All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has expressed confidence in his team’s state of readiness less than a year from the Rugby World Cup in Japan where it will try to win the Webb Ellis Trophy for the third straight time. After a difficult 2018 season, which included an historic loss to world No. 2 Ireland, fans are less optimistic.
Hansen believes his team has uncovered new talent and developed new aspects of its game that will serve it well in Japan. He said its losses this season to Ireland in Dublin and South Africa in Wellington were learning experiences from which the team will benefit. Fans are more anxious after seeing the All Blacks outplayed by Ireland.
Against the British and Irish Lions last year and Ireland this year, the All Blacks have shown a tactical weakness and lack of composure against smothering defenses which would seem to serve as a blueprint for teams which aim to unseat them as world champions.
Hansen insists all is well, that the coaching staff have worked out new means to break those defenses. The form of key players, including captain Kieran Read, has also been of concern but, again, Hansen is sure the All Blacks are on track to win their fourth world championship.
It was a widely held view anyway, but this month delivered definitive proof: Ireland can win the Rugby World Cup.
Even the impending departure of coach Joe Schmidt, who’s quitting the team after next year’s tournament in Japan, won’t puncture the optimism among Irish fans after a November clean sweep that famously included a 16-9 victory over New Zealand. It was a first ever home win against the All Blacks, and a second triumph over the world champions in two years.
That alone surely puts Ireland as second favorite to capture the Webb Ellis Cup — All Blacks coach Steve Hansen mischievously said Schmidt’s side was the favorite — but other important factors include the country’s depth of talent and the structure in Irish rugby that gives players in the national team the best chance to perform and to stay relatively fresh.
Schmidt has Johnny Sexton — named on Sunday as the world’s best player for 2018 — marshalling the team but might have one wish heading into next season: That scrumhalf Conor Murray makes a full recovery from long-standing issues with his neck.
— By Steve Douglas
The Welsh are arguably going through their best period since the glory days of the 1970s, with a first four-match sweep of victories in November extending their winning run to nine internationals.
They consolidated third place in the rankings, and just as impressive as the team’s game management in toughing out wins over Scotland, Australia, and South Africa is the squad depth that allowed Warren Gatland’s reserves to put 74 points past Tonga in between.
Psychologically, Wales now knows how to win against the giants of the southern hemisphere (even though the All Blacks remain something of a bete noire). That was always the stick to beat Gatland with, after so many plucky losses to the Wallabies and Springboks, but no more.
The retirement of Sam Warburton and the absence this month of Taulupe Faletau hasn’t derailed Wales’ back row, with flanker Ellis Jenkins the latest highly rated tyro off the production line.
The Welsh aren’t at the level of Ireland or the All Blacks, but are still a team to be feared going into the Rugby World Cup.
— By Steve Douglas
This month wasn’t quite going to be make or break for Eddie Jones, but the critics might have sharpened their claws had a nasty November followed a June series loss in South Africa and, before that, a fifth-place finish in the Six Nations.
He will, therefore, be content with victories over Australia and South Africa dovetailing a 16-15 loss to New Zealand, however frustrating it would have been to let a rare win over the All Blacks slip through England’s grasp from 15-0 up.
Key for Jones will be having a fully fit squad at his disposal going into the Rugby World Cup, with the Vunipola brothers, Chris Robshaw, Anthony Watson and Joe Launchbury among those missing this month.
Powerful center Manu Tuilagi’s return is a nice bonus and gives England a very different option in midfield. Owen Farrell again showed he is world class, even if his technique in the tackle is under the microscope.
Compared to a few months ago, it could be much worse for Jones less than a year out from Japan.
— By Steve Douglas
1. SOUTH AFRICA
Rassie Erasmus’ Springboks ended their season the way they started it, with defeat to Wales, and a success rate of barely 50 percent in 2018 (seven wins from 13 tests) indicates there was no quick-fix under the new coach.
South Africa reclaimed some of its reputation after an embarrassing period under Allister Coetzee, but the Boks are still fighting to be the force they were. Erasmus did mastermind a victory over the All Blacks in New Zealand in September but, overall, South Africa progressed only from poor to inconsistent when fans were hoping for more.
Erasmus has scrumhalf Faf de Klerk and fullback Willie le Roux back from international exile as his playmakers but questions remain ahead of the Rugby World Cup: Erasmus rates No. 8s Warren Whiteley and Duane Vermeulen but can’t play both of them in their favored position and his best loose-forward combination is still unclear. There is no obvious backup to de Klerk at No. 9.
Overall, the forward pack is still one of the strongest, and fast young wings Aphiwe Dyantyi and Sbu Nkosi make the Boks more threatening out wide than they have been in years, but combining those elements into a regular match-winning formula has been elusive.
Also, to help the racial transformation of the sport, South African rugby has promised the government that at least 50 percent of its squad at the Rugby World Cup in Japan will be black players and Erasmus must start planning for that. It’s an additional complication that no other national team or coach has.
— By Gerald Imray
The best part of 2018 has finally arrived for the Wallabies. The end.
In a nine-loss year, their worst losing percentage in 30 years, the Wallabies regressed. The defense was fragile, the set-pieces were a horror show, and the attack floundered without a coherent plan. They had no edge and didn’t intimidate. This month they scored three tries against Italy, all in a 14-minute spell. The rest of the time they were defending. The next week, the All Blacks scored 10 tries, and Italy never saw the tryline.
But the Wallabies’ woes go deeper than the team. Rugby is in crisis at home.
The juniors haven’t reached the world under-20 semifinals since 2011. And in Super Rugby, the Western Force were axed to improve the other franchises, and it failed. A 40-match losing streak against New Zealand franchises wasn’t snapped until May. The Australian teams’ poor showings have meant there hasn’t been a viable alternative to national coach Michael Cheika, who should have been sacked on Oct. 7, the day after the Wallabies beat Argentina 45-34 from 31-7 down in Salta. Notwithstanding the comeback, the Wallabies were awful.
If the Australian Rugby Union had pulled the trigger, Cheika would have understood. He was appointed in October 2014 after Ewen McKenzie’s shock resignation. Within a year, the Wallabies were in the 2015 Rugby World Cup final and Cheika was world coach of the year.
But since then, he’s led them to 17 wins in 42 tests. It’s too late to dump Cheika now, but the Wallabies need a new voice, new eyes, and inspiration.
— By Foster Niumata
If the Rugby World Cup next year was in Scotland, the host would be a title contender. Until the Scots get over their road rash, they are a one-trick pony. And the trick is to play them far from Murrayfield. The Scots are well equipped: The pack is typically ferocious and the backs are thrilling. But Wales showed in Cardiff at the start of the month that the Scots have a mental block away from home. And it still looks like Japan — the Rugby World Cup host — they will have to go through to reach the quarterfinals.
South Africa breached the Murrayfield castle this month, and if that was “one that got away,” then beating Argentina was “one they got away with.” The Scots were second best in every statistic against the Pumas but prevailed thanks to the Murrayfield factor. They never stopped believing, and to win while not at their best was creditable. However, the experiment of playing two No 10s, Finn Russell and Adam Hastings, was indecisive.
— By Foster Niumata
A lucky draw with Japan a year ago cost Guy Noves his job as France coach. A loss to Fiji, however, shouldn’t cost his successor Jacques Brunel.
Brunel has won as many tests this year as Noves did last year — three — but the Tricolors are in better shape, though still prone to hideous errors, a la Fiji, against whom they were “little boys,” according to Mathieu Bastareaud.
Brunel appears to have a little more leeway left. Before the team was Fiji-ed, they lost in the last minute to South Africa and overcame Argentina to avoid their worst losing streak in nearly 50 years.
Fiji has put a lid on burgeoning expectations of France. But after the juniors won the world under-20 title in June, there’s optimism young talent could yet be the salvation.
— By Foster Niumata
The Pumas were the only tier one team to change coach this year. It worked. Mario Ledesma moved over from the Super Rugby Jaguares, the Jaguares put on Pumas jerseys, and the team immediately looked pumped up. Two wins don’t look respectable, but the Pumas are a “big picture” side. Unlike most other teams, they regard the destination as more important than the journey. Results now are less important than building to the Rugby World Cup, and in that regard they were on course by finishing the year better then they started. They were competitive this month until the last quarter against Ireland, France, and Scotland. Exhaustion set in after the same squad played Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship.
Ledesma’s bosses loosened the rules to allow him to pick overseas-based players but apart from asking for a couple of props, he stuck with only Jaguares, who reached the Super Rugby playoffs for the first time. Injured European-based props Ramiro Herrera and Juan Figallo were missed this month as the Pumas scrum creaked and groaned. But the experience was invaluable. Agustin Creevy gave up the captaincy after four years but was still a menace at the breakdown, and new loose forward Rodrigo Bruni looked like a rising star. By the time they arrive in Japan, they will have their exiles back and undoubtedly be stronger.
— By Foster Niumata
To Italy, the November home series was a success. Georgia was beaten. Thanks to the comfortable 28-17 win, Italy put to bed any more talk about being replaced in the Six Nations by the hyped-up Georgians, the seventh best team in Europe. The Italians, however, are still odds-on to take the wooden spoon in the next Six Nations.
Former Ireland fullback Conor O’Shea promised improvement when he took over Italy in June 2016. There has been. He’s working from the clubs up, and the Italian sides are winning more. Change is taking effect, and a greater range of talent is becoming available to O’Shea, who hasn’t been afraid to give caps to newcomers.
But discipline and sloppy errors still plague the Azzurri. They gave the Wallabies a run for their money, but were outclassed by the All Blacks this month. Playing without injured captain Sergio Parisse still looked the same as when he played.
O’Shea sees progress but admits there is still “a very, very long” way to go.
— By Daniella Matar
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