Posts Tagged ‘General Commentary’

COVID-19 has sadly thrown a massive spanner into all aspects of our lives in 2020, and we are clearly a long way from being out of the woods yet. We don’t for a second deny the gravity of the situation, but by the same token are longing for some sense of normality to return. The effects of the pandemic on our beloved sport have been no less severe albeit for all the right safety reasons. However, the Unions themselves are likely to look back on this period as one of bungling and incompetence in maintaining the sport’s global presence. We the fans are left to sort through the wreckage, while players face an uncertain future and a game that seems to have become rather rudderless in terms of its global direction. In short the State of Rugby Union for the forseeable future is messy to say the least and much of the progress made towards establishing it as a world game in the last ten years could well be lost.

In this our first post since lockdown put rugby on hold back in March, we take a wander around the world and express our concerns as to where the game finds itself.

Europe

It’s still the sport’s biggest market, yet in terms of the international aspect of the game it’s a disaster. The pandemic has seen the already simmering war between the Unions and clubs reach new heights of ferocity. Meanwhile broadcasting rights have become so convoluted that many fans in a time of deep personal financial insecurity are faced with the choice of putting food on the table or taking out a raft of paid subscriptions to watch the game they love. This may be a short term cash fix for clubs and Unions, but to us it smacks of desperation and a complete lack of marketing sense. Bury the game behind a multitude of different paywalls and ultimately the fans disappear.

In France and England, the clubs are at their usual loggerheads with the Unions in terms of player access and schedules. The players themselves are in danger of becoming mere commodities to be used and abused, till ultimately the player base dries up as prospective players come to the conclusion that a short term career riddled with life changing injury risks and mediocre earnings is just not worth it. The average professional player in England or France is likely to be completely burnt out by an insane club and country schedule in the course of a mere five years.

In the Celtic leagues, the situation seems a bit better in terms of player management, but with the Scottish, Irish and Welsh Unions teetering on the brink of insoluble bankruptcy you wonder how long they can hold out to the financial pressures and considerations that are driving their French and English counterparts. As for Italian rugby well it would appear they may be the best placed to survive as the game has been in permanent crisis in the country since 2000, and as a result if they’ve survived this long well how’s another messed up year any different?

For the smaller countries though such as Georgia, Romania, Spain and Portugal the next twelve months could well undo all the progress made in the last few years in terms of getting themselves on the international map. Spain and Romania already had serious issues with the sport’s governing bodies prior to the pandemic for breaking player eligibility rules and both nations could well face a further slide into oblivion. Georgia at least gets a much need shot of exposure in the forthcoming Autumn Nations Cup, and a good performance here could solidify the progress they’ve made over the last few years, even if it may not address the overall cash crisis that World Rugby is facing and therefore the limited pot with which to help emerging nations like Georgia.

Add to the mix an unholy battle for broadcasting rights, and your average viewer now has to have a bare minimum of at least three paid up subscriptions to catch this fall’s action. Meanwhile said broadcasters all have put geoblocks on their content for viewers like us in Canada where there are no agreements on broadcasting rights, leaving us with even less options to catch the action than our European friends. As the game gets hidden behind a myriad of paywalls in Europe, the sports global audience looks set to shrink even further.

SANZAAR (South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina)

If you thought Europe was messy the picture is not much clearer South of the Equator, and in Argentina’s case rather alarming to say the least.

SANZAAR managed to get Super Rugby in Australia and New Zealand back underway over the summer, but limited it to only domestic competitions. Still it was a start and while the Australian competition was nowhere near the quality of its New Zealand counterpart, rugby fans did finally get to see some rugby of a relatively high standard once again.

South Africa unfortunately suffered the most dramatic effects of any of the four countries when it came to the pandemic. The country already in an economic crisis before COVID-19 really took hold, was brought to a standstill by the virus. Rugby found itself very much on the backburner in terms of the country’s list of priorities. Add in the fact that the pandemic made the long distance travel required to South Africa completely out of the question, and suddenly South African rugby franchises found themselves very much out in the cold. Even when Super Rugby resumes in its new format for 2021, South African franchises will have no part in it. Instead, South Africa’s Super Rugby sides will be plying their trade in Europe’s PRO 14 from now on. While the travel times are still significant, at least they won’t have time changes to deal with. The other positive is that the PRO 14 will benefit from the addition of some quality sides like the Sharks, Stormers and Bulls. The injection of two Super Rugby castoffs the Cheetahs and Southern Kings have added little to the PRO 14 in the last two years, but at least with the new teams there is some scope here to make the PRO 14 a genuinely competitive international league.

However, we have our doubts that either South Africa or Argentina are likely to set the world alight at this year’s rescheduled Rugby Championship, now to be held in Australia in November and December. Given the respective turmoil in both countries and lack of playing time for players compared to their Australian and New Zealand counterparts, and the generally poor quality of Australian rugby in general this year’s rescheduled Rugby Championship looks likely to be a very one sided affair in favor of men wearing black jerseys.

In the case of Argentina, the picture is particularly bleak. After only two short years in Super Rugby, Argentina now finds itself and its players with little opportunity to play the game at home, as the Jaguares no longer have a Super Rugby berth. For us perhaps more than anything else this has been the most bitter pill to swallow as a result of all the changes brought about by COVID 19. Argentina’s progress through the ranks in the last ten years has been nothing short of remarkable as they have welded themselves into a potent International Test force feared by the world’s best. However, this has all come about by the increased exposure that Argentinian based players have had to first the Rugby Championship and then in the last two years Super Rugby. Sadly now though all that progress looks like it is going to be lost. Sure there are a lot of very talented Argentinian players in Europe and overseas and increasingly here in North America in the MLR, but the exposure they were getting at the Super Rugby level was proving invaluable to the development of a national squad as well as giving people in Argentina something to really get behind in terms of local professional rugby. We would be absolutely gutted to see Argentina lose their status as an international side to be reckoned with as a result of all of this, and with it all the hard work of the last ten years by players be undone in a matter of months.

Just like in Europe the broadcasting rights for the forthcoming Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup series are a veritable minefield, and once again for us here in Canada we are in danger of missing it all. World Rugby really needs some leverage here to ensure that coverage of the global game is both accessible and affordable to fans around the world, and not slip back into its stereotyped image of a rich man’s sport.

Asia/Pacific

Once again the picture looks remarkably bleak with one exception – Fiji. For everyone else though there are more questions than answers.

The darlings and hosts of the last World Cup Japan, look like Argentina to be on the verge of taking some giant steps backwards. With little international exposure for them on the cards over the next year, despite a relatively robust domestic structure, Japan runs the risk of losing all the extraordinary progress made at the last World Cup. Furthermore, despite the developments in their domestic competition it is still foreign player top heavy with many overseas players seeing Japan as a short term cash fix – hardly conducive to the establishment of a strong domestic player base.

In the South Pacific, cash strapped unions in Samoa and Tonga are unlikely to get much help or exposure over the next year, resulting in a further decline in the competitiveness and skill levels of these proud rugby nations. Furthermore allegations of corruption and lack of concern for player welfare plaguing the Samoan Union are even less likely to be resolved in the near future further weakening this rugby nation who in the 90s was more than capable of World Cup upsets – just ask Wales.

The only country that seems to have been thrown a lifeline in all of this is Fiji. Fiji as always were one of the most entertaining sides at the most recent World Cup. A country whose players approach everything they do with their hearts on their sleeves, once more caught the hearts and minds of the global rugby public, and as a result find themselves along with Georgia included in this year’s Autumn Nations Cup in Europe. The exposure to the Six Nations giants over the course of six weeks, is something that Fiji has been craving for at least the last decade. The potential boost this will provide to an already highly talented squad will be fascinating to watch and bodes well for their future development. One of the few positives in an otherwise rather bleak autumn.

North America

Ironically, despite being unable to watch much of this fall’s action on TV here in Canada, our Southern neighbors are much better served through NBC Gold, there have been some recent positive developments here in the frozen North when it comes to rugby.

Although the MLR season was cancelled for 2020, 2021’s offering is shaping up to be a good one. Some big name signings have come to the MLR over the summer, former England Captain Chris Robshaw joins San Diego Legion, while our own Toronto Arrows announced the signing of all star Pumas fullback Joaquin Tuculet from Argentina and the appointment of former Wales Coach Rob Howley to the Coaching team. It could well be a cracking season next year, and let’s face it the Arrows were looking pretty sharp before this year’s season got cut short. So even if we won’t get to watch the big boys play out on our TV screens this fall/winter at the International level there is plenty to look forward to once the Arrows get back to work in February. As rugby in the big traditional markets continues to be in flux, the relatively stable climate in North America may contribute to some significant growth in professional rugby’s newest market, provided the continued level of investment and interest continue to expand.

In the meantime we’re hoping we’ll get to catch some of this weekend’s action in some shape or form, and will be returning to provide our more regular analysis of what we think were the talking points of the big games coming up. Take care everyone and let’s all stay positive and hope that the broadcasters in this country come to their senses!!!!!

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As always we start the New Year looking back over the past twelve months and handing out our verdict on the top ten teams, as well as Canada, USA and Georgia, and what they got out of the year on a score out of ten. We start off in the Americas looking at our own backyard, then move South of the Equator to the “Big Three”. We then journey back North in July to look at the Six Nations Competitors as the Northern Hemisphere season ends.

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 2018. 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 2017 as well as the player that we feel is most likely to catch the eye in 2018. So take from it what you will but without any further ado let’s get into it in part 2 where we take a look at how Canada fared.

Canada – 3/10

Of all the end of year reports we have to file for 2017, this is the most painful to write. No matter which way you cut it, it’s been a truly dismal year for Canada. Perhaps only France, South Africa and Italy were feeling the same way that the men from north of the 49th parallel did at the end of 2017.

There was very little to get excited about for Canada as they came to the end of a year that saw them fall outside of the top twenty in World Rugby’s rankings. To add insult to injury, they also failed in their initial attempt at qualification for the World Cup in 2019 – something Canada has always been successful in doing since the tournament’s inception in 1987. To make matters worse they found themselves under the stewardship of their fourth Coach since the World Cup and managed to record a paltry two wins from 13 matches. Fortunately, Canada will get another chance at qualifying for the Rugby World Cup at the end of this month when they play Uruguay at home and away.

Canada got 2017 off to a dismal start with a poor showing in the Annual Americas Rugby Championship. Poor execution and discipline coupled with little or no sense of urgency or structure on the pitch, meant that Argentina and the USA in particular ran rings around the Canadians as they suffered heavy losses to both teams. Canada did manage to get one convincing win at home against Chile but this was soon put in perspective by embarrassing defeats away to Brazil and Uruguay.

The two Test home series in June against Georgia and Romania brought Canada no joy either as they failed to score a point against the Georgians and were summarily dismissed by Romania. Canada’s track record against both East European sides has been poor for several years now.

The June series was followed by a first attempt at World Cup qualifying against the USA in a two-match series. Canada rallied in the opening leg in Hamilton and put in their best performance of the year but had to settle for a draw. The second away leg in San Diego saw Canada annihilated by a rampant US side, and thus fail to qualify for the tournament for the first time in its history.

The World Cup debacle saw Rugby Canada looking for scapegoats and after just over a year in the job Coach Mark Anscombe was given his marching orders. Relative unknown, Welshman Kingsley Jones, became the latest holder of what is rapidly being seen as a poisoned chalice.

Thus, with a new Coach and hopefully a new sense of purpose Canada headed to Europe in November seeking redemption. Despite the presence of some overseas based all-star players like DTH van der Merwe and Taylor Paris, such aspirations ultimately proved unfounded. Canada were thrashed comprehensively by Georgia and Fiji. They managed to labour past a surprisingly feisty Spain for Canada’s second win of the year, but at times even that appeared to hang in the balance until the final whistle.

In short, it has been a very rough year for Canada, and it is hard to see where the improvement is going to come from to turn their fortunes around. Canada sadly needs to say goodbye to some of the veterans it has used to prop the side up in the past two years and really focus on developing some young blood. We saw glimpses of some promising talent in some of the younger members of Canada’s squad this year, so there is a lot to work with provided the support structures are put in place.

Canada needs to build a results-based winning culture over the next few years. By doing so Canada would re-establish themselves as a thorny and difficult opponent akin to the glorious Canadian sides of the 90s. At present this is something they are light years away from as they languish at 21 in the world rankings. This will require a change in philosophy and a reality check from senior management in Canadian rugby. At present said management seems stuck in the past and the nostalgia of Canada’s glory days, with little or no understanding as to how the modern game has and is evolving.

There are some positives on the horizon with the news that Canada will field a team from Vancouver in the 2019 Major League Rugby club tournament in the US – North America’s first serious foray into professional club rugby. There is also a strong possibility that a second Canadian team from Toronto will be added in 2020.

We hope for the best for Canada in 2018 but right now the jury is out and we reserve judgement till we see how Canada fares in this year’s edition of the Americas Rugby Championship.

Match of the year – Canada vs USA – Hamilton – June 24th – Canada 28/USA 28.

This was without doubt Canada’s best performance of the year against a very good USA side. Canada pulled out all the stops and played some fantastic rugby and were seriously unlucky not to get the win in front of a fanatical home crowd. However, Canada’s ongoing inability to close out big games even when things are going their way continued to haunt them. Nevertheless, there was plenty to cheer about and Canadian players will no doubt be reviewing the video footage of this match as they seek to find some inspiration for their tough World Cup qualifying series against Uruguay at the end of the month.

Player of the year – DTH van der Merwe.

Once again, the South African born winger gets the nod as our best player by a country mile. Consistently outstanding and a joy to watch, DTH always impresses. As a result the team often expects him to single-handedly rescue Canada from the brink of disaster, a role which he seems to relish, but unlike many other sports, rugby is a game that rarely allows an individual the opportunity to save a sinking ship.

Player to watch in 2018 – Brock Staller.

For us Staller represented everything that is good about the future of Canadian rugby. The powerful utility back is a ferocious competitor and also possesses an exceptionally useful and reliable boot. If Staller can get some more big game time and exposure then this talented player should develop into part of the bedrock of a Canadian challenge over the next few years.

We’ll end this report card with video highlights of what we considered to be Canada’s finest effort this year even if it only ended in a draw. The match in Hamilton in June between Canada and the USA as a World Cup qualifier had all the hallmarks of great Test rugby, and despite the result is a performance that Canada can look back on with their heads held high!

To be continued – up next the USA!

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

Super Rugby

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

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

Six Nations

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

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

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

Super Rugby

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

European Rugby Champions Cup

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

Six Nations

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

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

England – 10/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

France – 7/10

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

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

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

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

Ireland – 8/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Italy – 6/10

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

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

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

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

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

Scotland – 7/10

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

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

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

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

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

Wales – 7/10

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

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

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

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

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

Endnote

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

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

Argentina – 6/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Australia – 6/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Zealand – 9/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

South Africa – 5/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Endnote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Europe

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

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

Southern Hemisphere

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

Canada

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

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

As we do every year the Lineout reviews the performances of the top ten international teams over the course of the last twelve months and gives them a score on what we feel they got right and what they got wrong.  As always as this is a Canadian based site added to the top ten list is the performance of the Canadian senior men’s team.

As in every World Cup year, it has been a year of massive ups and downs, with New Zealand as they have for much of the last four years cementing their place as the dominant force in World Rugby.  However, they were pushed hard this year and Australia and Argentina in particular gave them plenty to think about, while South Africa had to fight harder than ever to keep their traditional spot as the world’s second best team.  In the Northern Hemisphere the gap between the North and South grew even more obvious as England were knocked out of their own World Cup in the Pool stages, and Ireland who had risen to the lofty heights at one point in the year of being number two in the World Rankings, found themselves fading into obscurity by the end of the year.  Meanwhile Italy and France found themselves in complete disarray while a resurgent Scotland just got better and better with each outing and the Welsh found a level of depth against all the odds that surprised many.  Lastly Canada offered us plenty of excitement but in a year of much promise, they sadly ended it desperately short of results.

Argentina – 9/10

Some may raise eyebrows at Argentina’s score of 9, as while they impressed all who saw them they still didn’t manage to get beyond the semis, and did lose to their three main rivals at the World Cup – Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.  Nevertheless, they still managed to beat South Africa in Durban, finish third in the Rugby Championship and fourth in the World Cup.  In doing all of this they managed to put on display some of the most exciting rugby any of us got to see all year.  Their quarter-final victory over Ireland at the World Cup is already the stuff of legends along with the famous win over the Springboks in Durban earlier in the year.  Coach Daniel Hourcade rightly was recognised as one of the most influential and competent coaches in World Rugby in 2015.  His role in the transformation of the Pumas and the raft of exciting new talent he has brought on board has been key in providing Argentina with the complete game plan they have lacked for so long.  Argentina finally has an exceptional attacking platform coupled to their traditional awe inspiring strengths in the forwards.  Expansive and exciting in attack while having one of the strongest and most resolute defences in international rugby, the Pumas are going to be an exceptionally tricky proposition for their opponents in 2016.

The Pumas continued presence and growing prowess in the annual Southern Hemisphere Rugby Championship supported now by a quality Super Rugby franchise, are likely to make Argentina a consistent powerhouse in international rugby.  Despite the retiring of the old guard such as Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, Juan Martin Hernandez and possibly Marcos Ayerza, there are so many outstanding newcomers coming through the ranks, the vast majority of them being under 25, that Argentina should be in fine form come the next global showdown in Japan in 2019.  With a long list of names to watch over the next four years, both Argentinian supporters and neutrals alike can look forward to the continuing development of a very exciting brand of Pumas rugby.

Australia – 9/10

Bridesmaids ultimately to New Zealand at the end of the year in the most important game of the year, Australia can still reflect on a vintage 2015 for the Wallabies.  Winning the Rugby Championship, albeit an abbreviated version, and finishing a close second to the best team in the World for the last four years are considerable feathers in your cap.  Coach Michael Cheika can pride himself on a complete transformation of the Wallabies fortunes in the space of a mere twelve months.  His no-nonsense attitude demands respect from his players, while at the same time his clear commitment to his players is there for all to see.

The big question for Australia over the next year will be how it deals with the loss of some key players to overseas clubs, as the exceptions made for Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell are unlikely to hold sway in 2016.  Still with this aside, Australia will be fielding five teams in the 2016 Super Rugby competition and while three of them may be of dubious quality overall, there are enough talented individuals in each of the three teams, along with top quality standard bearers the Brumbies and Waratahs, that Cheika should have little if any difficulty in fielding a world class Wallaby side.  If Argentina can do it with just one team, then surely given Cheika’s abilities it should be mere child’s play for Australia.  Rebuilding lies ahead, but this is a confident and assured Australia that knows exactly what it wants and how to achieve it.  Easy victories over the Wallabies are likely to be a thing of the past in 2016 and all teams will do well to approach them with a great deal of caution and respect.

Canada – 5/10

While Canada may have provided us with some fabulous entertainment over the past year, and individuals like winger DTH van der Merwe have become hot commodities for international club signings, Canada as a whole have had probably their worst year in 20 years of professional rugby.  Two wins this past year, and one of them against a European club side without its star players, is a record that most Canadian players and supporters will want to forget as quickly as possible.  A myriad of reasons have been put forward to explain the failings of the Canadian team in 2015 and it would appear that steps are being taken to address them in 2016.

Although having success with Canada in his early years as Coach, Kieran Crowley has been alarmingly bereft of results since October 2014.  Under his tutelage Canada continuously threw games they should have won, as they would inevitably implode in the last quarter.  Excuses were made time and again but Canada’s inevitable lapses in concentration in the final quarter of every major international they played since October 2014, were predictable with a depressing certainty.

While it would be unfair to lay the blame squarely at Crowley’s feet, it did seem to appear that he was a part of the problem and his ultimate departure from Canadian rugby announced in the last few weeks is unlikely to herald much protest from Canadian rugby fans.  However, Rugby Canada itself must also take some responsibility for carving a new direction for the senior men’s team.  It is heartening to see that in 2016 there will be a greater emphasis on moving players away from divided loyalties between the Sevens game and the full 15 a side game.  For me this was one of Canada’s biggest problems in the last eighteen months.  While Sevens can add a great deal to a player’s skill base, few players are able to transition effectively back and forth from the rigours of the two codes.  The stamina and overall game awareness required in the larger game does not come from Sevens and it was clearly obvious that the requirement for players to do double duty in both disciplines was detrimental to Canada’s overall success in the 15 a side game.  Lastly, it would appear that the senior men’s team will get two fixtures a year with Tier one teams, in 2016 they will play Italy in the summer and Ireland in November.

So with a new coach, a more regimented division of disciplines and training skills and greater international competition for Canada, 2016 should provide Canadian supporters with more of a sense of hope for the future than they have had in the last two years.  Continued competition in the Pacific Nations Cup and the newly organised Americas Cup all bode well for getting Canada the regular kind of exposure that it has lacked for too long.  Cautious optimism should be the modus operandi in the Canadian camp in 2016.

England 6/10

Let’s face it, it should have been England’s year and yet it fell so spectacularly short of the mark it will be one that most English fans would rather erase from the memory as quick as possible.  There were some highs but for the most part it was one crushing disappointment after another.  Despite putting in a memorable performance against France in the final game of the Six Nations, England still finished runners up for the second year in a row and imploded dramatically against Ireland midway during the tournament.  They ultimately never really looked like the finished product and this was clearly in evidence in the warm-up games leading up to the World Cup.

Then came the disaster of the World Cup and being the first host team in the tournament’s history to be knocked out in the pool stages.  They looked nervous against Fiji and then proceeded to lose the plot against Wales and then be blown out of the water by Australia and with it their place in the knockout stages.  Bizarre decision making at times by both players and management certainly didn’t help matters and a selection policy, that often had no rhyme or reason to it, found England still experimenting with combinations and untried players, the Sam Burgess episode being a case in point, at a time when they could least afford it.  Their World Cup was a disaster but players and management needed to take responsibility for it.  While those at the senior management level have for all intents and purposes absolved themselves of any guilt, credit must be given to former Coach Stuart Lancaster and many of his senior players who tried to make sense of the wreckage.

Lancaster and his colleagues are now no longer part of the England setup and the rebuilding of England has been left in the hands of former Wallaby and Japanese Coach Eddie Jones.  While many have given Jones credit for the remarkable performance of Japan at last year’s World Cup, coaching England and all the pressures and politics that come with it are an entirely different kettle of fish.  Whether or not he can pull it off and turn England’s fortunes around remains to be seen.  There is little doubt that he has all the resources he could possibly ask for and a player base that boasts enough domestic talent to make England a true powerhouse of international rugby to rival even the All Blacks.  Whether or not Jones will be allowed to use the considerable assets he has at his disposal to their full potential is something only time will tell.  The English rugby public are desperate for results and Jones and England will be under the most unforgiving microscopes known to international rugby for the next four years – we wish them well!

France – 4/10

While England may have had a rough year, it pales into insignificance when compared to France’s fortunes in 2015.  Finishing a poor fourth in the Six Nations, a hit and miss warm up series of matches leading up to the World Cup and then what could only be described as France’s worst ever World Cup.  France looked poor in the Six Nations, not helped by the fact that very few of their players ever played more than one match together.  There were grounds for optimism in the final barnstormer match against England as we saw some tantalising glimpses of French flair.  However, come the Pool stages of the World Cup and France looked disjointed and demoralised.  A scrappy outing against Italy, followed by nail-biting encounters against Romania and Canada ended in their final humiliation by Ireland.  Sure they managed to claw their way out of their Pool only to face the ultimate humiliation of their quarter final thrashing by the mighty All Blacks.  I had the good fortune to be at the Quarter Final match in Cardiff and really felt for the gloomy French fans on the train after a match that for most would be one to forget.  The only cause for celebration amongst French fans seemed to be that it finally marked the end of the Philippe Saint-Andre coaching era which for many seemed to be as popular as the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution.

I for one couldn’t help sharing the French public’s relief at Philippe Saint-Andre’s departure.  He came across as divisive and arrogant, coupled with probably the most indecisive and inconsistent selection policy in French rugby history.  Clearly disliked by his players, Saint-Andre was without a doubt the architect of his own downfall and with it the dramatic decline in French rugby fortunes over the last four years.  However, it would be irresponsible to lay the blame solely at his feet.  The French domestic structure and the phenomenal financial and political power of the French clubs has all but strangled French rugby at the national level while denying many promising young French players the kind of game time and exposure they need, as the ranks of many French teams are swelled by a majority of high priced foreign players.  As successful as they are Toulon is a case in point, as on any given match day they are represented by a mere handful of French players.  For all intents and purposes Toulon like many of the French clubs is more like a World XV than a French team.  Until the insatiable ambition and greed of the domestic clubs is balanced with the needs of the national team, it is unlikely that new Coach and former Toulouse maestro Guy Noves will be able to reverse the decline of France on the international stage.  Guy Noves has made a series of bold statements in relation to how he wants to see change take place in French rugby and the clubs have said that they support it, however it remains to be seen how much of this is mere lip service.  It is hoped that for the sake of this proud rugby nation that has provided us with so many memorable moments over the years, Noves is given the scope he needs to return France to its rightful place at the highest levels of international rugby.

Ireland – 7/10

Ireland held so much promise but ultimately fell prey to all the hype surrounding them and left most of us with a crushing sense of disappointment as they once more exited yet another World Cup with a whimper.  As they headed into their preparations for the World Cup as back to back Six Nations champions and a string of solid wins against South Africa and Australia at the end of 2014, many were touting them as the dark horse of the 2015 World Cup.  However, for many yours truly included, alarm bells were starting to sound during the course of the Six Nations.  Ireland were clearly having a problem with scoring tries when they needed them most despite the wizardry and tactical genius of Coach Joe Schmidt and a raft of exceptionally talented players.  The dangers became abundantly clear in the match against Wales as Ireland essentially lost a game they clearly could have won and with it their first Grand Slam since 2009.  They would still go on to win the Six Nations by the narrowest of points differences but for many it lacked the conviction that you felt was needed of a team that was being touted as one that could lift the Webb Ellis trophy at Twickenham at the end of October.  Furthermore, there was an overwhelming reliance on one or two key players such as Captain and lock Paul O’Connell and fly half Johnny Sexton.  Remove these two from the mix as we saw in the World Cup quarter-final against Argentina and Ireland suddenly looked creaky and disjointed.

It is clear that despite an initial run of fabulous successes, Coach Joe Schmidt’s honeymoon period with Irish rugby is over.  Now the real work begins as he seeks to rebuild the Irish dream, especially now that many of the old warhorses are unlikely to be seeing duty in Japan in 2019.  There is little doubt that Schmidt possesses one of the best brains available in international rugby at the moment, and the Irish setup is exceptionally well suited to providing him with the tools and support he needs.  Add to this a wealth of young Irish talent coming through the ranks, as well as one or two foreign players now eligible to play for Ireland and on paper the future looks exceptionally bright for Ireland, especially should Schmidt choose to renew his contract in 2017 and take Ireland to the next World Cup.   While Irish fortunes in this year’s European Champions Cup do not reflect the Irish dominance of European Club rugby of years gone by, there is still enough talent and depth in the Irish provinces to weld together a truly formidable national team.  Irish rugby will reinvent itself of that there is little doubt and while the process of rebuilding may mean that this is a year of uncertainty for Irish rugby, it is only a question of time before the label of dark horse is once more firmly attached to Irish fortunes.  Irish rugby finally has the kind of depth it has lacked for so long.  This World Cup may have taught them some painful lessons, but ones which will no doubt serve them well as they prepare to be clear contenders for the ultimate prize in Japan in 2019.

Italy – 5/10

Whichever way you cut it, it was a pretty poor year for Italy, their only real saving grace was narrowly avoiding the wooden spoon in the Six Nations.  There were moments of excitement in the Italian camp as they showed some promise at times in the Six Nations and gave France and Ireland a good workout in the Pool stages of the World Cup.  However, there was never a point where Italy looked like a cohesive unit with a clear game plan, and given that they were without inspirational Captain Sergio Parisse for a large part of 2015 they were always going to be up against it.  With Parisse on the field Italy is a different unit and can mount a serious challenge on any given day.  Remove him and Italy looks promising but ultimately rudderless.  One positive for me has been the development of fly half Tommaso Allan at the expense of New Zealand import Kelly Haimona, as the latter was out with injury for much of 2015.  As readers of this blog know, I have often been puzzled by Italian Coach Jacques Brunel’s fascination with the New Zealander.  Haimona in my opinion has done little to impress in an Italian shirt, whereas Allan has grown in confidence in the role over the last year and much of what was good about Italy in 2015 featured the young fly half.  If Brunel has any sense, he will continue with Allan for this Six Nations tournament as he has much to offer and is clearly a rising talent for Italy.

That brings us to the question of Jacques Brunel.  With the forthcoming Six Nations marking the end of his tenure with Italy, and few positive results to show for his time with the Azurri, many Italian supporters must be looking forward to his imminent departure.  One would be hard pressed to find a more disinterested looking coach.  While it would be unfair to lay the blame for Italy’s misfortunes squarely at his feet, he hasn’t exactly sought to answer any of his critics and certainly doesn’t appear to inspire his charges.  This is unfortunate as Italy is under the radar after this World Cup as other up and coming European countries like Georgia and Romania are calling into question Italy’s place in the European rugby hierarchy.  Furthermore, despite Italian woes in European Club competitions, there is no denying that Italy has some quality players.  They have always been able to boast a competitive if at times undisciplined forward pack, and Captain and number eight Sergio Parisse is without doubt an icon of the modern game.  Italy has found some exciting pace and power in their backs of late and as a result given the right support and coaching there is a reasonable expectation particularly at the Six Nations level that Italy can upset anybody on their day.  It is unlikely with Brunel having this forthcoming Six Nations as his swansong with the Azurri, that Italy are likely to improve on their fortunes of last year and if anything are sadly likely to walk away as the traditional holders of the wooden spoon.  However, Italy and their supporters will need to look beyond March 2016 and hope that the impending change in coaching staff will breathe new life into an Azurri setup that has promise but desperately needs a level of commitment and forward thinking that has been sadly lacking in the last few years.

New Zealand – 10/10

Winning two back to back World Cups in many ways says it all about New Zealand.  Having dominated international rugby for the last four years it was only fitting that they would lift the Webb Ellis trophy once more.  There have been very few cracks in New Zealand’s plans over the last four years and 2015 was no exception.  While in 2015 they didn’t appear as all conquering as they had in previous years they still ultimately proved masters at adapting to adversity and the unexpected.  They finished runners up to Australia in this year’s abbreviated Rugby Championship but had it run its full length then as most pundits agreed that too probably would have been theirs for the taking.  With some of the greatest players the game has ever seen in the shape of Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu and Richie McCaw and who now have hung up their international playing boots, New Zealand has been in an exceptionally privileged position.  However, with the departure of such legends there will be lots of questions around what the 2016 version of the All Blacks will be able to achieve.  I for one doubt there will be a massive sea change in New Zealand’s fortunes.

Firstly, let’s look at a couple of key facts.  Coach Steve Hansen who has led this remarkable group of individuals to such dizzying heights remains in charge until 2017. Take a look at the team sheet that he has at his disposal which boasts names like Nehe Milner-Skudder, Sonny Bill Williams, Aaron Cruden, Beauden Barrett, Julian Savea to mention just a few.  These are just some of the names who have stood out in the last two years coupled to a raft of emerging talent and ultimately there should be little if any cause for concern in New Zealand and if anything it should simply be business as usual as a new look All Blacks team picks up where they left off on October 31st, 2015.

To be honest I don’t have much to say about New Zealand.  Their score of 10/10 in many ways says all there is to be said.  They were the best plain and simple.  Sure there are some cracks in the armor, but the abilities of the New Zealand coaching staff and the sheer staggering depth of talent they have in the land of the long white cloud will allow them to comfortably address any immediate deficiencies in the short term and well into their future plans for 2019.

Scotland – 7/10

You may be surprised to see Scotland score as highly as they did, considering that they were wooden spoon holders in last year’s Six Nations.  However, it was that World Cup quarter-final against Australia that for many made people sit up and take notice of Scotland.  They had threatened all year long, and under Coach Vern Cotter were looking better with every outing.  They were competitive in all their matches in the World Cup and in their last match of the tournament against Australia came agonisingly close to making history and turning the established order of international rugby on its head.  The decisions that to many robbed them of a glorious victory will be debated long into the future, but what it did show is that Scotland are here to be taken seriously going into 2016.

With a crop of exceptionally exciting backs led by Stuart Hogg but including the likes of Tim Visser, Mark Bennett and Peter Horne, Scotland is developing some exciting and expansive playing styles and with Duncan Weir, Greg Laidlaw and Russell Finn providing quality ball from the halfback department Scotland will be a force to be reckoned with in the Six Nations.  Couple this exciting backline to a powerhouse set of forwards boasting names like David Denton, the Gray brothers, and Josh Strauss and on paper Scotland is looking like the most complete side they have been in many years.  What was lacking at times last year was that killer instinct at the finish and the composure to go with it, but Coach Vern Cotter is deeply respected by his players as a hard but fair taskmaster.  I very much doubt we will see some of the same costly lapses in concentration Scotland made last year as we head into 2016 and they seek to make a statement in the Six Nations.  Does the term “dark horse” sound familiar?

South Africa – 7/10

South Africa in the eighteen months leading up to the World Cup suddenly and irrevocably entered a downward slide.  There were a myriad of reasons put forward – political interference, bizarre coaching decisions and a degree of arrogance and complacency amongst the players coupled with a serious lack of imagination and inability to adapt to the playing styles being adopted by other countries.  Put all of these together and you probably have the sum total of South Africa’s problems.  What sadly seems to have happened is that the Coach Heyneke Meyer, whether you liked the man or not, has been made to be the fall guy for the Springboks woes post the World Cup.  While he must take some of the blame I still feel it unfair that he has essentially been brushed aside.  South Africa were unlikely to find a more passionate and committed supporter of the Springbok cause as Meyer, and it was clear that after the World Cup and the soul-destroying defeat to Japan, that Meyer was keen to learn from his mistakes and take South Africa forward by essentially throwing out the old rule book.

Sadly, Meyer’s demise has left a vacuum and as of going to press South Africa is still officially without a Springbok coach.  The front runner seems to be former Stormers Coach Alastair Coetzee, despite much of the South African public clamoring for a foreign coach.  Despite the poor state of coaching in South Africa, as evidenced by the woeful performance of South African teams in the annual Super Rugby competition, I for one do not hold that a foreign coach is necessarily the panacea that many in South Africa believe it to be.  Navigating the highly complex political, financial and social landscape that rugby has to operate in in South Africa requires a degree of local knowledge and cultural nous that a foreigner is unlikely to possess or more importantly have the stomach for.  For all his faults Meyer had four years with the Springbok structure and certainly in his first two years in charge brought them considerable success on the international stage.  It was also ironic that much of his initial success was through a playing style and player base that sought to move away from traditional smash and crash Springbok strengths.  It was all the more confusing that he reverted to the old dinosaur style of play in the last eighteen months.  Nevertheless, post the World Cup, Meyer really seemed to want to embrace change and transform Springbok rugby.  I can’t help feel that he was still the best man for the job and South Africa may rue pushing him into a corner so early whatever his perceived faults.

As for the Springboks themselves, they boast enough talent to easily put together a world beating team, just look at the demand for South African players in European Club rugby.  Like New Zealand they seem to have infinite reserves of talented young players coming through the ranks.  We have already seen the likes of prodigies such as centres Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel last year, and there is plenty more where they came from.  The towering figures of lock partners Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jaeger will continue to strike fear into opposition packs for many years to come, and although showing some cracks recently the South African scrum will always be a force to be reckoned with.  There is no question that answers on the wing are needed to replace the likes of Bryan Habana and giants of the game like Bismarck du Plessis and Victor Matfield are now no longer part of the picture.  However, like the All Blacks, Springbok rugby is essentially gifted with more resources than most coaches would know what to do with.  Find the right man to use the resources at his disposal and South Africa will quickly return to their rightful place at the top of rugby’s high table alongside their ultimate rivals New Zealand.  We wish them success in their hunt for the right coach and for the sake of this fanatically proud rugby nation hope they make the right decision.

Wales – 8/10

We finish off with Wales and a solid score for them after reflecting on a year in which perhaps more than any other team in international rugby, they were the best in showing us the true meaning of the guts, grit, determination and glory that is synonymous with our great sport.  Finishing a strong third in the Six Nations last year and providing us with some heroic performances, most notably their incredible defence against a determined Ireland and their try fest against Italy, Wales looked set for a great World Cup.  Then a rigorous training programme over the summer in preparation for the global showdown, left many wondering if too much emphasis had been placed on physical fitness and less on actual ball skills.  The summer warm-up games were for the most part a disappointing experience for Wales, made worse by the fact that in the process they racked up an injury count from hell, knocking key players like Leigh Halfpenny and Rhys Webb out of contention for the World Cup.

By the time the World Cup kicked off in September a depleted Wales seemed to offer little hope of effective resistance against fellow pool giants England and Australia.  What transpired over the next four weeks rapidly became the stuff of legends.  A Welsh team showed up that defied all the odds and produced some heroics that will be talked about for many years to come.  The Welsh World Cup team under the skillful guidance of controversial Coach Warren Gatland, stood up and were counted to a man.  Whether or not you like Warren Gatland you can’t deny that he knows how to get results and inspire a remarkable sense of self-belief in his charges.  The sheer commitment of Wales at the World Cup was inspirational, and they along with Japan and Argentina became firm favourites of many a neutral.

Wales efforts against the host nation England which started England’s inevitable departure from the World Cup may not have been the most remarkable game of rugby in World Cup history but what it clearly showed was that the power of self-belief and hard work can often overcome even the most daunting of odds.  Despite their injury list, and the loss of talisman and key kicker Leigh Halfpenny, Wales found a new hero in the form of fly half Dan Biggar.  He had always looked impressive up to that point but in the World Cup he simply took it to another level and was instrumental in propelling his team to the successes they achieved.  You could not have asked for a more composed and accomplished kicker under pressure.  Blessed with a GPS in his boots, Biggar along with a monumental physical effort from Welsh forwards Alun-Wyn Jones, Sam Warburton, Dan Lydiate and for me the unsung hero of Welsh rugby Justin Tipuric, helped keep Wales constantly in touch with supposedly superior opposition.  Although they lost to Australia, they were still competitive to the end and at times had the Wallabies feeling distinctly uncomfortable.  Scrum half Gareth Davies also showed that the loss of Wales first choice number 9, Rhys Webb was hardly the calamity everyone had feared, instead he too proved to be yet another inspiration in the red jersey.

Perhaps like Scotland, Wales will look back on that quarter final match against South Africa which many thought they had in the bag until the last ten minutes, as a painful moment in a proud history.  However, what they should take from it that there is now considerable strength and depth in a Welsh team that has some rising young stars teamed up with some very seasoned and experienced campaigners.  As Wales builds towards the next World Cup and Coach Warren Gatland has pledged his commitment to take them there as his last hurrah, they should feel excited about the future rather than despondent about what might have been.  Wales will be a serious contender for Six Nations glory in 2016 and they probably start the year as the most unified and cohesive unit in international test rugby other than the All Blacks.  Welsh performances in 2015 have earned them top marks and I doubt there will be few of us wanting to be away from our televisions in 2016 whenever the Men in Red take to the field.

As we conclude our look at Rugby World Cup 2015, we take a look at the existing competitive structures in International Test Rugby and throw out some ideas as to how they could be improved.  Lastly we’ll throw out an idea about an annual tournament that we feel is critical if the North/South divide in terms of skill and quality can ever be truly be addressed.  We saw the benefits of how competitive this most recent World Cup was especially from some of the Tier Two countries and it is hoped that Rugby’s global governing body will work hard over the next four years to ensure that this competitiveness across the board is increased.  So we’ll start with Europe first, then the Southern Hemisphere and finally end with an idea that we would like to see implemented if not before this next World Cup then certainly thereafter.  We’ll also look at how North America and the Pacific Islands need to be integrated more into the bigger competitions.

Europe

One thing was abundantly clear in this World Cup, Georgia and Romania need greater exposure to quality Test matches on a more regular basis.  Georgia especially were one of the revelations of the tournament, and if they can ever develop a back line to match the power of their forwards then they should be able to mix it with the best.  Romania also showed great promise at this World Cup and were a problematic side for everyone in their pool.

As far as we’re concerned the first changes need to happen with the European Champions Cup.  In the case of Georgia and Romania both these teams should be integrated more effectively into the lesser Competition the Challenge Cup.  If successful after a two-year period then they should be allowed to qualify for the premier tournament the Champions Cup.  There should be a qualification system for the Champions Cup and a Romanian and Georgian side should be given the chance to compete for a spot.  Given the woeful state of Italian club rugby at the moment, I can’t see how we can continue to justify their inclusion in the Champions Cup at the expense of Georgia or Romania.  If a relegation system meant that poorly performing sides would be out of the competition for a year then I think you would see an increase in performance from existing teams seeking to avoid relegation and those seeking qualification.  In short a win for European rugby as a whole.

This then raises the thorny issue of the Six Nations.  While this tournament steeped in history has always developed along an invitational basis, I can’t help feel that for the good of the tournament and European rugby in general this needs to change.  A relegation system needs to be put in place similar to the one proposed for the European Champions Cup.  While the Six Nations continues there should be a parallel tournament for the six other Tier Two countries in Europe.  The wooden spoon holders for the year in the Six Nations would then be relegated to the Tier Two competition the following year while the top team in the Tier Two competition would take the place of the wooden spoon holder of that year’s Six Nations.  This would ensure that while Georgia and Romania are not guaranteed a place in the Six Nations they can compete for a place every year.  Meanwhile underperforming sides of the last few years such as Italy and Scotland would have some real incentive to up their game to avoid relegation for a year.  Having said that I think Scotland’s woes are a thing of the past in the Six Nations but Italy is under pressure and even France is in danger of struggling to field a genuine Six Nations team.  Contentious perhaps, but worth doing for the continued development of a quality game in Europe – absolutely!

Southern Hemisphere

For the most part I don’t see a great need for change here.  Super Rugby is producing a superb standard of rugby year in/year out and the inclusion of an Argentinian team will only add more spice to an already highly entertaining competition.  There has been much debate about Japan’s inclusion but after this World Cup and Japan’s heroics I doubt that there are too many people complaining, even though they may be scratching their heads regarding the logistics of it all.  With the development of a professional league in North America in the next few years though, there could be scope for including a North American team in the competition, but I doubt very much that this is something we could consider until after the next World Cup.

The Rugby Championship which replaced the old Tri-Nations format once Argentina was included is the Southern Hemisphere’s equivalent of Europe’s Six Nations.  Here I do feel there is room for change as well although perhaps not until after the next World Cup.  The Pacific Island countries of Samoa, Tonga and Fiji although firmly camped in the Southern Hemisphere lack any kind of regular international top-level competition.  The same applies for the North American teams and Japan even though they can’t be regarded as Southern Hemisphere teams.  They have the annual Pacific Nations Cup which is a worthy tournament and gets more competitive each year, but ultimately they will need annual exposure to either the Southern Hemisphere’s big four or Europe.  I would argue that Europe is perhaps too crowded to include them on an annual basis but there is room in the South.  Therefore, post 2019 the Rugby Championship could be expanded to five countries and the Pacific Nations Cup reduced to five countries.  The top team from the Pacific Nations Cup every year would qualify for a place in an expanded Rugby Championship while wooden spoon holders in the Rugby Championship would be relegated to the Pacific Nations Cup the following year.  As proposed for the Six Nations in Europe both these competitions would be run in parallel every year.  I doubt there are many people who could deny the benefit the Pacific Islands, North American and Japanese national teams would derive from this kind of annual exposure.

Hemispheres Cup

What on earth I hear you say is this?!!!!  This is a perhaps far-fetched brainchild of the Lineout but something we think is absolutely critical if the debates raging in pubs and bars around the globe as to which part of the world plays better rugby is ever to end.  At the moment apart from the World Cup every four years there is no annual regular competition to allow us to really see how the North/South divide really measures up.  Sure there are the summer and autumn internationals but these tend to be one-off tests in which the Northern Hemisphere inevitably get thrashed away from home in June, and then manage to bag a few one-off victories at home in November.  As far as I am concerned the only way we are going to make sure that competitions such as the Six Nations and Rugby Championship are on a level footing is to have teams from both competitions meet once a year and go head to head for a title.  Hence the proposed Hemispheres Cup.  So how on earth would this work I hear you say?

Every year the top two teams from the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship compete at the end of the year in place of the annual autumn tours of Europe by the Southern Hemisphere teams.  The Autumn tests would still continue in that the two lowest ranked teams (or three if the Rugby Championship ever was expanded to five countries as proposed above) in the Rugby Championship would still tour the four lowest ranked teams in that year’s Six Nations.  This would have the added advantage of freeing up some quality opposition for some Tier Two countries touring Europe in November such as Canada, USA, Japan and the Pacific Island countries as in the past these countries have struggled to get more than one if any fixtures against the Six Nations teams.  Georgia and Romania could also benefit from this process as well in November.

However the two top teams from each competition, the Six Nations and Rugby Championship would play each other in October/November in a proposed Hemispheres Cup in place of their regular participation in the Autumn Tests.  Let’s use this year’s standings as an example.  England and Ireland topped the Six Nations while Australia and New Zealand did the same in the Rugby Championship.  Therefore in November they would play each other in a format similar to that of the abbreviated Rugby Championship we saw this year.  To keep things fair and so that it’s not always home European advantage, the winner would also ensure that the tournament for the following year would be held on their side of the equator.  For a competition to be held in the Southern Hemisphere it would probably have to be moved to the middle of October as opposed to November.  If we are really serious about bridging the gap between Southern and Northern Hemisphere rugby then an annual competition such as this for a recognised trophy that actually means something as opposed to a one-off friendly is the only way to do this.

Scheduling

Now here’s where I hear you all say, well that sounds great but how on earth is it going to get slotted into all the other rugby going on?  Challenging but not impossible.

European Champions Cup – October/December/January/April/May
European Challenge Cup – October/December/January/April/May

Six Nations – February/March
European Tier Two Challenge – February/March

Super Rugby – February/March/April/May/First two weeks of July

June tours of the Southern Hemisphere – June

Rugby Championship – Last week of July/August/September
Pacific Nations Cup – Last week of July/August/September

Autumn Internationals Europe – November

Hemispheres Cup – October/November

While I appreciate that there are domestic competitions to fit around all of this, the primacy and ultimate spectacle of Rugby Union is still, as evidenced by the World Cup, the International Test Arena and long may it stay that way. There are significant challenges from clubs, none more so than in France, where the national interests of the sport are being slowly strangled in the rampant commercial interests of the domestic competition. However, as witnessed by the phenomenal television viewing statistics of the recent World Cup what players and supporters are inspired by the most is the ultimate excitement of country versus country. Rugby is unique in this more so than any other sport and it is our belief that to keep it that way is vital to the continued growth and success of our glorious game!