You don’t really get a rugby break these days, so on Christmas Eve it’s time for the serious business of looking at who was naughty and nice for their respective international teams and speculating what might be on each team’s Santa list for 2014.
Santiago Phelan and Patricio Albacete – for allowing a power struggle to leave the team coach-less three weeks before a Test against England.
Pablo Matera and Marcelo Bosch – for providing the only go-forward options in a team desperately needing some direct running lines.
The top of the list should be a win in the Rugby Championship.
That would suddenly spell progress for a team that has been on a downward trend since their success at the 2007 World Cup and only managed one win in 10 games this year over lowly Italy.
Leading the list to achieve this goal is a strong outside back/finisher who can capitalise on the work of the quality forward pack. What Argentina would give to have a player like a Julian Savea, Israel Folau or George North in their back three.
They will also want a Super Rugby team but we will see if that eventuates.
Scottish Medicos – for not sending players for concussion Tests and routine scans as revealed by Rory Lamont.
U20 player Sam Chalmers – for being caught doping and getting banded for two years.
The talent poachers – for grabbing another ‘almost All Black’ in Sean Maitland and adding him to an already exciting back three.
More players for a start. Scotland have a competent starting side but the lack of depth in a country with only two professional teams sees them struggle when they pick up injuries.
There are young players on the horizon (such as Richie Gray’s brother Jonny) but they are still going to need more.
Changes to the qualifying process in the Heineken Cup might also help the Scottish National side.
Currently they qualify automatically but if changes mean they are required to qualify or miss out they might gain the hardened attitude needed to compete at the top.
Either way, incoming coach Vern Cotter will definitely bring a hardened attitude with him.
The world’s richer clubs – for continually reeling in Samoan/Pacific Island players and then capturing their allegiance.
Super Rugby Organisers – for dismissing a Pacific Island Super Rugby team that would provide a crucial gateway to strengthen Pacific Island rugby.
Players like Kahn Fotualii and Alapati Leiua for being on the All Black radar and choosing not to sell out.
Introduction into The Rugby Championship is probably fair request for the well-performed Samoans, but if they can’t get that they should at get more games against higher ranked nations.
They are a tier-two nation ranked eighth in the world but can only get two games a year against teams ranked above them.
How are they supposed to get better if they don’t consistently play at higher standards? Just to put that into perspective, in 2013, Scotland (ranked behind Samoa) got eight games against teams ranked higher than them.
Irish fans – for not buying enough tickets leaving the IRFU with a 26 million Euro loss over the next six years.
Warren Gatland – via the British and Irish Lions, for not selecting BOD for the last Test against Australia.
Cian Healy for being the premiere loose head prop in international rugby.
Brian O’Driscoll for being a class contributor to rugby over his career.
Consistency for a start. Ireland have great club sides, they have great players, they can put in great performances, but they don’t seem to be able to do it regularly.
They slapped a very good team in Samoa and then were unbelievably flat against Australia.
A proper send off in the 2014 Six Nations for one of Ireland’s greatest players – Brian O’Driscoll – will also be high on the agenda after they failed to get it done against New Zealand. After that, finding someone to replace him will be key.
Mike Phillips – for allegedly turning up to a training session drunk then getting fired.
The Welsh club setup – for not being able to keep Welsh players in Wales.
Leigh Halfpenny for an outstanding season and being nominated for player of the year.
Warren Gatland for signing on until the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
Wales will want another Six Nations title, but their ultimate goal will be wins against Southern Hemisphere teams.
Wales have a game plan and mindset similar to the Southern Hemisphere teams, particularly Australia and New Zealand, however they haven’t broken the mental spell these teams have held over them for a long time.
Warren Gatland’s coaching mind games have worked to a point but he will still have to ram home the fact that Wales can beat anyone on their day.
They will also want to remain injury free for the Six Nations which should see them as a good shot at retaining the trophy.
The French clubs – for having a schedule that doesn’t allow an international team to prepare properly, limiting French player involvement and trying to hold European rugby to ransom.
Philippe Saint-André – for confusing selection tactics including dropping one of their best players in Louis Picamoles.
Wesley Fofana – for outplaying the All Black center partnership in New Zealand.
Brice Dulin – for being an exciting new find.
A better defensive pattern for a start. France had a woeful year, only winning two games, with defence being a major flaw.
However, their main desire will be an end to the chaos of the European break away. The FRU and the clubs now have a tenuous relationship with the FRU blocking the break away, offering money to stay, the clubs coming back but stating they will only do so if the English clubs are included… It’s messy, very messy.
English clubs – for being so feisty and messing up European rugby.
Manu Tuilagi’s surgeon – for not being able to fix him yet.
English clubs for being so feisty and making the ERC look at better options for European rugby.
The English forward pack for developing into a world class unit.
England have been progressing quite nicely in the forwards and have developed a lot of depth, but they will still want more from their back division.
More tries for Chris Ashton are a must, but this should come when they are able to field a fully fit midfield that will allow the outside backs more space.
Creating that space is a must for England to start beating the Southern Hemisphere consistently, so more ball-playing from Farrell and Twelvetrees is important.
If Ashton doesn’t know what to do with it, then they must find someone who does.
Take your pick – James O’Connor for drinking and yapping, Kurtley Beale for drinking and punching, 15 others for just drinking.
Ewen Mckenzie – for stomping out the drinking, setting standards and turning the team culture around.
ARU administrators – for reintroducing a domestic competition which will bridge the gap between club and Super Rugby.
Israel Folau – for debunking the myth that rugby league players can’t adapt to rugby.
Despite an up and down year, Australia have already got a lot of presents that they will be happy with going forward.
An athlete superstar was first with Israel Folau, a performing Australian Super Rugby team was second, an Australian coach, a change in team culture, a performing Quade Cooper and now a domestic competition – all presents that Australia will be much happier with next year when they forget the horrible results of this year.
Even so, Australia will still ask for a return to form for Will Genia (which should happen after he gets a decent break) a more consistently solid scrum and a return from injury for top players such as Pocock and Higginbotham.
They could also ask for the Bledisloe cup as well, but even Santa might not be able to bring them that.
SARU – for playing the ‘it’s my ball, I’m taking it and going home’ card when it comes to getting their way in Super Rugby.
Rory Krockett – for hedging his bets.
Romain Poite – for trying to turn rugby into tiddlywinks.
Heyneke Meyer – for introducing a more balanced and attack minded game plan and bedding it in with good selections.
Willie Le Roux and Eben Etzebeth for becoming the shining lights of South Africa’s future.
South Africa have had a monumental year on the field in 2013 with only two losses, so they will be hoping for a continuation of that form.
On a practical level, there is not really too much that the Springboks need – they have a team brimming with depth and talent and a coach who is getting the best out of them.
They probably wish that so many of their players weren’t playing overseas, but this seems to be a by-product of the modern game and it’s not affecting popularity in South Africa too much.
They will continue to push for a sixth team in Super Rugby. This idea was recently rubbished as greedy by a New Zealand journalist, so there is opposition there, but it does look likely that the Kings will be reintroduced into the fold in 2016.
1. All Blacks
English Journo Oliver Brown – for sneaking into the All Blacks dressing room and revealing their motivation tactics.
Taranaki – for defecting from the Hurricanes and taking home games from existing Chiefs members.
Keiran Reid – for being a monster.
Conversation-charging players from Ireland – for not watching video of Aaron Cruden’s kicking style and knowing that he stutters before he runs in.
What to get the team who has everything? Even though New Zealand had the first perfect year in professional rugby, there are still a few things they will want.
First on the list will be the record of most consecutive victories record currently held by Cyprus 21.
It’s a bit of a lark that Cyprus holds this record, so the All Blacks will be looking to knock it off by grabbing another eight games on the trot.
Six of those games are at home so it’s a good possibility.
On the player front, they will be looking for a big Sonny Bill Williams shaped present. The center was touted to be back in 2014 but has delayed until next year.
He will add quality backup to an ageing midfield.
They will also want more world-class front rowers coming through the ranks with the likes of Tony Woodcock and Keven Mealamu getting old in the tooth.
The All Blacks have been getting a bit of flack for relying on too many ageing players, but they introduced almost a whole team of rookies this year and still managed to beat everyone, so Santa might just be putting the 2015 Rugby World Cup in his sack now.