Spring in 2020 has marked the much-needed return of international Test rugby in both hemispheres of the globe.
The Six Nations concluded on Halloween before the first round of the Autumn Nations Cup took place at the weekend just gone.
In virtually COVID-free Australasia fans have attended four Bledisloe Cup games on either side of the Tasman and seen Argentina and Australia record shock wins over the All Blacks.
As we near the end of the first (disrupted) year of this impending World Cup cycle, we edge closer to the British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa and slowly move towards to the next Rugby World Cup in France in 2023.
Based on current form and some predictions, I look at which teams will have a credible case to claim the World Rugby No. 1 ranking come 2023.
The World Cup winners are going to give us no sign of their game plan and long-term strategy for 2023 given their request to abandon the Rugby Championship. The next scheduled game they have is in August 2021 against the British and Irish Lions. I would think (and hope) that Rassie Erasmus and co are smart enough to arrange some Test preparation for the Boks before they play some battle-hardened northern hemisphere players.
We will see what Jacques Nienaber changes in the Springbok game plan come this series, but it is hard to imagine the Boks changing too much. Their forward-dominated play and rise to possessing the best and most brutal set piece in the game mean that a ‘bomb squad’ tactic and playing Pieter-Steph du Toit at flanker will be used for the Lions series providing PSDT remains fit.
The challenge the Boks face is how they integrate exciting talent and older club players into their camp. Duane Vermuelen, Frans Steyn and Willie Le Roux are all at the back end of their glorious careers. It is time for Damien Willemse, Warrick Gelant, Curwin Bosch and Aphelele Fassi to be given more than a short cameo in Test rugby.
Perhaps overseas-based players like the Du Preez brothers, Jono Ross, Marcell Coetzee, Rohan van Rensburg and Jan Serfontein can even return to the party to give the Boks some new dynamism without sacrificing too much experience.
What they need to do
From now on, the Republic is plotting the demise of the Lions tour. Win that and the South Africans show why they are World Champions with the ability to win pressure games in successive weeks.
The scheduled Rugby Championship that falls in August will likely be shifted, and to accommodate player welfare the Boks may have to rest some players for that competition and even end-of-year internationals, providing they occur. We are then in 2022 where the main focus is getting new players enough experience and to go and compete in New Zealand and Australia regularly to win the Rugby Championship.
The Boks may be a new team, but their away record – excepting a win and draw in Wellington and wins in France, Argentina and Scotland – is dreadful. Expect this to change by then, but the Boks do need to start winning in Australia and New Zealand more regularly to tighten their grip on being the champion team they are.
Never doubt New Zealand. They may be in a spot of bother, but I truly believe they will still be a serious team come 2023 regardless of who their coach is. New Zealand will keep on rolling out world-beating talent – think of how good Will Jordan, Caleb Clarke, Hoskins Sotutu and Akira Ioane could be by the time they are given sufficient game time.
Having said that, the men in black must address their glaring issues. Depth at scrumhalf is needed, Aaron Smith and Brad Weber are ageing, and TJ Perenara is a shade of his 2016-17 form.
The Beauden Barrett-Richie Mo’unga conundrum must be quickly settled. Right now Mo’unga has played well in three out of the four games he has started at No. 10, whereas Barrett has only really shown his ability at No. 15 in the Eden Park Test against Australia. To me, the No. 10 spot is for Mo’unga. Another option could be to have Jordie Barrett or Damian Mackenzie at No. 15 with Barrett as an impact sub. Only time will tell which is the right decision.
The big issue the All Blacks must address, however, is the forward pack. Many Roar commenters say the All Blacks pack has no mongrel or brute force about it in comparison to Ireland, England and South Africa. A new enforcer at No. 6 is needed since Ardie Savea cannot continue to pack down at No. 8. Having Akira Ioane in the equation adds some depth to both No. 6 and No. 8. As Sotutu gets more game time, come France 2023, we could see a Savea (No. 6)-Cane-Sotutu back row.
To add to the need to ‘toughen up’ I think that Tuipolotu’s and Frizzell’s Super Rugby form needs to return quickly. It pains me to say it, but they have been passengers in many of their Tests this year alongside Whitelock, who will not be there in 2023. Tupou Vaa’i is an interesting prospect and Scott Barrett can still show he is a serious Test player. A lot of this will depend on whether one of the greatest locks of all time, Brodie Retallick, returns to Kiwi shores and the black jersey.
Lastly, the centre debate is a bit less concerning. I think Jack Goodhue and Anton Lienert Brown are the glue and first choice of the midfield. Left-field choices could be Ngani Laumape at No. 13, where he could be more effective. Peter Umaga-Jensen is someone worth investing in, as is Braydon Ennor. I would like to also stake a claim for Jordie Barrett at No. 12 – he is big and has the kicking game and rugby IQ to play centre if needed.
What they need to do
Sort out the Ian Foster drama – either sack him or back him. A Bledisloe retention, I think, is even more significant as the Wallabies are bound to only improve under Dave Rennie.
Any date of an away day in Twickenham, Paris, Dublin, Queensland or South Africa is one the whole rugby world would watch. We will learn a lot about the new New Zealand team if they manage to get results in the toughest places to visit, which they certainly have the ability to do.
Eddie Jones faces the wanted problem of having too much talent to select from. England are a young and upcoming team in most positions. The improvements of Exeter and other teams have led to the improved argument of the Willis and Simmonds brothers, the Curry Brothers, Alex Dombrandt and Max Malins to launch serious claims for starting jerseys.
What I fear for England is that Jones may not blood all of these young talents. Eddie Jones is a fantastic coach, but one of his only weaknesses is his player development and selection policy. It reminds me of Jose Mourinho in how he chose players out of position rather than young prospects in order to keep Chelsea and Manchester United winning big games.
Jones’s selections of Curry at No. 8, Joseph on the wing and Slade at No. 12 may temporarily work for a few games, but I am not convinced this is a process worth repeating over getting new faces in the team. However, they are still a very awesome outfit with great depth in the back row and back three.
What they need to do
Blend the youth! Winning the Six Nations every year should be an achievable target for Jones to really test his team. England should also focus on winning as many away games as possible in the Six Nations. They are the best travelling team in the tournament, but Dublin, Edinburgh and Paris are only going to get even trickier to visit.
Allez les Bleu. The French have been targeting 2023 much like the England and Wales Cricket Board targeted 2019 as their best opportunity to finally win a World Cup. While there will be no super overs in the final in France, France are already looking like a champion team.
Romain Ntamack and Antoine Dupont are the most assuring axis in the game right now. The French pack led by Charles Ollivon has the mongrel, the size and the sheer barstadry to match the English and South African pack. The centres are also composed, with Vrimi Vakatawa showing he can defend and showing some rugby brilliance on the pitch.
With having one of the best, if not the outright best, academy and youth international teams in the world, like England and New Zealand, the talent will always be there. France just need to carefully manage in new prospects and, injury permitting, they are in with a serious chance of glory come 2023.
What they need to do
Compete consistently in the Six Nations. They should have won this year, but it won’t be easier next year with tougher trips away in England and Ireland. Dates with the Springbok and New Zealand pack will show how well the French have developed.
Dave Rennie may have a current record of 1-1-2, but there is some feeling of optimism in Australian rugby. Like Donald Trump’s trade policy, they are prioritising national talent. Instead of loosening their overseas selection policies, the Wallabies have kept the faith in new guns like Harry Wilson, Matt Philip, Hunter Paisami, Liam Wright, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto and Lachie Swinton in the forwards. Wilson and Philip play as if they have 30 caps already.
In the backs there is strength in depth at No. 9 with Nic White, Tate Mcdermott, Jake Gordan and Joe Powell. Dave Rennie must sort out who plays No. 10, with Noah Lolesio, Reece Hodge, Will Harrison, Matt Toom’ua and James O’ Connor all valid options and with some needing more exposure.
In the centres Rennie must back Hunter Paisami and Jordan Petaia to be blooded. Perhaps this is a place where we may see Samu Kerevi returning to the Wallabies gold in 2023.
The back three have countless options to go through, with gradual exposure needed to develop some great talent there.
The Wallabies forwards are improving massively and already have a decent scrum. Foreign influxes of Sean McMahon, Will Skelton and Rory Arnold may come, but for now the Wallabies are doing a good enough job. Don’t forget Suni Vunivalu is expected to play for the Reds next year.
What they need to do
Ensure the forwards develop – they can gradually become a threat to the strongest packs. Give game time to Lolesio and put Hodge in his best position (15). Aim to win and compete away in New Zealand and South Africa.
Andy Farrell’s men have had a mixed start but are slowly adapting to his game plan of a more dynamic attack. Irish rugby is unearthing some exceptional players in Will Connors, Hugo Keenan and Calean Doris. The issue, however, is that Jonny Sexton will not be there in 2023. His form as captain is very inconsistent and there is no real depth with Joe Carberry and the inexperienced Ross Byrne and Billy Burns not having ample game time. Farrell has not fully given John Cooney game time, but Jamison Gibson-Park and James Lowe looked comfortable on debut.
The Irish pack is one that is competitive, with James Ryan and CJ Stander the forerunners of Irish representation for the Lions. The second row is where the Irish need to look beyond Iain Henderson and Tadhg Beirne.
What they need to do
Win a Six Nations. Finishing top three may becoming regular for Ireland, but as Scotland, France and England improve, their task will only be harder. Next year they have favourable games, facing England and France at home, but Farrell’s men need to gain consistency to reap the potential benefits of establishing a serious team.