After a compelling autumn series that brought the curtain down on international rugby in 2017, there is much to ponder for the Tier One nations as they head into 2018. Some big wins for the home nations over Southern hemisphere sides has whetted the appetite as the countdown to the 2019 World Cup begins, Australia and South Africa will make the long journey home licking their wounds after some disastrous displays and despite a few shaky moments New Zealand once again will go into the new year as the ones to beat at the top of the world rankings. So what did we learn from this year’s autumn internationals?
New generation of All Blacks up to the challenge
It has been a strange old year for the reigning world champions and one that will probably leave coach Steve Hansen quietly content, with his side not quite hitting the heights of 2016 yet still having a successful season. The disappointment of a drawn Lions series was soon put to bed with a perfect six from six securing yet another Rugby Championship crown, and despite being brought back down to earth with a defeat to old rivals Australia in Brisbane, Kieran Read and co finished the year back to winning ways with victories over France, Scotland and Wales respectively. Having rested some key players at various times throughout 2017, Hansen has looked to build the depth of his squad by exposing a number of players to test rugby. The likes of Kane Hames, Nepo Laulala and Vaea Fifta have all enjoyed established runs in the All Blacks team this year along with youngsters such as Jordie Barrett, Rieko Ioane and Damian McKenzie. Bedding in new players doesn’t come without it’s difficulties as proven with some patchy displays by their own high standards, but for the large part these new players have settled in nicely to the rigours of test match rugby with Rieko Ioane in particular starring with a number of spectacular performances that even saw him nominated for Word Rugby Player of the Year. The introduction of these players has also given Steve Hansen the luxury of resting a number of the All Blacks’ most experienced stars with Owen Franks, Ben Smith and Brodie Retallick as well as a number of others given time off to recharge the batteries with the World Cup in Japan fast approaching. In blooding these players now, Hansen is widening an already sizeable pool of playing talent to ensure that come 2019 his side are well prepared to defend their title once again.
Welsh in identity crisis
In what has been a fairly miserable year for Wales, an underwhelming autumn series would not have come as much of a surprise. Two wins and two losses from their four games, only tells half the picture of a somewhat chaotic campaign. Stretched by injuries in key positions and adapting their style of play with the introduction of a second playmaker in midfield, Warren Gatland’s side produced inconsistent displays that at times veered from the sublime to the ridiculous. In finally answering fans’ long-awaited calls to play a more expansive running game Wales have thrown the ball around a lot more in this autumn series with the inclusion of Owen Williams at inside centre crucial to this new way of playing, but handling errors and a lack of execution undermined Welsh efforts throughout the autumn as well as poor decision-making when awarded penalties. This was evident in the first two matches with the Australia game seeing the players opt for shots at goal rather than kicking to the corner despite having their opponents under pressure in their own half, and the Georgia game the following week seeing the opposite scenario as Wales failed to slowly build their lead through shots at goal instead opting to kick to the corner where they often failed to execute try-scoring opportunities. In both matches, the decisions at these crucial times were questionable but the contrast from one week to the next in decision-making does not bode well for the future and hints at a team at odds with each other at what is their most effective game-plan. Patience is clearly needed for Welsh supporters with the players still getting to grips with this new style of play and there were enough signs of encouragement to suggest that Gatland should persist with this way of playing, but with their rivals seeming more in-tune with their specific styles of play Wales need to settle on a game-plan and fast.
Scottish swagger here to stay
Back not so long ago scoring tries proved to be difficult challenge for the Scottish national side. Years and years seemed to go by with Scotland struggling in big matches to find their teeth in attack with an over-reliance on goal-kicking to clinch narrow wins over rivals. However under new coach Gregor Townsend, this Scottish side have finally found their feet in attack racking up a scarcely believable 16 tries in three autumn matches this year. In what was the home crowd’s first taste of life under Townsend’s reign, his side did not fail to entertain the Murrayfield faithful with a number of swashbuckling displays. The rapier-like finishing from the Scots saw them secure a record victory over Australia, overcome a spirited Samoan side in a thrilling encounter and come agonisingly close to grabbing a first test win over New Zealand. In a successful stint at Glasgow where he coached many of the internationals he is working with now, Townsend gained a reputation as one of the best attacking coaches in world rugby and he has taken the same exciting brand of rugby into international rugby with some mightily impressive results to show for it even in these early stages. Having seen his predecessor Vern Cotter work hard to lay the foundations for an improving Scotland side, Townsend has taken this Scottish side to another level and despite there still being areas to work on – particularly in defence – with the likes of Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg, Townsend has the personnel and the game-plan needed to make Scotland a genuine force in world rugby.
Springboks no longer the force of old
For many years the thought of South Africa rocking into town was enough to leave fans and players shuddering with dread. The likes of Victor Matfield, Schalk Burger and Fourie du Preez were uncompromising players that made up a Springbok side of immense physicality and a ferocious desire to win that at times made them seem unbeatable. Add in a sprinkling of stardust provided by the jet-heeled Bryan Habana and South Africa had a winning machine that conquered all before them in a highly successful era that saw them win the 2007 World Cup and also break New Zealand’s stranglehold of the Tri-Nations championship in 2009. The home nations may have occasionally got the better of South Africa at home but were often left with the scars and bruises to show for their efforts against a world-class side. Roll on a few years however and the next generation seem light-years away from their predecessors in the Springbok jersey. Having seen themselves come up just short against New Zealand in the 2015 World Cup, the tournament in England marked the end of distinguished international careers as a number of Springbok legends bowed out of international rugby. Replacing such influential performers was always going to be a hard task for Allister Coetzee when he took over as coach in 2016 but not even he could have predicted the troubles that would follow. A disastrous season saw South Africa record just four wins from 12 test matches, a run that included a 57-15 hammering by New Zealand at home, a first ever defeat to Ireland on home soil and losses to England, Italy and Wales on their end-of-season tour. 2017 may have seen some signs of improvement with a 3-0 series win over France followed up with two wins over Argentina in the Rugby Championship as well as two draws against Australia, however there have still been some dire displays. A record 57-0 defeat to New Zealand and a 38-3 hammering by Ireland are results that are simply not good enough for one of the traditional rugby superpowers, whilst the shambolic defending seen in the recent defeat to a struggling Wales side would have left amateur players blushing. Coetzee may well cling on to his job on the back of an improved overall record this year, but South Africa seem a million miles away from replicating their World Cup triumphs of 1995 and 2007.
2018 Six Nations shaping up to be most competitive yet
With just under two months to go before the European nations go head-to-head, excitement is building particularly amongst the home nations. Eddie Jones’ England have continued on their relentless quest to dethrone New Zealand at the top of world rugby with another storming year which saw them retain their Six Nations title, secure a series win in Argentina and enjoy a perfect autumn campaign. Ireland recovered from a mixed start in the Six Nations to inflict Eddie Jones’ first and only defeat as England coach, a result which began a seven-match winning streak that has seen Joe Schmidt’s men rise to third in the world rankings and Scotland enjoyed their best Six Nations finish in years before Gregor Townsend took the reigns in the summer, bringing his wonder cavalier style of rugby that has helped him to four wins from his first six matches in charge. Warren Gatland’s Wales may have endured a disappointing year that saw them suffer their worst Six Nations finish for over a decade but with their first-choice players returning to full fitness as well as three home matches in next year’s Six Nations they will still be a force to be reckoned with. The battle between the home nations is already building up a head of steam with some mouth-watering encounters to look forward to. Scotland will travel to Cardiff on the opening weekend of the 2018 championship looking for their first victory in the Welsh capital since 2002, whilst as a proud Scot Townsend will have marked down the Calcutta Cup match against England in Edinburgh on 24th February as another key match for his Scotland side and the tournament ends with Ireland meeting England at Twickenham in a match which already looks like being a potential title-decider. France and Italy may well be struggling at present but as proud rugby nations they are also likely to have their say in the most open Six Nations championship in recent memory.
Featured Image c/o Getty Images