Renewal and Relentless Class - Preview of the 2018 Rugby Championship
The late-summer onset of test rugby down under is a blessing for rugby lovers. As a newcomer to European soil (and barely that anymore, given how things are in the UK), I have increased access to the defensive hubris of the rugby cognoscenti here. Despite the historical class of the giants south of the equator, dismissiveness persists from these parts for both Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship. Count me as one who thinks the Rugby Championship is a better tournament than the Six Nations, even if I think a single round-robin with a single-game play-off among the top two would improve it. Ben Coles makes a fair point about the apparent lack of drama over who will prevail, but such a point trivialises the sheer quality and makes light of plenty of drama.
We are a year out from Japan. The past two years have done little to suggest the World Cup lead up is going to be terribly different than the past two global contests. The All Blacks remain a class apart, but the rest of the top eight to ten is as tight and unpredictable as ever. Gone for good are the tournaments in which we hoped for at least a couple compelling quarterfinal games. Instead, we now revel in the tension of knowing some real strong sides may not even make the knockout stages. While England slit their wrists in dismay in 2015, their disappointment could be tempered by noting the quality of the sides advancing. More than ever, Australia and South Africa must acknowledge real uncertainty about their prospects for advancing, even with improving form. Ireland and Wales can aspire as credible finals candidates. Indeed, the path to the semifinals and final have never been this hard and fans around the world win.
This backdrop makes this year’s Rugby Championship one to watch with real interest. Three of the competitors have endured quite horrible results since the last World Cup, but each of those three may be on seriously positive trajectories. Their situations are quite different and will be worthy of close inspection. My hope is all three are building in the right direction, and this tournament benefits as a result.
Here are the questions and issues I am looking forward to learning more about in this year’s chapter of the Southern Hemisphere showcase. I picked three keys for each team.
The All Blacks earn their dominance with relentless, constant improvement while bringing new players into the mix as easily as they sweep up their changing rooms. One of the great moments in sport is when a period of dominance reaches an ebb, either through atrophy at the top or pressure from below. No one is surprised to note that any end to Kiwi dominance will happen due to improvements from their competitors, as they show no signs of slipping even a tad bit.
- Dane Coles and Brodie Retallick are back from extended injury absences. Two of the absolute best, and at their best they were easy picks to a World XV. They arguably are as important to the All Blacks success as any other players on the field. How they settle back in will say a lot about whether the All Blacks will canter to another title. With the rise of Malcolm Marx, Coles has a particularly big season in front of him.
- For the first test, imagine being able to leave Sonny Bill, Jordie Barrett, Richie Mo’unga, Ngani Laumape out of the entire 23-man squad. The insane talent machine of New Zealand rugby offers its own version of drama, and the competition for places surely is part of what makes the All Blacks so consistently great. For anyone who got through the recent All Blacks documentary, Hansen’s move to embrace the emergence of Rieko Ioane is even more impressive.
- Can the other sides find some cracks in this team? As we saw last year, the All Blacks remain human and are beatable. It just takes a great performance that is abrasive, full of constant pressure, supreme defensive commitment, and an ability to exploit opportunities. Watching great performances stretch this juggernaut to its limit, and occasionally break through, is terrific spectacle.
Rugby Union has been in a bad place in Oz for quite some time, and the past few years have been a low point. And yet, the Wallabies started to show some signs of life, their last-game capitulation in Murrayfield last November aside (when their appetite to defend at test level had clearly gone). They managed a win against the All Blacks, played a competitive series against Ireland this past June, and may be building a side that could do well in 2019. They still have a great deal of work to do, but for the first time in awhile their supporters can harbour some hope.
- The pack remains a work-in-progress, with room for improvement in the tight five and at number eight. That said, the players available are starting to show they might be able to lift their performances, with the undeniable excellence of the Pooper tandem to inspire them. If they found a star at eight we all might start to believe.
- Depth is a problem, reflecting the competition for athletes in Australia, perhaps unique at this elite level. Only the USA has such compelling and enriching alternatives for athletes that suit the modern rugby union profile. The front row depth is encouraging, but the rest of the pack, the half backs, and backs drop in quality in a hurry. We are starting to see some new faces, but they need to be very good for Wallaby fans to continue to believe in a serious run in Japan. Injury-enforced selections at outside centre are helpful, if a short-term headache.
- Bernard Foley has been the only credible option at fly-half for years, and his form runs from very good to shockingly incoherent. Matt Toomua’s return to the Wallabies could not be better timed. We want to see great things from both, in order to enliven the tournament and light ambitions for a team always capable of surprising.
The Springboks were a total mess in 2016-17, with an historic run of losses and poor form. Changes were necessary and made, bringing in new leadership and a return of foreign-based players of real class. June offered a glimpse of significant improvement, and of equal importance it seemed to rejuvenate the passions of South African fans.
- The Boks need to show this progress is not a false dawn by building increasingly convincing performances. While the pack delivered a typical abrasive, physical game, for me the most encouraging sign was the play in the backs, where the return of Handre Pollard demonstrated how important the right fly-half is to South African rugby. More of what we saw in June will be repaid by the fans.
- Discipline will be important, as the Springboks have to show they can balance their aggression with some sense. The return of Etzebeth is welcome, even if the depth at lock is a plus for the current squad, he needs to show he has moved beyond the increasingly thuggish play from the past few years. His talent is undeniable, but he needs to do better. If he sets the right tone, the Boks may be ready to ascend to their normal heights as the second-greatest rugby nation once more.
- June revealed the power of renewal, and it seemed all of South Africa united behind the team and its new captain, Siya Kolisi. Such esprit des corps is vital to a team that thrives on emotion in its best performances (not that others do not, but it seems to be so essential to South African success). Will that attitude and energy carry on throughout this season?
Frustration must be the operative for the Pumas. Watching them absolutely dismantle Ireland in 2015 was one of the highlights of that World Cup. Since then they have been atrocious. Logistics and their professional setup have not been helpful, but surely more is behind their dip in form. New coaching signals a recognition of the need to move forward, but we have many questions about whether they can be a potential force or an also-ran.
- First and foremost, is Argentina getting better? The Jaguares had a much-improved Super Rugby season, claiming big wins and making it to the knockout stages. When they play their best, they can equal Australia and South Africa, and the question is can they do that more regularly.
- Some big names have stepped away in recent years. New talent is needed and that talent must produce quickly. Selections of the larger tournament squad include some new faces, so we will watch in interest. Some players who have shown promise also need to justify continued selection by playing better than we expect.
- This year Argentina may be able to embrace the “performance matters more than the results” mantra, but this year will be the last one. No one expects the Pumas to do better than third, and most expect another fourth place finish. If they show real competitiveness, claim a few wins, and see some standout players emerge, the season will be a success.