We’ve come to the end of another enthralling and surprising rugby year. Here’s my report card for each of the teams.
1. New Zealand
The world’s premier rugby nation is still the world’s premier rugby nation. New Zealand won the Rugby Championship with two matches to spare, had a record 57-0 win against South Africa and only lost one match since the Lions series.
However, the gap appears to be narrowing.
New Zealand may have been able to find a way to win almost all of the close matches, which is what champion teams do, but they did not look as clinical as they have since 2011.
The comeback from 17-0 down in Dunedin was very impressive. It showed the confidence, belief and trust that this All Blacks side has in itself.
That said, one must ask to what extent the comeback was the result of the many fragilities of the Wallabies – in defence, decision making, restarts and set-piece – as well as how the All Blacks allowed themselves to fall 17-0 down?
It must be strange as a New Zealand fan. The team seems to be building depth, but they do not look as clinical or self-assured as they have done in previous years. The attack often appears stagnant and overly-reliant on individual brilliance from players like Beauden Barrett, Damian McKenzie and Reiko Ioane as opposed to great tactical coaching.
The team seems to be doing too much and to score on every opportunity as opposed to having the confidence to play with patience they have exhibited previously.
Eddie Jones’ England suffered some second year blues this year, but overall were very strong.
Like New Zealand for large parts of 2017 England did not look as clinical as they did in 2016. But just like New Zealand England found a way to win all of their close matches aside from a match against Ireland in Dublin, in which Ireland put in a truly great performance.
Jones has built some good depth. They have excellent depth in almost every position, as well as what is probably the best locking depth in the world – along with perhaps South Africa – between Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes, George Kruis and Joe Launchbury.
They are well-coached, always playing with purpose and with multiple avenues to attack – both via set piece and forward dominance, and through unstructured attack through their 9-10-12.
They also have a great defence.
Overall, I think that English fans should be very happy with how their team went in 2017. Winning the 2018 Six Nations will be very difficult with Ireland and Scotland both playing very well, but England have earned the right to go in as favourites and I suspect may be confident that they can beat New Zealand when New Zealand travels to Twickenham in the 2018 Spring Tour.
Another year to forget for Australia. A few great highs but mostly crushing lows.
The year started (aside from a match against tier two Fiji) with a record loss to Scotland, in Australia, in June in which the Wallabies played embarrassingly poor rugby. The year ended with a much greater record loss to Scotland in Scotland, in which the Wallabies played even more embarrassingly poor rugby.
They failed to beat an extremely poor Springboks outfit that were embarrassed 57-0 by New Zealand and 38-3 by Ireland.
They almost lost to lowly Italy.
They lost to New Zealand after being gifted a 17-0 lead, and again retaking the lead with less than five minutes to play.
They capitulated and lost by a record margin to England.
The team built little depth in key positions like hooker and halfback as Michael Cheika insisted on relying on Stephen Moore and Nick Phipps. With Tatafu Polota-Nau going overseas it is conceivable he will retire internationally and Australia will need two new hookers in 2018, both of whom will have had almost no international minutes.
We still do not know who our first choice locking pair is.
At the end of the day the only tier one nations Australia defeated were Argentina, Wales and New Zealand (once).
Questions must also be asked about whether Argentina legitimately counts as a tier one nation with the form they are in (they beat no tier one nations in 2017).
This leaves a sole victory against a New Zealand side lacking a lot of star players as the only real high of 2017.
Many of the same problems that were present in the series against England in 2016 – no tactical kicking game, unacceptable goal-kicking in big matches, poor line-out, poor discipline and very poor defence – are still present at the end of 2017.
Australia is also yet to find an answer to our problems at the breakdown when Pocock is absent.
It is difficult to see where Australia goes from here.
Ireland must be very happy with how 2017 ended.
After a somewhat disappointing start to the year, suffering losses to both Scotland and Wales, Ireland managed to end England’s winning streak, come second in the Six Nations and embarrass South Africa in Dublin.
Ireland has very good players in almost every position, and players in with a legitimate shot of a world 15 at tighthead prop, blind-side and open-side flanker, halfback, fly-half and outside centre.
Ireland should justifiably believe they have the ability to win the Six Nations and challenge both England and New Zealand for the top spots on the rankings.
5. South Africa
Rather like Australia, a year to forget.
It is simply sad to see such a great rugby nation in such dire straits.
The politics in South African rugby are mind-bogglingly complex.
Even with the politics at work one has to wonder how a team with the incredible players it has, many of whom would be in with a shot of a World XV, can be doing so poorly.
One has to look at the coaching at this point.
Given South Africa’s record since the new coaching staff took over in 2016 unless there is a change of coach it is difficult to imagine how the team can possibly improve significantly in the coming year.
What a great year for Scotland. Wins over Wales and Ireland.
The team is good in defence and incredibly dynamic in attack. Their emphatic win over Australia in Scotland was some of the most dazzling play from a non-All Black side for decades (although, it should be noted that it was against a dire Australian team).
Like Ireland and England, Scotland must believe they are in with a good shot at winning the Six Nations and continuing their upward trajectory in 2018.
As a rugby fan it is great to see Scotland doing so well after so many years struggling.
Scotland have proven it is possible to improve rapidly with limited talent as long as the team has the right ethos, belief in itself and has tactically astute coaches.
Honourable mention: Argentina (10)
The logic behind letting Argentina into the Tri-Nations and Super Rugby was to improve rugby in Argentina.
Six years into Argentina’s entry into the Rugby Championship and two years into its entry into Super Rugby questions must be asked whether either has been beneficial for Argentina and even whether Argentina still deserves to be considered a tier one team.
Argentina beat no tier one teams in 2017 and are currently on a 17-match losing streak against tier one teams.
Would it be better for Argentinean rugby for them to exit the Rugby Championship and/or Super Rugby? Someone more familiar with Argentina rugby might be able to inform the rest of us. However, something has to change as the current system is not working.