With another year in the books Planet Rugby editor Ben Coles sits down to look back on the highs and lows of 2016 and looks ahead to the future.
First off, a huge thank you to everybody who has contributed to Planet Rugby over the past year, especially to our core staff over the last 12 months – Adam, David, Kobus, Nick, Lyndon, Wynona and Josh. And also to my predecessor Ross Hastie for all his help and advice when needed.
This year more than ever at PR has been focused on expanding our coverage to include new forms of content to go with our usual high number of news stories, match previews and reports.
Analysis, flashbacks, highlights and more feature and comment pieces are now all part of our weekly cycle, and a big thank you to all of you for spending your time reading our work.
Usually after Rugby World Cups, for both ourselves and the rest of the rugby world, we expect a noticeable lull at the start of another four-year cycle. 2016 has certainly not felt that way, packed full of new narratives and keeping us on our toes.
Not to delve too deep into the numbers side of things, but the fact that we had more pageviews in November this year than our highest figure during the 2015 Rugby World Cup illustrates how the rise of certain teams, and the fall of others, have kept us all interested.
Where better to start than with the world champions and their impressive transition from one great era seemingly into the next. New Zealand planned thoroughly for the retirements of Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, not to mention Ma’a Nonu, Tony Woodcock and Conrad Smith, but there was no guarantee of sustained excellence.
Now Beauden Barrett and Dane Coles are superstars, rightly nominated for World Player of the Year and supported by a hell of a cast led by Brodie Retallick and Ben Smith in particular.
It has almost been forgotten too after a mixed November (by their high standards), but setting the record for the most Tests wins in a row by a Tier 1 nation with 18, over a time period that included a major transition in personnel, deserves huge praise.
The main story of the year however has been the rise of England and Ireland; particularly England given how low their stock was following last year’s Rugby World Cup.
Even with Eddie Jones coming in no one would have predicted a perfect year, one which included a first Grand Slam in 11 years and a first series win over Australia in their own backyard. England had only ever won three times in Australia before this year, spread across 17 matches. Winning three Tests in three weeks marked quite a change.
Ireland ending an 111-year wait to defeat the All Blacks was a remarkable performance too, although the signs that Joe Schmidt’s group were at the start of something special came months earlier with that win in Cape Town, down to 14 men for the majority of the match and fielding a side missing several leading lights to injury.
The meeting between Ireland and England in next year’s Six Nations is already the most anticipated fixture of 2017 and we expect the title, if not the Grand Slam, to be on the line.
South African and Australia supporters are less likely to look back on 2016 as fondly. The Wallabies record of six wins from 15 matches doesn’t look pretty, no doubt, but at least Michael Cheika appears to have a long-term plan in place, building the Wallabies’ stock of players and restructuring on and off the pitch.
In brief; Argentina’s small player group felt the strain of their first year in Super Rugby. Scotland are knocking on the door, if not yet to barge through it, but the appointment of Gregor Townsend could be the catalyst.
The clamour for a change in approach is starting to be heard in Wales, even if the execution is taking some time. Italy’s win over South Africa followed up by a loss to Tonga, magnificent and then helpless, felt very familiar. France meanwhile are beginning to stir.
However Italy, and Japan as well, have made astute coaching appointments by bringing in Conor O’Shea and Jamie Joseph, with both brought in to achieve long-term success.
What about the Pacific Islands? The same old issues still persist over time with players and funding, but the other major highlight aside from that Tonga triumph over Italy was the Super Rugby match in Suva between the Chiefs and Crusaders. Watching thousands turn out in appalling conditions was fantastic.
We were also lucky enough to get 15 minutes with Nemani Nadolo in November and it was fascinating to hear his thoughts on the good and bad for Fijian rugby.
Who can forget the Fiji Sevens side either. Huge credit to Ben Ryan for getting the best out of a remarkably talented group of players led by Osea Kolinisau. The fact that this was Fiji’s first ever Olympic medal, and the reactions afterwards back home with immense celebrations, made it all the more special.
That triumph was joined by another incredible story with Connacht’s PRO12 success, a rise to the top that rewarded long-term servants like John Muldoon for their graft in the dark years and celebrated attacking rugby through Bundee Aki and co. In the process they breathed new life into the league.
It has not all been a year of success stories. Super Rugby’s expansion and new format felt riddled with flaws in a difficult first year.
Accusations that the most entertaining competition in the sport has lost some of its magic need to be addressed. Any time the New Zealand franchises faced off, or the Lions were involved, we made sure to tune in. Other games could have been easily avoided. The Sunwolves and Jaguares are welcome additions, no doubt. But other teams perhaps should be removed from elsewhere.
We will continue to cover Super Rugby and all the rest of the action across the globe as best we can, although expect a noticeable improvement in our coverage of those smaller nations in the sport who deserve more coverage.
Germany’s win over Uruguay in November was an eye-opener, but the likes of Georgia, Romania and the rest have been battling away for some time.
And after all, we are called ‘Planet Rugby’, and in an age where highlights and information about each and every country is easier to find than ever before through social media, those countries deserve more attention and we aim to provide that. Along with explanations over the new law directives being introduced on January 3…
A very Merry Christmas to all of you, and a Happy New Year too.
See you in 2017.