The 2021 rugby landscape was rocky, heaving, occasionally barren, but in the end, brutally beautiful in that way the skeletal Namib or the paprika-tinted Outback or the wind-scoured Outer Hebrides or the rugged tip of Brittany or the vast black beaches of New Zealand’s western shore can be. What did we learn?
Rugby’s elite ten plus a few is an exclusive round table of wee mad Scots, maddeningly pragmatic Welsh boys who resist smiling, clever hard Kiwis with sticky hands, robust, reverent Pacific Islanders, grim, giant half-Dutch descendants of the French Huguenot migration to Africa and their barbwired urban neighbours, hard-as-nails township lads from the Eastern Cape and the Winelands, large, lusty Argentine playboys, uncompromising Irish bouncers, irrationally rational Frenchmen, irreverent Aussie scofflaws, blossoming Japanese salarymen, and very talkative, beefy English lads ready to rumble. The Italians serve as waiters, but there is a chance they’ll be replaced by hirsute Georgians, deep pocketed Americans, plucky Iberians, or Vikings in shorts.
Did 2021 sort anything?
There was a little scrambling of eggs, but in the end, the omelette looked pretty familiar.
A hundred years of evolution doesn’t mutate in one year.
We will start at the top, or perhaps the bottom.
Scotland (hitting a ceiling, but a pretty ceiling)
Extremely northern Scotland may have their best 9-10-15 combination in history, with all due respect to Grieg Laidlaw, a few accurate fullback kickers, and Gregor Townsend.
Stuart Hogg has scored more Test tries than any other Scot, Finn Russell plays rugby like Roger Federer plays tennis, and Ali Price is the second best scrumhalf in Europe. Throw in a surprise Lion 13, an Afrikaner android, a decent front row and defence, the best mulleted Hamish in the Six Nations tournament, and you have the makings of a once-in-a-generation cohort flowering in Edinburgh.
This year, the Jocks conquered Paris and London, but had their troubles with fellow Celts. Still, the Lions included more Scots than anyone had predicted, even if a certain shaggy workhorse lock would have helped Townsend against the Springboks more than Jonny Hill did.
At the end, however, Scotland looks no closer to World Cup glory than in their 2019 tsunami infamy. With two set piece teams in their group, bigger and deeper, can they even qualify for the business end of the Cup? No. Not unless they can upsize and double their pack, and there’s nae time, even if the firm of Townsend & Tandy procure another front row of castoffs from Bloemfontein and Durban.
Irish’s World Cup dreams were dashed to absolute Schmidt in 2019, too, but unlike Scotland, coaching succession has made everything better, even if last year, the calls for an axe grew loud. The phenomenal Leinster factory and Munster annex have produced a squadron of hard men to fit the plan.
2021 turned green for Farrell’s men when they smashed Eddie’s England, and it just kept growing greener, culminating in the clarifying 29-20 Dublin triumph over the All Blacks. Ireland has a few Kiwi imports, but just as the five JockBoks, none of those boys would make a squad from their homeland.
Thus, World Rugby’s new concession to migration will not rob coach Farrell of Bundee Aki, James Lowe, or Jamison Gibson-Park. Ireland has a battle-hardened pack, led by super lock James Ryan and his grizzled partner from Ulster, and anchored by the only front row stocks to rival the deep South African prop mines.
Tadgh Furlong was my non-Saffa forward of 2021: rewatch the Lions series if you can handle it, and you will see Furlong at his best. The only question mark, and it’s a big one, is whether plasticined together Jonny Sexton can make it to the next big dance.
If he does, 2021 showed us he can knock Scotland out at the pool stage, and even win a quarterfinal against the All Blacks. If he falters, it’s the same old, same old Irish tragedy.
Wales (stubborn, imaginary dragons)
Wales won the Six Nations, but lost the Autumn Nations. In the first case, Wales were the beneficiary of a historic rash of cards, and in the latter the least healthy of teams, which with their shallow player inventory, they cannot overcome.
2021 was a mixed bag for the men from the valleys and their Kiwi imports. Youth surfaced, as it always seems to in their smart, tough loose forwards. But age they did. An ancient lock, a slowing sheriff, and an ailing sharpshooter; it all boiled over.
But more than that, there is a feeling of peaks in the past. Was the Six Nations victory the last for a while? Supply chains, local club woes; it all feels stuck together with glue. Even though we can never count the Welsh out until they are out, 2021 ended with more questions than when it began. The fathers have a good land for rugby, but they do need more sons.
England (there or thereabouts)
Read the English press and listen to their pods expound, and you will hear them speak of the win over the Boks as one of the finest in Eddie Jones’ tenure. Maybe. But that’s the worry. If England was as good as believed, a one-point win over the 20-week bubbled Boks at the very end of a brutal season, shorn of their best forward, best back, starting tighthead and scrumhalf, and talismanic waterboy, but dominating the second half, would not be cause for triumphalism.
2021 was a bad year for England! Their Six Nations was about as poor a campaign as imaginable, and most of their players underperformed in the Lions series, except Courtney Lawes and Maro Itoje. So, what we can say is there were green shoots; very young ones.
Freddie Steward, Max Malins, Marcus Smith, Raffi Quirke, and Adam Radwan combined beautifully with backline stalwarts. Steward in particular looked like he could have a starting England jersey for a decade. Young front rowers survived a South African inquisition (albeit only with six scrums) better than gnarled Joe Marler and cocky Kyle Sinckler.
The looming question is whether England is better off with a Smith-Slade-Tuilagi (Marchant) midfield than a Farrell-clogged one. Henry Slade vaccinated the vaunted Bok midfield with two jabs of the highest quality. It seemed he felt freer without the loud Northerner barking at him.
Meanwhile, Smith continues to demonstrate he is not a Danny Cipriani. He is a field general of high quality, with good hair and boots. So, yes, even if it was at the very last England showed off its depth and cutting edge, 2021 probably did end ominously for the rest of the round table. England can get better, and survive injuries easier than any other team except perhaps South Africa and New Zealand. But they will have to get better at set piece to beat a World Cup final version of the Boks or a New Zealand when they are in a mood. The signs say: they can and 2021 shows that.
France (the storm is brewing)
France is a miniature paradise full of Frenchmen who believe they are living in hell. Nobody can explain France. No one can properly govern a nation with 538 native cheeses.
French rugby has fanatics ready to applaud-drum or boo-whistle their own team at any moment. A band often plays throughout an entire match, without even a reference or connection to the game itself.
It is doubtful anyone has more knowledgeable partisans than French rugby, but just about everyone has more honest, fair fans than France.
Their referees are whimsical; the very definition of capricious in their arbitration. At times, you can catch a French referee looking at the sky. Not for a ball in flight. But just to imagine what Descartes would say about the breakdowns or just because the sky is very pretty.
The clubs in France are proper clubs. Their stadiums are phenomenal. Their fan bases obsess.
A player like Cheslin Kolbe, in France, walks on water.
But in Test rugby, French billionaire owners are a liability, not an asset to the national squad. Phantom injuries, a refusal to support the common cause, and an odd view of fitness: the Tricolours have to beg for some coordination.
And so France bobs up and down like a boat in the Nice harbour. Pretty, but mostly harmless and unready for deep waters.
Still, a few years back, it became obvious something had changed in the size and speed and skill of French high school boys. Huge, fast, and slick; with a wave of incredible immigrant athletes of size.
Their U20 results speak for themselves. Less dependent on foreign talent than the other Six Nations teams, France is down to one Saffa (130 kg Paul Willemse at 4) and a sprinkling of Pacific talent.
And now the French-born are coming through.
Antoine Dupont is not content with two local cups. He wants global grandeur. Rare for a nine, he is one of the strongest lads in the French team, pound for pound. When a halfback is as good as Dupont, the ten often fades away.
Not for France: they have top line depth at ten and oodles of confidence. Damian Penault on the wing can strike from anywhere; and Cameron Woki in the pack looks like an NBA power forward who can fight.
France was without their best forwards (captain Charles Ollivon and hooker Julien Marchand) for the autumn Test series, and did not miss a drum beat.
Their locks lift their flanks. Their props clear from rucks. Their wings tackle in. Their scrumhalf cleans rucks. Their flyhalf never plays percentages. Finis.
Just like England, the French trust a kid at the back (he even kicks for goals): Melvyn Jaminet of Perpignan.
So, the only question is: will this juggernaut stumble because of internal dissent or some inane dispute about the type of bread at their practices? Or will they show discipline and method for the next two years?
My prediction remains: they will find a way to squander this ideal position they are in. But I have no evidence except a century of mercurialism.
And what of the South?
Argentina (the Grand Tour)
We read about the tours of old. Ships steaming from Melbourne to Sri Lanka to the Suez and Malta and Gibraltar and the Isle of Wight. Thirty matches on the trot in the Thirties.
Modern “tours” are truncated in-and-out junkets.
The Pumas have gone old school.
It has been two years since they played a Test at home.
Their homes are their suitcases. Their family is each other.
2021 was a rough year for Argentina. But no team in the modern era has gone through this type of gauntlet like the Pumas.
I don’t think 2021 is a fair reflection of Argentine rugby.
After the Lions players returned from the bitter little tour of South Africa, many of them had an extended sabbatical. They worked gradually back into their club matches. They trained with their national sides and eased into bunny matches (except Wales).
The bubbled Pumas walked right into a burning Bok fire, twice, flew around the globe, then ran into All Blacks and Wallabies for a while, stayed quarantined, and jumped in the way of the Irish train, at the very end of a two year season.
We learned only that they are tough. 2022 will tell us if they can bother the big boys again in 2023.
It is not clear to me if they have the coaching nous in place. I figure Michael Cheika repels rugby IQ, and Mario Ledesma just seems to say the same thing every week: both of these men seem to put too much value in heart and courage on the day, and not enough into opposition research all week. I would hire them to rejuvenate a restaurant or retail establishment, but I am glad they don’t coach any team I support.
Japan (the most northerly southern team)
Japan had a rough 2021. Nothing seemed to work. They tried to muscle up. They tried to go speed ruck.
They tried to pilfer all over. They kick-passed, and ran past kicks.
Where are the Japanese leaders? Why is their captain Labuschagne? Where is the next generation?
This was a poor year and it makes one wonder if Japan will be surpassed by Pasifika.
The Pacific Island teams (help is on the way)
Results in 2021 were poor or mixed for Tonga and Fiji, and in the case of Samoa, non-existent.
But World Rugby just announced the most important news in history for these proud rugby lands. Their boys can come home. (There is a 3-year stand-down requirement).
The dozens of Island-qualified players currently helping other nations be better at rugby can now return to Samoa, Fiji, and Tonga Test sides.
That is a formidable array of talent. Steven Luatua, Ngani Laumape, Vaea Fifita, Lima Sopoaga, the Vunipola brothers, Charles Piutau, Israel Folau, and Tevita Kuridrani come to mind.
World Rugby’s 2021 ruling could turn 2023 into true parity in pool play, with Pasifika teams no easy out.
Australia (the renaissance is delayed, but won’t stop)
Dave Rennie’s teams have constants. He will not go gently into that good night. He will rage, quietly, against acceptance of loss.
A big hungry pack. Depth in the specialist positions. A scrumhalf who rubs everyone the wrong way. Set pieces that are set, and don’t fall to pieces.
A twelve that bends the line. A canny playmaker.
The 2021 Wallabies — after a typically rough Bledisloe showing — showed they can mix it up with big teams. Rory Arnold, Will Skelton, Izack Rodda, Rob Leota, Angus Bell, and Rob Valetini are not going to be dwarfed by anyone.
Oh, and Taniela Tupou was described by a Scottish commentator as “5 foot 9 tall and 5 foot 10 wide.”
They can get on a roll. If Quade Cooper is receiving from Nic White and giving to Samu Kerevi, not many teams are better at first phase. Marika Koroibete is no slouch at finishing phases.
Andrew ‘the Bachelor’ Kellaway is a gem. And Michael Hooper is genuinely a great, not a GOAT, but maybe a baby goat, one of those who walk straight up a mountain.
These Wallabies can force their will on some games.
But they can find a way to lose close matches. And they cannot yet manage to win against the Home Nations without their first choice backline.
The problem for Australia at the moment is moments of madness. It’s all in their heads. Panic manifesting itself in silly plays. Cut that out and they are on the up.
2021 taught us Australia is a real threat for 2023 if they keep enough of their best players healthy. They have a top coach now; it matters.
New Zealand (a crisis in confidence)
With two matches left in 2021, one imagined Ian Foster feeling a bit cocky.
Having seen off their cousins in three painfully one-sided Bledisloes, handling a physical Puma team, and splitting with the formidable old foe, the Boks, the men in black absolutely splintered Wales.
Yes, Italy took longer to break down than you’d want as an All Black fan, but just comparing their season to the rest, New Zealand looked like they would win the year.
Take care of Ireland and France and (1) the All Blacks return to world number one ranking, a pre-season goal, (2) they would have the least losses of any top tier team, and (3) the razor sharp tongues of naysayers would be dulled.
Instead, a pounding in Dublin was followed by a slaughter in Paris.
Taken together, the losses to South Africa, Ireland, and France revealed rather large cracks in Fortress New Zealand. The continuity of the old coaching firm suddenly looked unwise.
The Boks exposed the fragility of the tight five. The Irish showed how even the All Blacks cannot subsist on total scraps. And the French showed if your pack and your backs dominate, the All Blacks can be made to look very ordinary and a bit slow.
Dalton Papalii is exempt from this discussion, and nobody, not even Hooper, fights harder on every play than Ardie Savea.
But the so-so props and shallow inventory of locks at their disposal tie the hands of Foster and his brain trust.
George Bridge is just okay, the wonderful kicker and catcher Jordie Barrett is too slow to be a wing, and can even sometimes be too slow to be a fullback, David Havili is not a Test centre, and Akira and Reiko Ioane switch off at the worst possible times.
Beyond that, New Zealand is still a formidable force. 2021 can turn into a magical 2022 for them, and everyone knows it.
But the whimpering end of the year puts a bad taste in the mouths of the All Black Nation.
I predict they’ll sort it, and come back strong in 2022. The big issue is their big guys and their coach.
South Africa (the bad guys once more; but on top)
Springbok rugby has an edge. Yes, there are fans beyond Saffas. But not as many as the All Blacks have.
It’s an acquired taste, Bok rugby.
It’s hard and rough and bullying. It has strains of paranoia. It is remote. Cut off. But jeez it works well at times.
The good things in 2021:
Beating Gatland’s Lions, a feat not achieved by the All Blacks and Wallabies, despite being undercooked to an extreme.
Starting number one and ending number one.
Beating New Zealand outside of South Africa.
Being in every match to the last minute except for one.
A winning autumn tour.
Overcoming serious injuries to Pieter-Steph du Toit, Frans Malherbe, Faf de Klerk, RG Snyman, and Cheslin Kolbe.
The bad things of 2021:
Beloved director of rugby Rassie Erasmus let his drive to win (and be seen as right) get the better of his manners, bringing disrepute on his country, his team, and himself.
SARU did not show good leadership of Erasmus.
Two losses to Australia: a loss to Australia in Australia is par for the course, but the second loss was pathetic.
Losing to England. That is always a horrible day. To lose when you force an 18-7 penalty ratio — and let three soft tries in — is inexcusable.
The Boks in 2021 should have learned that Willie le Roux is finished at this level; not physically, but mentally. Yes, he can create tries still, but he concedes them too, and wastes too many chances.
Also, the Bomb Squad should not be the clearly better group; Malcolm Marx and Steven Kitshoff must start with Frans Malherbe in 2022. Cobus Reinach should be ahead of Herschel Jantjies. Old Frans Steyn is not done, yet. And there is a serious lack of ambition from the Bok attack. 2021 was dire in terms of box kicking being reflexive and mindless much of the time.
Still, 2021 is a bare success at 8-5 because of the Lions, the rank, and the win over the All Blacks in Queensland.
But here come the Islands.
What of the balance of power?
It’s an era of parity we find ourselves in.
Yes, there’s a top five, but nothing separates them. Yes, there’s a gap to the next group, but it’s not big.
2021 tightened things.
2021 delivered surprises, but set up a delicious two years to come.