2018 – A Rugby Year For The Brave


What kind of vintage was the Rugby Year of 2017 in the context of Japan, land of the Rugby World Cup 2019?
 
Apart from the British and Irish Lions performance against the odds, admittedly enhanced by Sonny Bill Williams foolhardy head tackle in the second test, this year was all about consolidation and preparing for the real tests ahead rather than any life-changing excitement. 
 
Without really breaking sweat, the All Blacks stayed ahead of the pack and have developed the depth they need, losing a couple of games along the way which all great teams have to suffer. 
 
England keep winning with the Grand Slam fading to a Championship, hardly a disaster. In leaving a nagging doubt that they just don’t play with enough sustained excellence, they have finishers, and how. If they can stay in a game they can win every time. Smart but risky. 
 
Ireland look very dangerous and they can beat anyone on their day – the best resource management in the world without doubt and all their best players are centred in a few provinces which makes a huge difference.
 
Let people not think Australia is an easy touch because England and especially Scotland sent them home to think again – they will peak for the World Cup and are a definite semifinalist with all their quality. 
 
France and South Africa are broken by their own internal issues and surely cannot recover in time – tragic, because they have such talent at their disposal. 
 
Scotland is the wild card which excites me – pace and power and a very very smart coach who is getting them to win games again (don’t mention the All Blacks). Organised chaos was their watchword in the 80’s, good enough for Grand Slams and World Cup semifinals. Here they come again. 
 
Sad to say, Wales and Argentina are riven by fatigue and injuries, undone by scheduling and a punishing game which demands deep resource or much better player management. But they are proud nations so expect a World Cup bounce whatever happens this year.
 
Fiji have so many outstanding individuals playing all round the world you must think they will spring a surprise if they can hold onto the players, or will that be the preserve of the hosts? Who can forget Japan v SA 2015!
 
All in all, most teams are marking time Internationally while domestic and European club rugby grows stronger and stronger – more on that another time.
 
My hopes for 2018 
  1. Coaches and players continue to push the boundaries of skill which are producing such high quality matches currently (reference Leinster, Exeter, Wasps, La Rochelle)
  2. World Rugby finally introduces new limits on high tackles and bans the clear out. The dangers are accelerating worryingly and defence coaches should also be held to account.
  3. Less well resourced nations like Fiji and Samoa are finally given the financial help they deserve and not just from World Rugby.
  4. If the right people are not put round a table to sort out the global season structure in 2018, we will have a real crisis and the main sufferers will be the players. Unacceptable. It is not made easier by the discussions likely over the domestic structure of the two club powerhouses of the Northern Hemisphere, England and France.
  5. A world class Six Nations for the first time in years, driven by a rampant Scottish team and somehow a French revival – or am I dreaming on that one?
  6. La Rochelle to break into the big time by challenging the best in Europe.
Lastly, somewhere soon somehow a scrum half will put the ball in straight – oh ok, only a joke.
 

DESTINATION RUGBY RULES


Rugby
It used to be that once the Six Nations was over, sell out rugby grounds were at a huge premium and confined to major finals. No longer, as has been proven since England were squeezed out of a Double Grand Slam by a highly disciplined Irish team. Consider the following…
 
First, Dublin played host to a tumultuous European Champions Cup Quarter-Final which saw Leinster triumph over the leading English Club, Wasps, and with an atmosphere which was way more intense. This coming weekend it’s Munster’s turn to try and make it three in a row for Irish teams and over 50,000 tickets are sold. This will not be for the fainthearted and this time it is the defending European Champions, Saracens, whom Stephen Jones called possibly the best team in the world right now at any level. Hard to disagree when they blew away three quarters of the Scottish team in Glasgow Warriors, scoring 40 points that could have been 60. I heard Ian Robertson call them relentless in squeezing the life out of teams. It is much more than that, their game out wide is without match on any rugby field in the world right now. But can they step into the face of Irish passion against a  Munster who are playing well above themselves in this special season? No Conor Murray but that didn’t bother Ireland.
Over in Lyon, Clermont and Leinster are the two most attractive teams to watch in the competition. More than 35,000 fans will be rammed into the Matmut stadium for their Champions Cup Semi-Final and on paper this ought to be one of the best matches ever in the Cup; two international teams going head to head and quality everywhere you look.
 
Let’s look back at the weekend of April 8th, which broke all records in the Premiership; 130,000 fans attending two games in London alone. At Twickenham, Bath found enough to win in a season which feels increasingly precarious. Banahan produced one of the passes of the year to put Watson in for the winning try and Faletau showed why he will be a Lions starter with startling pace and sleight of hand. It is what Billy Vunipola is still working on but here is a man who is now developing wonderful attitude. He was warned by a Premiership referee to calm down as he dragged Saracens out of a hole against Northampton Saints last weekend to achieve an unlikely win. That is the class which Eddie Jones is looking for.
 
The Pro 12 joined in the party with 60,000 at The Principality to watch the four Welsh regions battle it out in ‘Judgement Day’. Unfortunately not much form was forthcoming in any of the matches, and I am confused to hear how many Welsh names are Lions contenders right now. 
 
Finally, we in Europe announced Bilbao and Newcastle for our next two Finals days. This stretches the boundaries and takes rugby to places where the support is there but the experience is new and fresh. Not without risk of course, even allowing for Barcelona hosting last year’s Top 14 Final to 94,000. St James’ Park was an outstanding venue for the Rugby World Cup 2015 – some say the best – and with the Falcons at long last showing signs of a sustained revival the timing could be perfect.
 
The message is clear – the demand is there, you just have to be creative and bold and the crowds will come. These are heady days for rugby watchers, and it just shows you how many people would watch Six Nations in the flesh if they could get access – although eye-watering prices are hardly conducive.
 
As thoughts turn to the British and Irish Lions announcement on Wednesday, I wonder how many more people would be crammed into the stadia in New Zealand if only they had the facilities and the space. However , it doesn’t really matter what the capacity is because if you are talking destination rugby, then look no further than the current World Champions, and home of many of the best players on the planet. Please note Jonny Sexton and Owen Farrell and the Lions in general: Beauden Barritt is simply the best player in the world today as he once again proved over the weekend. Stop him, and the task is well under way.