Saturday, December 30, 2017

Ciarán Duffy's 100th guest post : Review of 2017



2017 has come to a close, and surprisingly, the nuclear apocalypse hasn’t happened just yet.  Plenty went on politically here and over the water both ways, but today let’s focus on that game we all love, rugby.  Here’s a look back at the last 12 months.  

Frustration

Looking back at the Six Nations it seems like a grandslam gone missing, which is rare for a campaign with 2 losses.  The loss to Scotland was avoidable, Ireland may have been absent for most of the first half but were leading at a crucial stage and just needed to hold out.  Scotland deserved the victory, but it was there for the taking.  The response against Italy was exactly what was needed.  It was Irelands largest 6 Nations victory.  It was a game that saw a few firsts; CJ Stander became the first forward to score a hat-trick in the tournament, Niall Scannell got his first cap, and it saw the first try bonus point of the Six Nations.  The French game largely showed the loss against Scotland was a blip.  Then came the Welsh game, which was more frustrating than the Scotland game.  Scotland were especially up for that match, and early tournament lethargy made the first half display somewhat excusable.  But the Welsh game was the losing of the tournament.  Ireland had a try not awarded at a crucial stage, but it was the right call.  They just never got going really, which isn’t excusable in the 4th match of a tournament.  Then finally came England.  England were dominant throughout the tournament and were going for a World Record 19 wins in a row and a 2nd grandslam in succession.  Ireland put in the performance of a lifetime, reminiscent of that against New Zealand in Chicago, and won the game.  A great victory, but it could have meant so much more.  And having to go to Twickenham next year makes it more of a missed opportunity.  

Elsewhere in the Six Nations, Scotland showed there’s still work to be done, they beat Wales but lost a winnable game against France and were beaten out of the park by England, then kept Italy scoreless to finish 4th, a disappointing end to a tournament that started so well.  England retained the trophy, and really were the best team in the competition.  France finished level on points with Ireland, an improvement.  Italy pick up no points and the introduction of the bonus point made the table look especially grim as they picked up the wooden spoon.  Wales were the embodiment of a lower mid-table side.  One of the moments of the tournament has to be the ending of the France – Wales match.  At the 80th minute it looked like France would get the win, and they did, it’s just that it took 19 minutes to get over the line.  There were some farcical decisions in the build up as France surely should have been awarded a penalty try.  To add to the drama, had Wales won they would have overtaken Ireland as a top seed for the World Cup.  Alls well that ends well.  

The Set Up

For Ireland's Women, the Six Nations was much more successful.  The start was nervy with a late rally needed to beat Scotland.  But the grit was there, as it was away to Italy as Ireland got the bonus point.  The French and Wales games showed that this Ireland team was well able to grind out games.  Then came the England match.  With a grandslam on the line, the performance was there, but Ireland just couldn’t get their noses in front.  England eventually were able to build a big lead late on.  They deservedly won the game, but the margin of victory flattered them.  All in all things looked positive ahead of the World Cup, more on that later.  

Frustration 2: Frustration Harder

Leinsters end to last season was even more frustrating than Irelands Six Nations.  The best team in the league all season really should have won the whole thing.  Scarlets were down to 14 for most of the semi-final, but Leinster just couldn’t find a way through.  That’s not to say Munster in the final would have been an easy win, but Leinster could have beaten them given their performance on the day.  

And then there’s Europe.  Leinster went out to a Clermont team who were too good for the first 20 minutes.  After that the game was there for Leinster.  As we saw in the final, Saracens withstood the early rally and ultimately won the game.  Had Leinster been able to maintain their defensive solidity for the first quarter they would have made it to the final.  

Not necessarily two trophies on offer, but definitely two finals missed out on.  

Avoiding the Short Straw

The World Cup draw was made in May, and although it’s potentially tricky it is manageable for Ireland.  Scotland are familiar opponents and would be preferable to France, Japan will offer a tricky test as the home nation, but is better than Argentina.  Ireland will also play Europe 1, most likely Romania, and the winner of the Oceania/Europe Play-off.  The quarter Finals will in all likelihood be against New Zealand or South Africa, unless Italy can pool of a big shock.

Elsewhere, Pool C looks like the pool of death with England, France, and Argentina.  Pool D could offer a shock with Georgia and Fiji looking to upset Australia and Wales.  

Roar

I’ve never really been in to the Lions.  And before the series, I held out no hope that they would get anything from the series.  I honestly thought a make shift team, no matter how talented the parts, could not beat the best team in the world.  And yet, after some disappointing warm-ups, and a first test loss, the Lions pulled it off and beat the All Blacks.  The series would end in a draw, with plenty of drama.  The Lions tour provided a novel viewing experience alongside the usual internationals.  

Cap-ital gains

While the Lions tour took most of the attention of the summer, Ireland played the United States and Japan.  It was a good series, three comfortable wins with no slip ups.  More importantly it saw the introduction of some new faces.  Dave Heffernan, Andrew Porter, James Ryan, Rory Scannell, and Jacob Stockdale made their debuts against the United States, while Rory O’Loughlin, Kieran Treadwell, and John Cooney got their first caps against Japan.  It was not unimaginable that Ireland could have lost one test while missing so many key players, but they pulled it off and got three wins against decent tier 2 sides.  

Gonna Take A Lot To Drag It Away From Namibia

My favourite thing to write about is African rugby.  I enjoy the challenge of it.  It’s a challenge because there isn’t a lot of coverage, at times it’s hard to even find the try scorers names.  But really I love it because I love rugby, and I want it to be a truly global game, and hopefully I’ve contributed to that by sharing some insight into a an are of rugby most Harpin’ on readers wouldn’t be familiar with.  

Namibia once again retained the Gold Cup.  They are favourites for next year but I wouldn’t write off Kenya.  They put it up to Namibia much more than the 38-point loss would suggest, and they are at home next year.  This year outside of the first half against Zimbabwe Namibia never looked like losing a game.  If I had to call it now I’d back Namibia to retain the Gold Cup next year and qualify for Japan 2019.  For the repechage place, it’s between Kenya and Uganda.  Uganda really improved this year.  Tunisia were also impressive in finishing 4th.  Zimbabwe were disappointing, and I wasn’t surprised to see Senegal relegated.  Moroco had a great year.  They one the Silver Cup and retained the North Africa Tri-Nations.  They should be confident of staying up next season.  You can read my final round-up here.  

The World Is Too Much

The Womens Worl Cup, as a tournament, was successful.  The final was a classic between the world best two teams.  The tournament raised the profile of the womens game and helped most realise that it is the same beautiful game as the mens.  But from an on field perspective it was disappointing for Ireland.  In the first game they edged past Australia, and as it showed later had Australia had more game time that may not have been the case.  Then Ireland fought back to beat Japan when it looked like a repeat of the 2015 heroics by the mens team was on the cards.  Then came France, and having beaten them in the Six Nations, it was disappointing to lose to them in such convincing fashion.  Australia got their revenge in the next round and fatigue showed in the 7th place play-off.  It mirrored 2007, a good Six Nations which Ireland nearly won, but poor preparation, in this case a lack of warm-up games derailed that momentum.  It’s a shame because it was a real chance and this team is good enough.  However, when it comes to raising the profile of the womens game, the tournament was a success.  

World Cup Qualifiers

Throughout the year the number of spots in the World Cup that were still to be determined have been reduced, and good headway was made to get closer to deciding the remaining few.  The United States beat Canada in a two-legged play-off to secure their spot as Americas 1, the first time they have ever qualified as the top American side.  Uruguay won the CONSUR Rugby Championship A to set up a play-off with Canada to determine Americas 2, which will take place in January and February.  

Malaysia topped the 2017 Asian Rugby Championship Division 1 to advance to the 2018 Asia Rugby Championship alongside Hong Kong and South Korea, the winner will face Tahiti in a play-off to get into the repechage.  Tahiti got into this play-off by beating Cook Islands.  
Fiji and Tonga qualified for the World Cup as Oceania 1 and Oceania 2 respectively, beating out Tonga in the Pacific Nations Cup.  Tonga go into the Europe/Oceania play-off.  

In Africa, Senegal were eliminated from qualifying, and Morocco were promoted meaning they can still qualify.  The 2018 Africa Gold Cup will be contested between Kenya, Morocco, Namibia, Tunisia, Uganda, and Zimbabwe, the winner will qualify as Africa 1 the runner-up will go into the repechage.  

In Europe, Portugal beat Czech Republic to move on to round 6 of qualifying, where they’ll play the runner-up of the Rugby Europe Championship, which at the moment is Spain.  Romania top the standings with 3 wins out of 4.  

Expansion

There was a big change to the league this year, with 12 turning to 14 as Toyota Cheetahs and Southern Kings joined.  My first reaction to this was pretty negative, as I thought it would ruin the competition.  You’d be hard pressed to find fans willing to travel from Ireland to South Africa for a league game.  Away support has long been a problem with the league, and it really does impact on the games.  The South African teams can’t qualify for Europe, which makes sense.  If they were dead set on adding two South African teams, I think the current format does work best.  Having the same amount of derbies is key to keeping interest in the league.  The addition of the quarter finals is a good way of making sure both conferences remain competitive.  My one gripe is that teams play an uneven number of home and away games, it makes the competition slightly unfair.  

Bidding Farewell

In November, Ireland lost out in the bid to host the 2023 World Cup.  It was a bit messy with South Africa being recommended before France were awarded it.  It’s understandable that it went to France.  Holding the World Cup in Japan is a risk, they weren’t going to take another one so soon after.  France is the safest option financially.  A disappointing end to what had been a well-run campaign.  

Cap-ital Gains 2

The Autumn internationals provided a platform for some big performances this year.  Ireland got their biggest win ever over South Africa, squeaked past Fiji with a second-string, and got revenge on Argentina.  Like in the summer, new faces came into the team.  Bundee Aki and Darren Sweetnam were capped against the Springboks, Chirs Farrell made his first appearance against Fiji, and Adam Byrne made his debut against the Pumas.  All in all a good series with 3 wins from 3.  

Elsewhere, Ian McKinley made his debut for Italy, Brazil got their first win on Euoprean soil, Wales narrowly beat Georgia in the first meeting between the two sides, Germany played the United States for the first time, and Scotland got their biggest win against Australia.  

On The Dotted Line

One of the issues that will hopeful not be as prominent in 2018 was the contracts.  Simon Zebo announced he’d be leaving, ending his international career for the time being.  Munster did have some luck with CJ Stander and Peter O’Mahony signing up.  Great news for Leinster as Tadhg Furlong signed a 3-year deal.  Connacht managed to keep hold of Kieran Marmion and Tiernan O’Halloran for another few years.  Ianin Henderson, Garry Ringrose, Andrew Conway, Rory Best, Tommy Bowe, Jared Payne, and Rob Kearney are all out of contract next summer, hopefully Ireland can keep hold of them despite the allure of the French and English money.  I’ve written before about how regardless who leaves I think the current selection policy is the best.  

Finishing Strong

Leinster are the strongest of the provinces.  They have the best squad depth and that;s shown this season.  The only two loses have come away to Glasgow and Cheetahs.  Unbeaten in the Champions Cup and almost certainly going to finish top.  The recent game against Munster showed how far ahead they are.  Connacht are in a good position in the Challenge Cup, and are level on points with Cardiff in the Champions Cup play-off spot, and are only 6 behind Cheetahs in the quarter final spot.  Qualifying for the Champions Cup spot is realistic, and they had a great win against Ulster recently.  Munster are 2nd in their conference and are in a good position to get a home quarter final in both the league and the Champions Cup.  As for Ulster, they look like the weakest province but are still in position to get into the quarter finals.  They sit 2nd in their Champions Cup pool 2 points behind La Rochelle.  Each of the four provinces are in a decent position as it stands.  

100

This is my 100th article for Harpin’ on Rugby.  A few months ago I asked Jeff how many articles I had written, and I set myself a challenge to reach 100 by the end of the year.  My first article was back in May 2015, it was on Leinster vs Treviso.  I had just returned home from the game and was annoyed at what I saw.  I decided to start typing and sent an article in.  When I didn’t hear back within a day I assumed that it had been rejected, but it turns out Jeff was busy with the birth of one of his children.  Eventually it got accepted, and 2 ½ years later here we are.  I’ve really enjoyed writing for this blog.  Whether it was turning the Pro12 into the Premier League, imagining an inter-provincial derby day, or trying to fill in the blanks in the World Cup draw, it’s been a lot of fun.  My favourite game I’ve covered was South Africa - Japan in the 2015 World Cup, one that wasn’t easy condensing down into 80 words.  I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my articles, because that’s rwhat I write them for.  The only thing we really have in this world is passion, and I want to share that with as many people as possible.  

Harpin’ on readers, happy new year, have a great 2018.  

Ciarán Duffy (@TheVoiceDepth) is a Leinster supporter and self-proclaimed ‘big cheese’ of Post To Post (@PostToPostSport).   He’ll write about anything rugby under the condition he gets to take it too seriously.
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