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2018 in review: Rugby union

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30th December, 2018
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Australian rugby appears to be in dire straits at the end of 2018 after a year which has seen the Super Rugby teams struggle again and the Wallabies go from loss to loss.

With a World Cup just around the corner, Australia have put together one of their worst years in recent history, and unfortunately, there is very little that is positive to talk about for Australian rugby at the end of a tough year.

By the time it was all said and done, the Wallabies had won just one out of four out of 13 Test matches with the board and coach Michael Cheika under all sorts of pressure.

Meanwhile, on the domestic front, only the Australian conference winner made the finals as struggles continued from post to post.

Super Rugby

If there was one thought of rugby fans around the nation heading into the 2019 Super Rugby season, it was that surely things couldn’t actually get worse.

Alas, they probably didn’t, but things didn’t exactly improve for the four Australian franchises.

Removed from dropping the Western Force, there has still been no obvious improvement for the sides, with only the Waratahs making the finals by virtue of being the top Australian conference team.

The Waratahs were far and away the best of the four Aussie franchises, but even they would have only finished sixth and been subjected to an away final in the first week if not for the conference leader’s guarantee and golden handshake.

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Israel Folau

(AAP Image/Paul Miller)

The Rebels were the best of the rest for Australia, finishing in ninth spot on the ladder with just seven wins from their 16 games. The Brumbies were equal with them on seven wins, and while both teams were in the hunt for the finals, they struggled in the clutch moments.

The Melbourne-based franchise loss during the final round to the Highlanders in the final round by just six points was a hammer blow for the Victorian club. It was a game they had multiple opportunities to win, but somehow, they found a way to squander it time and time again.

They will be particularly frustrated given the start to the season they had, where they won their first three and four of their first five. To only win two of the next 11 was a pretty poor effort.

Meanwhile, it was a year to forget for the Queenslanders, with the Reds finishing third-last on the table, only ahead of the hapless Blues and poor old Sunwolves. They were only a win behind the other Australian franchises to be fair in what was an absolute logjam from eighth to 13th, but they always felt a level below throughout the season.

Away from the Australian teams and it was again the New Zealand teams who ruled the competition with an iron fist.

Eventual champions the Crusaders were strong from the outset and lost just two games all season, while of the five wildcard spots in the finals, the first three went to the Hurricanes, Chiefs and Highlanders, with only the Blues missing out.

The Kiwi teams are absolutely running rampant in the Super Rugby competition and could be expected to do more of the same in 2019, with everyone else seemingly playing catch-up.

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The only team outside of New Zealand who looked like challenging at times were the Lions, who, while only finishing with the same nine wins the Waratahs had, played an entertaining brand of rugby.

The Lions might have been the best of the South African franchises, but it was the late-season run of the Jaguares which raised eyebrows, with the Argentinians scraping into the finals alongside the Sharks, who narrowly claimed the final spot ahead of the aforementioned two Aussie franchises.

Malcolm Marx

(Photo by Sydney Seshibedi/Gallo Images)

As the finals rolled around, it was clear the Sharks would be left with the toughest job of all eight clubs, and they were immediately bounced out of the finals in a 40-10 mauling at the hands of the ‘Saders.

Elsewhere, the Lions beat the Jaguares comprehensively in Johannesburg, while the Hurricanes held on by a point over the Chiefs in one of the games of the season to set up mission impossible against the Crusaders.

It was the Waratahs who made a huge surprise during the first week of the finals though, coming back from a seemingly dead and buried position to win at home by seven points over the Hurricanes.

The win only extended their season by a week though, with the trip to Johannesburg seven days later proving too difficult as the Lions got the better of them in a high-scoring semi-final.

Back in Christchurch and the Crusaders barely raised an effort in getting past the ‘Canes, before they mauled the Lions in the final by 19 points to claim their second Super Rugby championship in a row and ninth in total.

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The Wallabies

June Internationals
The June Internationals were never going to be straightforward for the Wallabies, but they were still expected to beat Ireland pretty well across a three-Test series.

Expectations and reality couldn’t have been further apart though after the first Test gave Australia something of a false dawn.

Essentially, Ireland made a huge mistake in the first Test at Suncorp Stadium by leaving out Jonathan Sexton, then corrected that mistake and dominated the last two.

That would be the easiest way of putting it, but it was a sign of things to come for the Wallabies in 2018 as they mistakes and struggled to control elements of their own game.

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In truth, the first Test win, at 18-9 wasn’t all that comprehensive, and while Ireland’s victories by five and four points in the second and third Test at AAMI Park and Allianz Stadium weren’t dominant either, they were the better side and deserved the series victory.

In fact, the third Test only saw them score a single try, but with Australia unable to break them (only doing so once through Marika Koroibete), and unable to control their discipline, there was no surprise to see Ireland gallop away with the win.

Adam Coleman

(Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship
With the June internationals still fresh in the mind, a World Cup 12 months away, and the axe ready to swing, the Wallabies were under enormous pressure as the Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship got underway.

To put it in the simplest terms possible, they cracked like a mobile phone screen thrown off a building.

The All Blacks were always going to be tough to beat in their first two matches, but they didn’t do themselves any favours with poor defence and a lack of skill and execution when they did have the ball.

Their problems in holding onto their own line outs have been well documented, so we don’t need to go over them here, but not being able to select a team who was capable of competing is a major problem.

Selection was generally thought to be wrong at times, and Cheika simply couldn’t get his troops to do the job.

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Of course, the All Blacks benefited from Beauden Barrett, who is almost undoubtedly one of the best in the world right now, but being beaten 38-13 at home and then not appearing to fix any of those problems for the following week where they were beaten 40-12 simply isn’t good enough.

That second game saw Barrett score four tries, and while the Wallabies started solidly enough, they let in tries around halftime with the concentration of the players coming into question, before it failed altogether as Barrett alongside the likes of Kieran Reid, Liam Squire and Ben Smith exploited them all over the field.

Australia managed to register their first points of the competition with a scrappy win over South Africa with Matt Toomua the star of the show as Israel Folau was out and Bernard Foley came from the bench.

While the win over the Springboks gave Australia a brief moment for celebration, everything was brought crashing back to Earth the following week when the Wallabies had their pants pulled down at home by Argentina.

Australian rugby fans have been through a lot in the last few years, but maybe no loss as bad as that one, with Los Pumas grabbing a four-point win on the Gold Coast. Honestly, the less said, the better.

The Wallabies lost again when they went to South Africa the next week, then were a mile behind against Argentina at halftime in Salta, only to stage a mighty second-half comeback which, while stunning, did nothing to ease the tension felt over performances in the last 12 months.

Put simply though, the comeback glossed over the cracks of a terrible campaign.

Beauden Barrett

(Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

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Spring Tour
There was no time to rest for the Wallabies either. It was onto a plane and off to Japan for the third Bledisloe Cup match to start their Spring Tour where they were predictably beaten again by the All Blacks.

In the location of the World Cup in 12 months time, the same problems kept hampering the Australian side who must be seriously starting to grow concerned about getting out of their group at the biggest rugby tournament on the planet.

Improvement is a must before that tournament. Without it, Australian rugby is going to continue to go further backwards into the coming years, with the World Cup a chance to bury some demons and put the sport back on the map.

What we do know is that Aussie fans will support a winner and get behind them passionately on the global stage, no matter the sport.

However, winning was not something which was coming naturally and it proved to be that way again in Europe.

The first Test against Wales was an absolute scrap, finishing with the scoreline sitting at 9-6, decided entirely on penalty goals.

The Wallabies decision making in that Test left a lot to be desired, with the side turning down penalty goals in the second half twice when it was clear the direction of the game made it necessary to take the points, rather than pass them up and try to score.

The expected win did come next time out against Italy, but even that wasn’t without it’s problems after Cheika’s side found themselves behind early doors.

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The year was capped in spectactularly poor fashion as England blasted past the Aussies at Twickenham in a game which never looked like it was going to be close.

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Results summary

Super Rugby Australian conference winner: Waratahs
Super Rugby New Zealand conference winner: Crusaders
Super Rugby South Africa conference winner: Lions
Super Rugby premiers: Crusaders

Full list of Wallabies results
June Internationals: Three-Test series vs Ireland
1st Test: Australia defeat Ireland 18-9
2nd Test: Australia defeated by Ireland 21-26
3rd Test: Australia defeated by Ireland 16-20

The Rugby Championship and third Bledisloe Cup match
Australia defeated by New Zealand 38-13
New Zealand defeat Australia 40-12
Australia defeat South Africa 23-18
Australia defeated by Argentina 19-23
South Africa defeat Australia 23-12
Argentina defeated by Australia 45-34
Australia defeated by New Zealand 37-20

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Spring Tour
Wales defeat Australia 9-6
Italy defeated by Australia 7-26
England defeat Australia 37-18