heavily in the USA’s forthcoming Americas Rugby Championship as the Eagles look for a third consecutive title, and a fitting start to a World Cup year.

Match of the year – USA vs Scoltand – Houston – June 16th – USA 30/Scotland 29

Definitely the highlight of the year for a remarkable USA effort. Pushed to the absolute limits by the Scots, the Eagles managed to hang on and claim an historic victory. It’s precisely this kind of grit and determination that they will need against three exceptionally challenging opponents in this year’s World Cup. This is definitely a team on the up and up and the prospect of a big upset at this year’s World Cup is definitely not beyond the realm of possibility for Coach Gary Gold and his Eagles.

Georgia – 7/10

Georgia’s campaign started well with a comprehensive showing in the Rugby Europe Championship. With a solid Grand Slam under their belt they remained undefeated, and were clearly in a league of their own. All of which served to solidify their claim for a shot at inclusion in Europe’s premier tournament the Six Nations. While the debate continues, there is no denying that Georgia’s progress has been commendable, though whether they are ready for inclusion at this stage is likely to remain in doubt until they can beat Italy on a regular basis. However, of one thing we can be certain, while Georgia may still possess a forwards heavy game, there is no denying that they now have a much more balanced game with some equally talented players in the backs.

Next up for Georgia was a trip to the Pacific Islands in June, for a modified version of the annual Pacific Nations Cup, with Georgia being the only participant not from the Islands. Playing in the heat of the Islands is always a challenge and Georgia clearly struggled to find their feet at times. They were able to put up a credible showing against Tonga, and squeaked out a narrow win, but were outclassed by Fiji’s dazzling set of skills across the park. Considering that Fiji are their leading Tier 2 opponents in their World Cup pool this year, they will need to address the deficiencies shown against the Fijians quickly despite enjoying a half time lead over the Islanders. Georgia then travelled to Japan for a match against this year’s World Cup hosts. This was clearly a bridge too far and a match Georgia will most likely want to forget in a hurry as they lost by a score of 28-0. Georgia suffered from a lack of discipline and seemed to have no answers to Japan’s fast paced brand of attacking rugby.

Georgia’s biggest game of the year was without a doubt their November Test against Italy. A big performance here was vital if the calls for Georgia to be included in the tournament, possibly at Italy’s expense, were to be taken seriously. Consequently Georgia made the trip to Italy knowing that the stakes were high. It was an entertaining match from both sides, who were clearly aware of the what was on the line in terms of bragging rights. Both teams played well, but ultimately Italy showed they had the better big game temperament, and in the final ten minutes slowly got a stranglehold on proceedings. However, it was a close tussle for much of the match, and if these two sides were to play each other regularly few would doubt that Georgia could soon be getting the better of their Italian rivals.

Their final two matches of the year saw them take on Samoa and Tonga at home. The fervor with which rugby is supported in Georgia was clearly on display and the home team pulled out all the stops in two brilliant displays. They first dispatched Samoa and then put Tonga to the sword in a much more convincing performance than that displayed in their narrow win over the Islanders earlier in the year in the Pacific Nations Cup.

While clearly continuing to build and with a much more rounded team on display this year, Georgia still have plenty of work to do if they are to be one of the favorite underdogs of this year’s World Cup. Their discipline in the heat of the moment continues to trip them up, and the interchange between their bruising forward pack and their backs is still a work in progress. However, improvement continues and with another strong performance likely in the Europe Rugby Championship this year and some exciting warm up games against Scotland prior to the World Cup, we still hold that they could end up being one of the surprise packages of the tournament. Either way, when Georgia plays you probably don’t want to miss it once the World Cup gets underway.

Player of the year – Otar Giorgadze

The big number eight is one of Georgia’s most industrious players and a proven ball carrier who can make the most of the physical exchanges. With some solid experience in France which continues this year at club level, expect Giorgadze to be causing all kinds of problems come the World Cup.

Player to watch in 2019 – Zurab Dzneladze

We really liked seeing the left winger in action this year for Georgia. While not exactly a spring chicken at 27, he seems to have really come into his own this year in the national jersey and exemplifies the new look backs that Georgia are starting to develop. With a good strike rate with ball in hand and some solid defence, this player exemplifies the new versatility that Georgia are seeking in their backs. Definitely one to watch in 2019.

Match of the year – Georgia vs Tonga – Tbilisi – November 24th – Georgia 20/Tonga 9

A match where Georgia got the better of Tonga by a healthy margin, after running them so close in the Pacific Nations Cup, was a fitting end to another solid year of progress for Georgia. Add to that the phenomenal atmosphere clearly on display for home matches in Tbilisi and this had all the hallmarks of a classic Test match, with Georgia putting in a dominant display.

Fiji – 8/10

It has been quite the year for Fiji with the win over France being the crowning achievement. Fiji have shown in the last five years that they have finally made the transition from a pure running game that, although showing off some dazzling skills,usually fell apart against teams with dominant forward packs, to a much more holistic approach. Fiji now have some devastating forwards who possess the handling skills of their sevens stars but also are increasingly more proficient at the nuances of the modern game up front. In short, expect Fiji to be one of the biggest smoking guns come the World Cup for their pool opponents Australia and Wales.

Fiji got their year off to a flying start by beating both Samoa and Georgia in the Pacific Nations Cup. However, their discipline in the Samoan game was poor and it almost cost them the match. Nevertheless they were able to make a comprehensive statement against World Cup Pool D rivals Georgia by beating them by a healthy margin of 37-15. In the final match of the tournament, their discipline let them down once more costing them the game against Tonga. While they still managed to win the tournament, they know their discipline will need to be better by the time they head to Japan.

Fiji finished 2018 with a three Test tour to Europe where they took on Scotland, France and their other Tier 2 Pool D opponents Uruguay. In their opening match against Scotland their discipline was once more their Achilles Heel despite running in two very impressive tries. However, they completely eclipsed Uruguay, running in a 68-7 scoreline. Their last game of the year was their finest as they took on France at the famous Stade de France in Paris. It was a consummate performance from Fiji which ticked all the boxes. A watertight defence, solid discipline and some exceptional handling skills as their backs and forwards interlaced almost effortlessly, ensured that Fiji ran the match from start to finish. It was a textbook effort and one which has clearly fired a warning shot that Australia and Wales will need to heed carefully as they look to play Fiji in Japan this year at the World Cup. If Fiji play like they did in France, then they are more than capable of securing a place in the knockout stages. Whichever way you cut it, we imagine that this is one team that neutral supporters will be watching with great enthusiasm this year in Japan – we know we will!

Player of the year – Peceli Yato

The blindside flanker who plies his trade at club level with French giants Clermont Auvergne, is a force of nature and someone who most defences will be ensuring they work hard at containing come the World Cup. Fast, powerful and possessing some extraordinary handling skills for a big forward, Yato is the complete package and exemplifies the kind of new generation of forwards who are making such a mark for Fiji.

Player to watch in 2019 – Semi Radrada

This extraordinary centre has been making headlines since he made his Test debut for Fiji in 2018. Blindingly quick and almost impossible to bring down, this try seeking missile is set to light the World Cup on fire this year in Japan. If he is in the starting lineup for Fiji you won’t to miss it!

Match of the year – France vs Fiji – Paris – November 24th – France 14/Fiji 21

Controlled, focused and with some breathtaking skills on display, this was one of the highlights of the year Test wise – full stop. Fiji never took their foot off the gas from the opening whistle and it was a spectacular demonstration of running rugby coupled to some resolute defence. Rugby World Cup 2019 – you have been warned!!!

Endnote

Next up we’ll be looking at a turbulent 2018 for Canada, but which still managed to end with them grabbing the last slot up for grabs at this year’s World Cup. After that we’ll be putting out our 2018 report cards on Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa and then into the Six Nations! Watch this space!