Posts Tagged ‘Report Cards’

As always we start the New Year looking back over the past twelve months and handing out our verdict on the top ten teams. We also look at Canada, and a first for this year the USA and Georgia. We try to figure out 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. We also choose a 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 7 where we once more head South of the Equator and take a look at how New Zealand fared.

New Zealand – 8/10

It was not the New Zealand we have been accustomed to seeing over the last few years, and as a result some may be surprised at us marking them so high. Nevertheless, the results still speak for themselves – 15 Tests, one loss, one draw and 13 wins. While they may have looked shaky at times and far from their ruthless best, they still ended the year as the team everyone still wants to and needs to beat. Although some of those wins may have been close, there is no getting away from the fact that the All Blacks are still the best in the world at closing out big games. They remain the ultimate 80 minute team and as a result it is going to take a very special team to beat them with any degree of consistency. New Zealand also managed, more than any other team in International Rugby in 2017, to determine what kind of depth they had in their talent pools to the point where they can consistently field two world-class match day 23 man squads. Something most Coaches can only dream of!

New Zealand got their year off to a flying start with a warmup match against Samoa prior to the much-anticipated Lions Tour in June. Samoa had no answers to a completely clinical performance from New Zealand that saw them pick up from where they left off in 2016.

The Lions Tour was eagerly anticipated by rugby fans around the globe, ourselves included. While some may question the validity of Lions Tours in an increasingly professional age, there is no doubt that they remain a huge draw as one of the sports most intense spectacles. With French rugby very much in disarray these days, Lions Tours are very much a case of the best in the Northern Hemisphere versus the Southern Hemisphere’s big 3.

New Zealand started the series well with an emphatic win in the opening Test. In the second Test a red card against Sonny Bill Williams for some reckless and dangerous play, saw the All Blacks have to play with 14 men for the last hour of an intensely physical battle. The Lions played their man advantage well and despite some superb play by New Zealand, the All Blacks would record their first loss on home soil since 2009. As a result it was all to play for in the third and final Test. We’ll probably be still debating the result of the last Test which for many ended in an unsatisfying draw, which also meant the series was drawn between the two sides. However, what a Test match it was! New Zealand would be the only side to get across the whitewash, but some heroic defence by New Zealand would be just enough to keep a Lions side away from the try line despite some intense pressure from the Northern Hemisphere tourists. It was a thrilling contest but one which also showed that as good as New Zealand are the rest of the world is starting to catch up fast.

The Rugby Championship saw New Zealand really experiment with new players and combinations. Consequently, while they may not have looked as polished as we are accustomed they still managed to finish the Championship unbeaten. In the opening match against Australia, they blew the Wallabies away 40-6 by half time. However, they appeared to take their foot off the gas in the second half which allowed the Wallabies to come blazing back into contention. The next Test in Dunedin, saw the Wallabies come charging out of the blocks and catch New Zealand completely off guard. The All Blacks were clearly rattled and struggling to find their rhythm against a Wallaby team growing in confidence. Once more though it was those final twenty minutes where New Zealand once more showed how good they are at turning the tide in their favor. With Australia leading by one point and two minutes to go, New Zealand struck the killer blow and stole a win that had looked far from certain.

Their next two matches at home to Argentina and South Africa, saw them get a comfortable win against the Pumas and a record victory against their greatest traditional rivals the Springboks. Their initial difficulties in asserting any kind of control over proceedings as seen in the second Test against the Wallabies were repeated in the game against the Pumas. Argentina got the better of the All Blacks in the first half and found themselves 16-15 ahead at half time. New Zealand looked out of sorts in the opening exchanges and made a host of uncharacteristic errors. Again though they settled into their groove in the second half, and once they hit their stride left the Pumas behind as mere spectators in the match for the final twenty minutes. In doing so, they put some spectacular new talent on show that served to demonstrate how much depth there really is in New Zealand as they start to look towards the World Cup in Japan in 2019.

It was the match against South Africa, where the New Zealand we are all used to seeing showed itself once more. The All Blacks destroyed the Springboks in a clinical display for a full eighty minutes. While it was a poor performance from South Africa, the ruthlessness with which New Zealand took the Springboks apart was breathtaking. South Africa were simply allowed no purchase whatsoever on the game, and as the final whistle blew the Springboks found themselves on the wrong end of a 57-0 scoreline.

New Zealand then headed out on a road trip that would see them away from home for almost two months. They travelled first to Australia to finish the last of the three annual Bledisloe Cup matches. Although they had won the Cup, they seemed unprepared for the ferocity of the Australian challenge in Brisbane. Australia were the more aggressive of the two sides and their defence was outstanding. Despite a concerted onslaught by New Zealand, as we have come to expect from them in the final twenty minutes, the All Blacks just couldn’t get the extra points needed to snatch victory at the death.

They arrived in Europe and at times looked weary. In their first proper Test against France there were moments where they looked less than polished despite ultimately recording a comfortable win by 38-18. Once again though the French caught them napping in the first twenty minutes of the second half, and it was only some stellar defence from the Men in Black that put the brakes on a rampant French challenge. It was the Test against Scotland where they perhaps got their biggest scare of the year. In short, Scotland were the better side especially in the second half and it was some last gasp defence in the dying minute of the match that saw New Zealand deny Scotland a historic win. New Zealand’s last effort of the year against Wales, saw them looking tired but not overly troubled by a courageous Welsh challenge. In the end it was a comfortable win for the All Blacks to end a year in which they had tested the depth of their resources. Coach Steve Hansen and Kiwi supporters were clearly pleased with the results of their research.

It had been a roller coaster ride for New Zealand in 2017 with some very close shaves at times, but overall they came out of the whole process looking in fine mettle despite the disappointing result of the Lions series. There is depth across the park in most positions and their individual skill levels remain off the charts. Add to that some outstanding new talent that seems to have bedded nicely into the side in 2017, and it has clearly been a productive year for the All Blacks.

However, structurally New Zealand are clearly not as tight as they have been in seasons gone by. Furthermore, opposition sides are catching up to them at a rate of knots as we draw closer to the World Cup in Japan in 2019. Questions also remain about depth in the fly half position. There seems to be no clearly defined understudy to the current holder of the number ten jersey Beauden Barrett for New Zealand. This has been compounded recently by the most likely candidate Lima Sopoaga leaving New Zealand to play in England and thus making him ineligible for the World Cup. With Aaron Cruden also departed to France and faced with the same restrictions, Coach Steve Hansen’s conundrum over this position is no clearer. Given that this is such a key position in New Zealand’s overall game plan the lack of clarity here must be a concern. Even if there is a plan brewing, there is alarmingly little time to finesse it with just over 18 months to the World Cup.

In conclusion, they are still the side who everyone else will measure themselves against, but there are some vulnerabilities that will need to be addressed during the course of 2018 as New Zealand fine tune their player base for the World Cup.

Match of the year – New Zealand vs South Africa – September 17th – Albany – New Zealand 57/South Africa.

South Africa may have been poor, but they were still riding the wave of confidence that five wins on the trot will give a Test side. New Zealand’s brutal dismantling of that confidence was incredible to watch. It was a complete performance that left Springbok rugby as a whole in tatters. It is this kind of clinical ruthlessness that still makes New Zealand so difficult to beat especially if they build up a healthy lead in the first quarter. Playing catchup rugby against the All Blacks is never going to work. When, as in this match, New Zealand completely deny the opposition any kind of traction in the game whatsoever then it is breathtaking to watch. If New Zealand address some of the concerns they exposed during the course of 2017 expect more scorelines like this in 2018!

Player of the year – Beauden Barrett

His goal kicking may have been erratic on occasion this year, and at times he didn’t quite have the polish of his 2016 season, but there is no denying that Barrett had an enormous say in New Zealand’s impressive win rate in 2017. On more than one occasion it was his vision and skill set that would dig the All Blacks out of a tight corner. Even with some of his mistakes this year, he is still arguably the best fly half in Test rugby. His ability to remain calm under pressure and create something out of nothing is second to none. Expect more of the same in 2018.

Player to watch in 2018 – Rieko Ioane

New Zealand’s find of the year in 2017! From his debut in the first Lions Test, the winger lit up the pitch and continued to do so for the rest of the year. As a result he made the once phenomenal Julian Savea fade into relative obscurity. Blessed with some dazzling feet and deceptively strong and difficult to bring down, Ioane is going to be causing opposition defences nightmares in 2018!

We end this report card with highlights from New Zealand’s epic 57-0 drubbing of the Springboks during the Rugby Championship. South Africa may have been poor but New Zealand’s sheer technical competence and skill level was a sight to behold. We expect to see more rather than less of this kind of performance in 2018, as the experimentation New Zealand underwent in 2018 translates into a more finished product. The rest of the world has been warned!

To be continued in July – up next Italy!

 

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, and a first for this year the USA and Georgia. We try to figure out 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 6 where we once more head South of the Equator and take a look at how Australia fared.

Australia – 6/10

Not the easiest year for Australia with some real lows at times, but also one in which the side showed some genuine character and made some solid progress from 2016 , a year which the Wallabies like the Springboks would for the most part want to forget. While both sides were clearly in transition this year, Australia by the end of it has had a lot more success in developing a clear idea of where they are going and how to get there. The situation was not helped by the chaos surrounding the state of domestic rugby in Australia, but despite this the team managed to rise above the distraction and achieve some memorable results, most importantly their first win against the All Blacks since 2015, and in doing so ended a seven match losing streak against New Zealand. Unfortunately their season started on a low with a loss to Scotland at home, and the misery of this defeat was compounded when they were annihilated by the Scots at Murrayfield in their last Test of the year. However, in between there had been some moments where this Wallaby side showed some real character in adversity as well as the nucleus of an exciting team that can start to focus on the challenge of the World Cup in eighteen months time. In short, while Coach Michael Cheika and his charges have plenty of work to do between now and September 2019, this past year demonstrated that he is fortunate in having a fairly solid foundation to work with.

Australia’s season got off to a rough start as they looked out of shape and relatively unprepared for what lay ahead of them in a three match series at home in June which saw them get wins over Fiji and Italy, but lose to Scotland at home for the first time in history. In their opening match against Fiji they looked sluggish particularly in the second half and struggled to contain a Fijian side growing in confidence. Next up was the historic defeat to Scotland who simply outplayed them physically and mentally in a close match. Australia redeemed themselves against Italy, but once more at times struggled to contain the Italians in an error strewn performance. The Wallabies reflected on their opening rounds of 2017 with more than just a little concern as they headed into the Rugby Championship. Their defense was a shambles and poor discipline and execution seemed to continue to haunt them as a hangover from 2016.

The Rugby Championship was up next and while Australia may not be overly pleased with the fact that they only won two matches and finished a distant second place well behind New Zealand and only a point ahead of South Africa, they can take heart from the fact that some real character was discovered in this Wallaby side during the course of the tournament. Furthermore, their skill set in defence and attack underwent a complete transformation since the June Tests, and Australia once more demonstrated that they are able to produce some of Test rugby’s most gifted and exciting backs in the vein of Wallaby sides of old. The opening match against New Zealand saw the Wallabies play probably the worst 40 minutes of rugby they have played in a long time as a rampant New Zealand side led 40-6 at half time. The second half however could have not been more different. Australia came back onto the pitch at full throttle and proceeded to run in three superb tries in the space of ten minutes. Their defence tightened up, and despite the final scoreline of 54-34 to New Zealand, Australia were clearly back and meant business.

The return fixture the following weekend against the All Blacks in Dunedin, was one of the Wallabies best performances all year. The Wallabies had essentially been written off leading up to the match, especially in Dunedin which is a notoriously difficult ground on which to claim an All Black scalp. They then proceeded to turn the form book on its head by dominating New Zealand and scoring three outstanding tries in the first 15 minutes. For the rest of a thrilling Test Match the lead alternated between the two Trans Tasman rivals in a ten try epic. Australia took the lead with four minutes left on the clock but New Zealand once more showed why they are still the best at closing out big games at the death. Australia were gutted but left the field knowing that they had made a statement to the rest of the world that the Wallabies were back as a world class side.

The rest of the Rugby Championship was a frustrating experience for the Wallabies as they would beat Argentina comfortably twice, but experience two frustrating draws against the Springboks. As a result although they finished second they will be disappointed by the fact that they were so far behind New Zealand on the points table.

It was the third and final Bledisloe Cup match before they headed to Europe for their end of year tour, that really showed how dramatically the Wallabies had managed to turn themselves around in the space of a mere three months. An extraordinary Test match unfolded that left all of us on the edge of our seats till the final whistle. It was a solid performance from Australia that kept the All Blacks at bay till the end. Once more there was some silky back play from the Wallabies that was reminiscent of the glory days of the Campese era. The Wallabies were well deserved winners in a very hard-fought match, and it was a much-needed confidence boost for a team that had struggled to rise above the ugly distractions affecting the domestic game all year.

Australia’s end of year tour however took a lot of the shine of what was looking like a promising rebuilding process. Nevertheless despite the disappointments there is no denying that Australia will have learnt a lot from the tour, and have found a squad that boasts some world-class talent once it starts to click consistently. They dispatched Japan comfortably, but were taken aback by a Welsh side that pressed them hard. Once more the Wallabies’ fitness levels looked suspect as fatigue set in and with it, annoying breakdowns in discipline. One of the most anticipated Tests of the year against England, saw the Wallabies start to crack. Although they played some superb rugby at times especially in the first half, they simply could not break the English defence. The sheer toll of throwing themselves repeatedly at England was clear to see as the English began to pull away and Australian defences struggled to keep up. England walked away comfortable winners 30-6.

Australia sought redemption and revenge against Scotland after their defeat in June, but sadly put in their worst performance of the year as the Scots simply ran rings around them in the second half. Out of gas and out of ideas, Australia limped out of Edinburgh and onto the plane home with much to think about.

The two losses to Scotland and the one to England were clearly the low points of a season that ultimately proved to be a mixed bag for Australia. However, despite that they played some of their best rugby for a long time against their traditional rivals New Zealand and in the process put some outstanding talent on show. Australia are blessed with some of the best backs in Test Rugby right now who are only going to get better. Add to that the fact that they once more have a competitive scrum and some exceptional forwards, then it is surely only a question of time before they are once again reckoned to be serious contenders to lift the Webb Ellis trophy in Japan in 2019. If Australia can continue to improve their discipline and find solutions to the questions lingering over their depth in the scrum and fly half positions, then this is clearly a very dangerous side once more on the rise. We very much doubt that we’ll be giving them such a low score when we revisit this process at the end of this year.

Match of the year – Australia vs New Zealand – October 21st – Brisbane – Australia 23/New Zealand 18. The match that finally broke the Wallabies seven match losing streak to New Zealand was a classic, and saw the Wallabies hang on to the very end to snatch a long overdue win. It was a tense match that showed both skill and character from a very composed Wallaby team and one which signaled a return to the type of performances we’re accustomed to seeing from Australia.

Player of the year – Reece Hodge. Given the displays by Kurtley Beale and Israel Folau this year for the Wallabies, you might be surprised to see us hand this recognition to Hodge. However, for us it was his overall value to Australia at key moments that makes us give him top honors. Ferocious in defence and lethal in open space with ball in hand, the Australian utility back was a real asset to the Wallabies in 2017. His ability to boot the ball between the posts from some incredible distances, saved Australia’s bacon on more than one occasion in a year where their regular kicker Bernard Foley was off target with alarming regularity.

Player to watch in 2018 – Marika Koroibete. The Rugby League convert turned heads from the first time he pulled on a Wallaby jersey this year. While there were some questions around his defensive abilities we are fairly confident these will be sorted as the 2018 season unfolds. However, it was his pace, strength and speed with ball in hand that made us sit up and take notice in every match he played for the Wallabies last year. We expect to see Koroiboite as one of Test Rugby’s leading try scorers in 2018.

We end this report card with highlights from the Wallabies best performance of 2018, the third and final Bledisloe Cup match in Brisbane. If they play like this consistently in 2018, then come the World Cup in Japan in eighteen months time they will clearly be in it to win it!

To be continued – up next New Zealand!

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, and a first for this year the USA and Georgia. We try to figure out 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 5 where we once more head South of the Equator and take a look at how South Africa fared.

South Africa – 4/10

While it may not have been quite as bad as 2016, it wasn’t really much of a year to get excited about for Springbok supporters as once again it highlighted that this is a team with more questions than answers. Inconsistent and at times completely bereft of any sort of game plan, were the two overriding impressions of South African rugby in 2017. While the players must also take some responsibility for this, once more the finger of accusation points at the coaching setup and its inherent weaknesses, coupled to a glaring lack of cohesion and synergy between Coaches and players. There were some high points this year that gave us a tantalizing glimpse of what this team could be, but they were simply too few and far between to leave anyone with much confidence in the Springboks being able to pose a serious threat in a World Cup a mere eighteen months away. Much needs to change and there is alarmingly little time left on the clock in which to do it.

On paper it doesn’t look that bad, 6 wins out of 13 matches, including two draws and five losses. So why the doom and gloom you ask? It’s the nature of those losses that really got alarm bells ringing, especially the record losses to New Zealand and Ireland. Furthermore in both of the draws against Australia during the Rugby Championship, South Africa could and should have won as well as the truly epic second Test against New Zealand in Cape Town.

South Africa started their 2017 campaign well, in a three Test series against a visiting French team. The euphoria that surrounded their clean sweep of the series against France, has to be tempered by the fact that French touring sides of the last six years or more have always been of notoriously poor quality. Nevertheless, for the first time since the last World Cup the Springboks played with intent and purpose and genuinely seemed to be enjoying themselves. Several players really stood out and despite the deficiencies of a weak and clearly dispirited French side, the Springboks looked like a team reborn, leaving their supporters with a new-found sense of optimism. There was plenty of pride and passion in the jersey and unlike 2016 it was a team that looked like it had finally figured out what kind of rugby it wanted to play.

Next up it was the Rugby Championship and even though the Springboks then followed their success against France with a further two wins against Argentina in the opening two rounds, the Pumas themselves were also rarely gracing the front pages this year. Once more the Springboks new-found heroics had to be taken against the caliber of their opposition. This was made painfully obvious as South Africa headed out on the road to play New Zealand and Australia. South Africa have struggled on the road in recent years and this year has sadly proved no exception to the rule. Their opening away game against New Zealand was one of the worst Springbok performances many of us have had the misfortune of watching in the last 30 years. In an inept performance, in which to say that the Springboks looked clueless would be putting it politely, New Zealand subjected South Africa to their worst defeat in history as they were blanked 57-0. South Africa then recovered themselves against Australia drawing with the Wallabies 23-23. However, lapses in concentration and discipline coupled to some poor execution and an aimless kicking game which seemed to focus on kicking away valuable possession for no visible gain at key moments, saw the Springboks lose a game they should have won.

On their return to South Africa for their final two home games of the Rugby Championship, South Africa found some redemption in the match against New Zealand. However, the opening fixture against Australia in Bloemfontein showed no improvement in the key areas which tripped them up in the first Test against the Wallabies two weeks previously, and once more a highly unsatisfying draw at 27-27 was the inconclusive result. It was the final match against New Zealand in Cape Town where the Springboks produced their best performance of the year, and Hooker Malcolm Marx in particular who singlehandedly personified the passion and legacy of the Springbok jersey in a superhuman effort. Given that the Springboks had essentially been written off prior to the match, it was a heroic effort from a team that seemed determined to turn things around and restore some much-needed pride to the Springbok name. South Africa may have lost by one point, but they had the All Blacks on the ropes for the full eighty minutes in what was for us one of the most epic Test matches of 2017.

South Africa then headed to Europe for their end of year tour in November. Buoyed by the performance against New Zealand in the final game of the Rugby Championship, their opening fixture against Ireland was one which many anticipated eagerly. Sadly though it wasn’t to be. Once more the Springboks took ten steps backwards and produced yet another inept and chaotic display of rugby which made them look clueless and sadly lacking in the basic skills needed at Test level. Ireland dominated the match from start to finish in a clinical display that saw South Africa suffer their worst ever defeat to the Men in Green by 38-3. Much like the 57-0 drubbing they received at the hands of the All Blacks a few months earlier, it was painful and embarrassing to watch if you were a Springbok supporter. They once more found some redemption in their match against France a week later, but it was a less than convincing display which in all honesty they were lucky to win by a mere one point at 18-17. Next up they took on a shambolic Italy in exceptionally poor conditions, and the scoreline of 35-6 in favor of the Springboks didn’t really tell us much about whether or not much improvement had really been made by South Africa. Both the French and Italian games were torrid spectacles in which South Africa simply battered both teams into submission physically. Neither match showed much inventiveness from South Africa in attack, in stark contrast to the French who seemed to have plenty, and the glaring deficiencies of South Africa’s current crop of backs were there for all to see. If it hadn’t been for South Africa’s exceptional physical presence in the forwards there would have been little to write about. In their final match against a weakened Welsh side, South Africa laboured through to ultimately lose yet another game they could and should have won. In short Wales were poor but South Africa were worse. Most of the team looked as though they were simply fulfilling a contractual obligation and just wanted yet another humiliating season to end, so they could all get on the plane and go home and try to regroup for next year.

So the renaissance that was the French series at the beginning of the season, and which left so many of us hoping that South Africa were finally back with a vengeance has sadly ended up being yet another false dawn. South Africa did produce one truly epic Test match against the All Blacks in Cape Town but to be honest that is the only time we really felt that this was a team that had really turned a corner. However, a month later in Dublin we were once more were left speechless as South Africa put in a performance that was so far removed from the Cape Town spectacle that it was hard to believe that the same players had produced such heroics. South Africa really does have some truly world-class players from 1-8 but sadly that is where it stops. Names like Malcolm Marx, Eben Etzebeth, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Siya Kolisi will continue to impress for South Africa and keep us glued to our TV screens, but their backs are beyond average and while their half back combinations may shine in Super Rugby they simply can’t seem to reproduce that success at Test level. The ongoing issues around Coaching seem no further ahead to the point that there seems such a blatantly obvious discord between players and coaches it is hard to see how any training or planning can actually take place. As a result the Springboks continue to appear confused as to their identity in terms of game plan and the type of rugby they want to play. Lastly, a poor track record away from home continues to haunt them allied to a desperate and aimless kicking game when their backs are against the wall. This only serves to put them under even greater pressure which causes the team dynamic to fall apart even more, and with it their discipline.

While 2017 may once more have painted a rather depressing picture of where this once proud rugby nation is at, we still prefer to remain optimistic. Hopefully there will be some much-needed change in 2018 at the Coaching level which will do much to fix many of the issues plaguing South African rugby at the moment. World Rugby without a strong Springbok side is a poorer playing field and we really hope that the glimpses we saw of this once fiercely competitive side in the second Test against the All Blacks this year will become the norm again for 2018. We accept that South Africa is perhaps cursed with a highly complex layer of politics overriding the natural development of the game and the national side, but there is still no denying that South Africa is still a global powerhouse of rugby talent and as such it is only a matter of time before it once more takes its rightful place at the highest level of International Test Rugby.

Match of the year – South Africa vs New Zealand – October 7th – Cape Town – South Africa 24/New Zealand 25. As mentioned above this was South Africa’s best performance of the year by a country mile, and for us one of the top three Tests of 2017. It was a powerful and thrilling contest that had us on the edge of our seats for the full eighty minutes. South Africa were simply superb and Hooker Malcolm Marx personified the legend of the Springbok jersey in a performance that was superhuman in nature. Simply outstanding and a match that has been kept for posterity on our PVRs. If South Africa could play like that every time they take to the field then we would be having a VERY different discussion about their chances come the World Cup in Japan in eighteen months time.

Player of the year – Malcolm Marx. While he may have had problems with consistency this year, when he did bring his A game, the Springbok hooker was probably the best number 2 on the planet in 2017. A ferocious competitor who proved exceptionally difficult to contain or bring down in any kind of space, while at the same time producing some of the most spectacular turnovers of 2018 for his team, Marx personified everything that South African rugby needed in terms of a renaissance. If coached properly we expect the Hooker to rapidly rise to the very top echelons of his trade in 2018. Marx is a truly exceptional player and expect him to once more be one of the key talking points in South African rugby in 2018.

Player to watch in 2018 – Daniel du Preez. The versatile back rower impressed throughout 2017 every time he took to the field, much in the same way as did his older brother Jean-Luc. However, for us Daniel du Preez typifies the new look versatile and dynamic South African loose forward. Elusive, hard to bring down and possessing a phenomenal work rate, players like du Preez and Siya Kolisi are bringing so much imagination to the traditional smash and bash role of South African forwards. Expect to see du Preez get more spots in the starting XV in 2018 than as an impact player off the bench, a role he performed so admirably in 2017.

We end this report card on a positive note for South Africa with highlights from their best game of the year – the second Test against New Zealand in Cape Town. It was an epic performance and as we have said repeatedly throughout this piece one of the best Tests of the year. It had everything a great Test match should have, and considering that the Springboks played such a huge part in making it the spectacle it was, there is plenty of life left in the Springbok jersey yet. Down but definitely not out is our overall verdict on the Springboks for 2017 based on this performance. Here’s hoping for plenty more in 2018!

To be continued – up next Australia!

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, and a first for this year the USA and Georgia. We try to figure out 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 4 where we take a look at how Georgia fared.

Georgia – 8/10

We have to admit that here at The Lineout, Georgia have become our favourite Tier 2 team. This is a side that just keeps getting better ever year and has to be one of the most committed and passionate units out there. Their development programme leading up to next year’s World Cup in Japan appears to be bearing plenty of fruit, and expect this outfit to be able to hold their own in a very tough pool next year, so much so that a quarter-final place is certainly a realistic ambition for them.

Georgia can feel exceptionally pleased with the results from their eleven matches this year. 8 wins and 3 losses, one of them by a mere 1 point is an impressive track record. Georgia got their 2017 campaign off to a solid start in the Rugby Europe Championship, though they will have been gutted to not win the tournament finishing a strong second as the result of their agonising 1 point loss to their main European rivals Romania. The match against Romania was their only real slip up as they simply dominated the rest of the opposition in no uncertain terms.

Brimming with confidence they headed to the Americas in June for a tough three match series against Canada, the USA and finally Argentina. The seriousness of the threat posed by Georgia was reflected in the fact that Argentina essentially fielded a full strength squad to contain the men from the Caucasus. Georgia completely outplayed Canada and then put in a gritty performance to seal a hard-fought win against the United States. They may have lost their final match against a strong Pumas outfit, but to their credit never looked like quitting and ultimately dominated the final quarter of the match scoring two fine tries, allowing them to leave the pitch with their heads held high despite the 45-29 scoreline in favor of the hosts.

November saw Georgia get two home Tests with a trip to Wales in between. Playing Canada once more, but this time in the highly exuberant and passionate atmosphere of Dinamo Arena in Tbilisi, Georgia put in a performance that completely marginalised Canada. It was a glorious and skillful display of running rugby and highly physical and suffocating defence. Fullback Soso Matiashvili’s extraordinary try in the 68th minute was, for us, one of the best of the year by any team. Georgia just looked exceptionally well-drilled and polished and were a joy to watch. Georgia took that committment to Wales where they stood up well to the challenge they faced in Cardiff. While the match lacked much of the spectacle we have come to expect from them and was one of the year’s worst Test matches, this was not the fault of Georgia. At times Georgia had Wales on the ropes and one could argue that it was slightly cynical albeit legal tactics from Wales that saw the Welshman get an edgy win. Georgia ended the year on a high note as they returned to Tibilisi and held off a remarkable US comeback in the second half. However, they will surely be reviewing the tapes of that match to see how they let the USA so comprehensively back into the match after completely dominating them in the first half.

In short a remarkable team that is clearly well coached and highly motivated. Despite the presence of some remarkable individual talent, they play exceptionally well as a team and all of their matches this year reflected this quality. Discipline still remains an ongoing bugbear for a team as passionate as this, and in the heat of the moment it did trip them up a few times this year. However, compared to Georgian sides of old they have dramatically improved in this area. It is our hope that they continue to get the exposure they so clearly thrive on in 2018 and remain firm in our belief that they have the ability to spoil some of the big teams’ parties in 2019 in Japan. Consequently we will be watching them with a great deal of interest this year and strongly recommend you do the same!

Match of the Year – Georgia vs Canada – November 11th – Tbilisi – Georgia 54/Canada 22. While it may have been painful for us here in Canada to watch this match, we have to admit to thoroughly enjoying the spectacle of a Georgian team on fire as they completely outclassed the Canadians in front of a very vocal and rapturous home crowd. Georgia were outstanding right across the park and a joy to watch. It was this kind of performance that really showed what a classy outfit they have become. The calls for their inclusion in the Six Nations are only going to keep getting louder if they keep putting on displays like this.

Player of the year – Mikheil Nariashvili. He may not be the most graceful player out there but his work rate is off the charts. Tackling anything that moves he is ferocious in defence and five metres from the opposition line is a player teams find very difficult to pull down. The Georgian loosehead prop is a great scrummager and exceptionally dangerous in any pileup of Georgian bodies. Embodying all the best traits of Georgia’s very physical brand of rugby, Nariashvili will continue to be in the headlines for the Lelos, as they are known locally, in 2018.

Player to watch in 2018 – Soso Matiashvili. Yes we’ll admit that we are giving this distinction based primarily on that remarkable try the Georgian fullback scored against Canada in November. It was extraordinary and deserves to be recognised as such. More importantly though it recognises the fact that Georgia can now not only play a highly physical forwards based game, which has been their trademark for so many years, but now also possess some highly dangerous and silky backs to add even more fire to their attacking abilities. No longer is Georgia a one-dimensional team. Add to this a fairly reliable kicking boot and we’ll be looking to Matiashvili to continue to make his mark on this Georgian side in 2018.

We end this report card with highlights from their best game of the year in our opinion. As mentioned above their second match against Canada at home in Tbilisi was a fantastic display of Test rugby at the Canadians’ expense. Georgia weren’t just good they were amazing! It is this kind of display that will keep us glued to our screens every time they play in 2018.

To be continued – up next South Africa!

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 3 where we take a look at how the USA fared.

USA – 7/10

Considering that the USA had to change coaches halfway through 2017, their results have still been heartening for their supporters as six solid wins were offset by 3 narrow losses, with the exception of the schooling they received from Ireland in June and two draws. A very successful Americas Rugby Championship got their 2017 campaign underway and they emerged as impressive champions, winning four out of their five matches and remaining undefeated, albeit having to settle for a draw with Argentina in their final match.

This sense of optimism was brought to a screeching halt as an Irish developmental side put them to the sword in June, and a feisty and challenging Georgian team then got the better of them a week later. They ended the month with a difficult home and away two game series against Canada in order to qualify for the 2019 World Cup. The first match away to Canada was a tough and gruelling encounter but was definitely up to the standard of this age-old fierce rivalry between the two North American sides who battled it out to a nail-biting draw. The return leg in the US saw the Americans completely dismantle Canada’s challenge in one of their most convincing performances of the year as they brushed Canada aside 52-16, perhaps in part inspired to provide veteran flanker Todd Clever with a memorable sendoff in his 72nd and final Test for the Eagles.  Often referred to as Captain America after leading his side in over 50 Test matches, the sometimes controversial but always colorful and committed Clever leaves behind a huge hole in the team that it will be hard to fill.

In comparison to many of the other Tier Two nations, the USA had a relatively quiet November Test series, as they only played Germany and Georgia. Furthermore, the Eagles lost their Kiwi Coach, John Mitchell to South African Super Rugby franchise the Stormers in the summer. His replacement South African Gary Gold had to hit the ground running. The Americans got off to a shaky start in their first match against Germany, but soon recovered by the second half to put the match completely out of reach of the Germans by a healthy margin. Despite losing to Georgia, in our opinion the Eagles put in their best performance of the year in only their second outing with their new Coach. Tbilisi as the home stadium of the Georgian team has become an exceptionally challenging venue for visiting teams. With a loud and passionate cauldron of fervent local supporters, many teams find Tbilisi an intimidating place to play. To the Americans credit they held their own and put in a solid performance that saw them lose by just one point.

Despite losing veterans like Todd Clever, the Americans have a promising young team that with the right coaching has shown plenty of promise. They are still plagued by ill discipline at times, and if they are to challenge for the top spots in Tier Two this is one area in particular they will really need to address, along with more consistent execution in the set pieces. Still they are worthy of their spot as the first qualifiers from the Americas for next year’s World Cup (Argentina had already qualified as a result of finishing fourth in the last tournament). This year’s Americas Rugby Championship should be another positive experience for the Eagles and one where they really develop some structure and depth to their squad ahead of the World Cup. There is no doubt that the USA is making a real committment to growing the game at the domestic level and consequently it would appear that a successful national team is seen as a key component of this effort. As a result the Eagles will not be short on access to the resources required, both in terms of personnel and finance to make this ambition a reality going into next year’s showcase tournament in Japan.

Match of the Year – Georgia vs USA – November 25th – Tibilisi – Georgia 21/USA 20. The thriller in the Caucasus had all the intensity and passion of a top-level Test match. Highly physical and with some exceptional commitment from both sides, a real never say die attitude from the Americans saw them claw their way back into the match after three tries in succession by the Georgians in the second quarter of the first half seemed to seal the Eagles fate. It was a powerful comeback that showed the resilience and heart of this young American side, as the Georgians found themselves under intense pressure for the remainder of the match. In short, write this team off at your peril and we expect to see more of the same this year, with them once again tipped as joint favourites with Argentina in the forthcoming Americans Rugby Championship starting next month.

Player of the year – AJ MacGinty. As the Eagles leading point scorer in 2017, MacGinty made his mark and then some. The talented Irish-born fly half provided his team with an exceptionally reliable source of points from the kicking tee and his placekicking and eye for opportunity was the spark that set in motion some of the Eagles most exciting scores in 2017. Always willing to put his body on the line MacGinty has become a vital part of the Eagles set up and will play a key role in shaping the development and success of the squad in the countdown to the World Cup in Japan next year.

Player to watch in 2018 – Mike Te’o. Equally at home on the wing or at fullback Te’o possesses some silky running skills that are a joy to watch. A real speedster who is only going to get better the more exposure he gets, this is a player we expect to see making headlines for the Eagles in 2018.

We end this report card with highlights from the Eagles best game of the year in our opinion, their final match of the year against Georgia. Although the result in Tbilisi ended in a loss for the Americans by a mere point it was balanced on a knife-edge as the Americans fought back in the second half and managed to keep the Georgians scoreless for the full final forty minutes of the match. While it was a loss for the Eagles their comeback in the second half set against the backdrop of the cauldron that Tbilisi has become, showed enormous character in the face of adversity by the Eagles, something which will serve them well in 2018.

To be continued – up next Georgia!

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!

As always we start the New Year looking back over the past twelve months and handing out our verdict on the top ten teams 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.

Argentina – 5/10

We wish we could say it has been a good year for Argentina, but sadly we can’t. If anything the dip in fortunes for the Pumas since the last World Cup continued apace in 2017 leaving them with very little to cheer about. There is still no denying that they continue to produce some prodigious rugby talent, and are a side that it would be suicidal for any team to take lightly. However, in terms of results Argentina are increasingly becoming the paupers at Test Rugby’s top table.

Argentina’s first significant foray in 2017 was in the second installment of the Americas Rugby Championship. While this is not the full Test Pumas side that does the regular International Test circuit and is in many ways a developmental Argentinian A side, it still boasts talent that is usually very quickly seen in the full Pumas squad within a year. Consequently the ARC has been a good proving ground for up and coming Pumas hopefuls in the last two years and 2017’s edition was no exception. It is a tournament that Argentina does well in, winning the 2016 tournament and finishing a close second to the USA in this year’s.

Consequently Argentina impressed in 2017’s ARC, dispatching all their rivals including Canada with ease and only being denied the title after drawing with the USA in a hard-fought final match in Argentina. As a result Argentina had to finish in second place, 1 point behind the USA. Still there was plenty to be excited about for Argentinian supporters as a raft of promising young talent played some superb rugby at times.

Argentina’s next challenge was a 2 match series in June against a visiting English side also boasting some dangerous new talent, as many of England’s star players were serving on the Lions tour of New Zealand. Still in both matches a full strength Pumas side acquitted themselves well against an energetic and dangerous looking English side, despite ultimately losing the series 2-0. In the second Test in particular Argentina started to show the signs that would be their Achilles heel all year, as they seemed to run out of gas at the 65 minute mark, especially once talismanic Captain and Hooker Agustin Creevy left the field. Argentina managed to get themselves back on track with an ultimately comprehensive victory over Georgia to close out the month.

The Rugby Championship two months later however, can only be described as a crushing disappointment for the Pumas, despite them playing probably their best game of the year in the tournament in New Zealand and away from home. Their opening two matches against South Africa were disorganized and labored efforts that highlighted a lack of discipline and patience under pressure as well as a team relying on individual talents rather than any sort of cohesive structure. Their trip to New Zealand however saw them produce what we considered to be their best game of the year. Argentina started well and to everyone’s surprise, perhaps even their own, found themselves in the lead at half time. However, it wasn’t to last as they started to fade dramatically in the final quarter and the All Blacks were able to regroup as only they know how. In their remaining three games, despite the final two matches being at home, they appeared to have run out of steam and ideas, as Australia and New Zealand notched up some easy victories over the South Americans.

Consequently it was a weary Pumas side that headed to Europe in November to face the Northern Hemisphere’s two top sides England and Ireland. To give them credit they clearly unsettled England at Twickenham and despite the loss the scoreline meant that they left the field with their pride intact. This was clearly the confidence booster they needed to put Italy to the sword a week later, as well as put in a gritty and determined performance against Ireland in their final match of the year. Although they lost to both England and Ireland, they had certainly made their opponents work hard and once more demonstrated that, while it may be at sixes and sevens at the moment in terms of direction, Argentinian rugby is still a potent threat. If they can find the momentum that made them such a force to be reckoned with in the last World Cup, then they are blessed with enough talent to once more reestablish themselves at the top end of the Test table. Bring back some of their overseas based players and all of a sudden Argentina look a serious threat to their World Cup pool opponents in Japan in 2019.

However, for now Argentina are clearly stuck in third gear and while they may be awkward opponents for any of the world’s best teams, based on their present form, results are likely to still be depressingly few and far between. Down but not out, Argentina really need to make 2018 the year they find the spark to reignite a successful build up to the 2019 World Cup.

Match of the year – New Zealand vs Argentina – New Plymouth – September 9th – New Zealand 39/Argentina 22. This was the match where the Pumas pulled out all the stops and put in a powerful and thrilling display which saw them take a well deserved lead at half time. Sadly though they couldn’t keep it up for the full 80 minutes but definitely the best 60 minutes of Argentinian rugby we saw all year!

Player of the year – Agustin Creevy. He may be a sixty minute player but what a sixty minutes he consistently manages to produce every time he takes the field in a Pumas jersey. The Captain and Hooker is up there with the likes of Italy’s Sergio Parisse in terms of ability and the inspiration he provides to his team. An exceptional player who always leaves his mark.

Player to watch in 2018 – Emiliano Boffelli. The lanky winger made a real name for himself in 2017, as well as being a prodigious try scorer. Fast, powerful and with the added bonus of a boot that seems able to find its target from even the most remote and distant corners of the pitch, Boffelli is likely to get a lot of overseas clubs scrambling for their checkbooks in 2018.

We’ll end this report card with some highlights of their last Test of the year against Ireland, in which they acquitted themselves well and hopefully gave us a glimpse of the Pumas side of old that we hope to see more of in 2018!

To be continued – up next Canada!