As if the drama of England’s near miss over the All Blacks two weekends ago wasn’t enough, the Springbok’s two tries (one disallowed) in overtime eventually killed off a valiant French challenge in Paris. But more was to come as Ireland finally lived up to a favourite’s billing by downing the men in Black last Saturday evening and installed themselves as the team to beat next year in Japan. Meantime, Wales quietly build momentum and love being under the radar screen. Yes, all six of the above teams in my opinion can win the Rugby World Cup which is a wonderful competitive prospect.
England no longer at sixes and sevens – the old saying was all to do with which Livery company was ranked sixth (1st tier) or seventh (2nd Tier) in the Lord Mayor’s parade and so they took turns. England can cease their 6.5 policy and install Underhill and Curry as their 7’s and worry about the rest afterwards. Underhill was man of the match against New Zealand and is the real deal. However, I am not sure that Jones has learnt too much else this autumn other than he needs to look after Owen Farrell.
Pace and power wins matches – remember South Africa should have beaten England so they could have been 3/3 and are a real threat – a very young side with stunning pace out wide.
Japan rise up – Brighton 2015 was no fluke. Their ball skills, pace and ambition at Twickenham were world class against England who were simply embarrassed and could have been 20 points down at half time (gulp, I also played against Japan some years ago at Twickenham and we were losing at half time so I know the feeling!). The great French teams of the past, the Wales Grand Slammers of the 70’s and the best club sides of any era, Bath included, could only have sat back and admired them. I wonder whether they could threaten a quarter final spot in their home country… this from a team who have regular jobs alongside their rugby – who says you have to train every hour of the day to push the boundaries! And can there be a better flanker in the world than Michael Leitch?
Ireland showed amazing control at the weekend combined with an intensity that sets them apart and Peter O’Mahoney gets a mention alongside Leitch! Their depth also means they will be a serious force for the first time in a World Cup’s latter stages – the All Blacks will lick their wounds and come back stronger after some weeks on beach duty and we should not forget the relative levels of energy of the two hemispheres at this stage in their respective seasons. Being held tryless was heroic by Ireland but that won’t happen very often.
Lastly – player behaviour is slowly changing in the tackle area with one or two exceptions which were left unpunished, which was a step back, but the direction of travel is clear. Onward.
Standards everywhere are steaming higher – even with the globe trotting Barbarians. They operated at a pace which stunned some top England players over the weekend and leaves you worrying for their individual ability to cope with more of the same in Japan next year. Jones may wish to stop analysing too much and pick from Saracens and Exeter with a few from the rest. It could be that obvious.
What else is becoming obvious? Farrell has to play in his pivotal position and how about Slade at 12. That combination is threatening and potent and can feed a fast running outside set of backs, of which England has plenty. Let it thrive and Ford is always there as back up. The Vunipola show gets better and I like the look of Isikwe…..back row pace and power is critical and he has a lot of both.
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
- Coaches and players continue to push the boundaries of skill which are producing such high quality matches currently (reference Leinster, Exeter, Wasps, La Rochelle)
- 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.
- Less well resourced nations like Fiji and Samoa are finally given the financial help they deserve and not just from World Rugby.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.