Well, ladies and gentleman, first things first: Happy New Year!
The shambles that was 2018 is history, and a new year is upon us. 2019 brings us the long awaited World Cup in Japan, and a new competition in Global Rapid Rugby set to launch in Asia.
Since 2016, we’ve been having a shocker when it comes to rugby, not just on the field, but as a brand. Whenever anyone thinks of rugby now, they talk about how much of a mess it is in. The Wallabies are losing match after match and Rugby Australia seemed to lack the balls to take any action, and at lower levels it is becoming increasingly clear that game is struggling.
If anything, the game has transformed into a quarrel of competing egos arguing that their way to fix the game is best, with no consensus on a solution. Most of all, there seems to be a clear lack of understanding between those who run the game and the folks who play it all around the country.
The only folks who seem to care anymore are the hardcore fans: the families and people that have either played the game their whole lives, or know someone who has played the game their whole lives. And even some of them are beginning to lose hope. It seems now more than ever that the game no longer appeals to the casual viewer, something that AFL, Rugby League and Soccer have been excelling at in the past few years.
However, I think that 2019 will be a better year for our game (touch wood). I mean, how much worse could it get?
So, here are five fearless predictions: some of these are positive, some of these are negative, but all are my own opinion. If you agree, disagree, or have predictions of your own, let me know your thoughts down below:
Mixed results ahead for the Sevens teams
We start off with the first rugby that will arrive on our shores in 2019. For the last few years, Sevens seems to have been one of the few things that has improved. Our Womens Sevens team were, (until last year’s Commonwealth Games when we went down to New Zealand), the best team in the world, and our Mens Sevens team has been consistently finishing in the top five for the last few years. And both won in Sydney last year.
However, this year both teams are going through a lot of change, especially the Womens team. The squad had a slow start to the 2018-19 season, after crashing out in round one in the US to finish in 5th place, before recovering to take Bronze in Dubai. Emilee Cherry, Emma Tonegato and Shannon Parry were all out from injury during that round, and new coach John Manenti added a injection of young talent from the AON Uni Sevens competition, including the likes of Sariah Paki and Lily Dick.
The Girls currently sit in fourth place, and will have to produce a back-against-the-wall performance if they are to retain their Series crown. Those first two rounds were won by New Zealand, who currently have a 12 point lead over us. If the Kiwis win again, unless they struggle to place in the remaining three rounds the title is as good as theirs for the year.
I’d argue that while it sucks we’ve fallen back so far, it’s short term pain for long term gain. It’s great to see that we have been consistently good for the last few years, and we need younger players getting that exposure and learning from veterans who won two Sevens Series and a Olympic Gold medal. Right now, consistency is something Australian rugby desperately needs.
The Men are also in the midst of transition period, with Tim Walsh coming in to coach the side. Currently, the side are sitting just outside the top five, having finished in fourth in the first round in Dubai before crashing out early in the second round in Cape Town. The side should produce a better performance in Sydney, but with Fiji, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States in flying form, I don’t see our lads finishing anything higher than fifth.
We will have two Super Rugby Teams in the quarter finals
Ahhh, Super Rugby.
Since 2015, this competition has been one disaster after another in Australia. 2016 came with a god-awful restructure that saw us struggle to keep pace with the Kiwis. 2017 saw us at our lowest, with us not beating a Kiwi side the whole goddamn year. Despite improving last year, many of us are still left with this feeling that we are just a cut below compared to everyone else right now.
There have been so many reasons for our failings in those years. The schedule was a nightmare, the lack of coordination between our Super Rugby sides reared it’s head in all the wrong ways, and above all, our coaches in all of those teams were simply out of their depth.
The Reds went through three coaches in those years, with Richard Graham, Matt O’Connor and Nick Stiles. The Waratahs by comparison stuck with Daryl Gibson, who similarly struggled until he was given the right support staff around him last year. The Brumbies were the best performers (all things considered) in part due to them having Stephen Larkham, until he moved to the national side and Dan McKellar took the reins. And the Rebels had Tony McGahan (who ended struggling much the same as the Reds coaches), before handing it off to Dave Wessels last year.
2018 was a better year all up though, statistically at least. In that, we actually started to win more matches against international opposition. Statistically, we won 18 and drew 1 out of 40 international games in the regular season. Yes, it’s just under 50%, but I’d take that over 2017, where we only managed 5 wins and 1 draw out of 46 games.
Despite this improvement, the big problem for many of us as fans is that there is still a feeling that we are not on the same level as the Kiwis, or the best Saffa teams, or the Jaguares. And yes, we aren’t winning as much as we are losing. We shouldn’t have to accept mediocrity.
But that’s where this year comes in. For the all crap we give Michael Cheika, his decision to have his coaches going around to all the Super Rugby clubs last year to make sure there is an aligned game plan is something that needs to happen. There is more alignment with Super Rugby franchises, and that needs to continue to happen. And while last year was very inconsistent, there was more than enough there to suggest that when everyone is on the same page, Australian rugby can succeed. At least on paper, there are two squads here that could make the finals.
Firstly, the Rebels. My god, their squad! When you’ve got Luke Jones, Hugh Roach, Isi Naisarani, Campbell Magnay, Matt Toomua and Quade Cooper coming into a squad that already has the likes of Reece Hodge, Marika Koroibete, Dayne Haylett-Petty, Will Genia, Richard Hardwick, Adam Coleman, Jordon Uelese, Sam Talakai and Jermaine Ainsley, you’ve got a good squad. Really, it comes down to how they gel as a unit, and that falls on the coach, Dave Wessels. He may be a young head, but Wessels, having come up through the Force system, has shown a lot of potential as a coach. He’s someone Australian rugby must keep around.
For our second side, my pick would have to be the Tahs. They showed a lot of potential last year, and Gibson, supported by his coaching staff in Chris Malone and Simon Cron have shown that when they are consistent, they can challenge the best teams in the competition.
But really, for ALL sides, it again comes down to consistency. If they don’t have consistency, you win many games. And I predict that this year, we might finally get that. Unless that doesn’t happen, and it all goes to shit once again.
Global Rapid Rugby – The Rebel Competition we had to have
This year will see the emergence of Global Rapid Rugby, with eight teams from Australia, Fiji, Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia, Samoa, Singapore and United States competing for a $1 million purse. It will see the Western Force finally return to a competition format, and as of January we know of two more teams, being the South China Tigers and the Asia-Pacific Dragons.
Let’s pause for a moment: the fact this competition has made it this far is unbelievable, in all honesty. It’s a testament to the fans out in the West who would not let their team fade into memory. It’s also a testament to Twiggy for putting his energy into keeping the competition going. But it is also a statement. It is a statement of how insane the game has got in this country: that Rugby Australia, as a governing body, does not control every part of the game in the land. It is honestly unbelievable, even more so considering the Force attracted more fans to their games than any of the Super Rugby clubs last year.
However, once the Force stepped out onto the field to play Fiji for the first of seven exhibition matches, something happened. There was a sense, at least to me, of rugby finally being a product that casual viewers would want to watch. There was pre-match entertainment, crowd engagement, and it was easily accessible. It was on free-to-air television! What is this?! Twiggy is a man on a mission, and it says a lot to me that Raelene Castle is keen to engage with that.
Let’s go down a rabbit hole for a moment: could it be that Twiggy might become what Kerry Packer was for cricket back in the 1970s? I have no idea, and there are plenty of mixed feelings in the rugby realms around that. But considering the comp has made it this far, we could be in for a massive opportunity. Asia is part of the world that is still to experience the game, but if it was to expand there, how good would it be for our game if we led that?
It’s clear that RA, the NZRU, the Pacific nations and World Rugby itself see value in this competition. And I think it is something we should champion. As a code, having this competition finds us in uncharted waters. But could it be a watershed moment.
Frankly, I’m tired of the way things are going. If we want the game to appeal to the Australian general public, it’s going to have to do something different to what it is doing now. So, why the hell not? What do we have to lose? If this crazy comp is a success, that can only be good right? If the Force prosper, how good would it be for the game nationally? Hell, it could even lead to reunification with the other states in the long term? From what I saw last year, I’m willing to give this competition a shot.
Super W will head to QLD, Toast Rack will head West
2018 was a mixed bag on the purely domestic front. On the one hand, the premier club competitions continued to enjoy popularity, but on the other, there were a lot of decisions made that turned even more fans away from the game, (such as the removal of Penrith from the Shute Shield and the Greater Sydney Rams from the NRC). There were a lot of highlights though: the Womens Game saw a much needed injection with the Super W competition and more Wallaroos games, and the NRC saw record crowds and a victory for the Drua, despite the poor performance of the NSW sides.
This year we will get to enjoy those competitions again. Predictions wise, it is very early to make any call, but then again, that’s the whole point of this article:
For the Super W, NSW will be favourites to go back-to-back, after going through last season undefeated. This year however, I have got an itching feeling that Queensland might spring a surprise and take the chocolates. The squad last year went from being held scoreless by NSW in round one to nearly knocking them off in the grand final. My thoughts are they have it in them to go one better this year, and may spring a surprise on their southern counterparts.
Looking even further down the line, this years NRC should be interesting one, given the World Cup will take place during September to November, the NRC’s traditional slot. All things considered, Fiji will be focused on having as strong a team as possible for the World Cup, which means the Drua will either have a squad of younger, less experienced players, or will be filled with players fighting to get into the World Cup squad. Either way, I predict the Drua will be less-likely to go back to back. However, the team that I think will be likely to win is the team that has been playing the most together, so I predict the Western Force will take the Toast Rack west in 2019, after defeating QLD Country in the final… unless NSW get their shit together.
Wallabies will bow out in the semis (if we’re lucky)
And finally, we have the elephant in the room.
Regardless of what happens this year, at least we can say unequivocally that Michael Cheika won’t be the Wallabies coach at the end of the year, as he has made it no secret that he has no plans to coach past this year’s World Cup.
However, the big problem facing him is that between now and then, there will be a shortened Rugby Championship and a World Cup, and he has a big statement to make. Many are still calling for his head after three under performing years, especially after 2018 where the Wallabies only won four matches. Alas, I don’t think this year is going to provide much in the way of respite.
This years Rugby Championship has a draw that will see the Wallabies play a maximum of two tests at home, with the only match confirmed being the Bledisloe match in Perth. The Argentineans are still to confirm their fixtures, however if it is the case our match against them is a home game, it is likely to be played at Suncorp Stadium. They will also have to travel to South Africa to play the Springboks, as well as Eden Park for the second Bledisloe match with the All Blacks. The Rugby Championship is likely to go to either South Africa (due to having a favourable draw with two home games) or New Zealand (because they keep bloody winning).
Based on 2018, I don’t see us winning the Bledisloe this year, not by a long shot. However, the addition of Scott Johnson as Michael Cheika’s boss could be an interesting one come the World Cup. Johnson has done wonders for Scotland ever since he became involved with their rugby program. His focus on improving strategic alignments with their domestic teams in Edinburgh and Glasgow has seen Scotland improve dramatically on the World Stage. Whether he can do it here, only time will tell.
Regardless, the World Cup comes down to one thing: how we go in the group stages. The Wallabies will face Wales, Georgia, Fiji and Uruguay in our pool. Wales and Fiji are likely to provide the most resistance, and if we lose one of those matches it could prove to be own downfall.
If we were to lose to Wales but beat the rest, we finish as runner up of Pool D, and we would head into the quarter finals where we would face the champion of Pool C, which is likely to be England. However, if we go undefeated in the pool stages and top Pool D, we’re likely to face either France or Argentina in the quarter finals, and against both those two sides we’ve had more successful recent results.
Regardless, if we make it to the semi-finals we’ll be likely to come up against either Ireland or South Africa if we top Pool D, and if we managed to somehow beat England as Pool D runner up we’d face New Zealand or Scotland in the semi-final. Either way, I feel that if we are lucky to make it to the semis, it’ll be the end of the road for us there.
Let us know your five predictions for 2019. It’s going to be a big year!