Following an enthralling 2017, we make our predictions for next year.
1) Ireland to win Six Nations: Irish rugby is on the up and, while England and possibly Scotland will provide stern challenges, Joe Schmidt’s men seem to have the momentum. Following a positive end-of-year series, securing victories over South Africa, Fiji and Argentina, and a Champions Cup campaign which has seen Ulster, Leinster and Munster all impress, the Emerald Isle should rightly expect to challenge for a Grand Slam.
Providing they come through their opening game against Les Bleus unscathed, Schmidt’s side then have three consecutive home games before their encounter with England. That, on paper at least, should be the match that decides the title but there is no reason why Ireland cannot go to Twickenham and upset the applecart in the final game.
2) England to defeat New Zealand in their much-anticipated clash: It seems remarkable that these two have not locked horns since 2014 but their game next November will indeed be their first clash for four years. As a result, the hype machine will no doubt go into overdrive with the world number one and two sides going head-to-head.
That is providing, of course, that the teams maintain their form, as both England and the All Blacks have suffered slight wobbles in 2017. Although the Red Rose’s loss to Ireland was a mere blip, they were unconvincing at times in November, while Steve Hansen’s team were not their usual domineering selves this year, losing Tests to both the Lions and Australia. With home advantage, however, Eddie Jones’ men will fancy themselves to topple the world champions and secure their first victory over New Zealand since 2012.
3) Scottish rugby to go from strength-to-strength: Following a superb November, where they thrashed Australia and so nearly defeated New Zealand, 2018 could be a special year for Scotland. While the Six Nations draw is not exactly kind for Gregor Townsend’s men, with three away games in total, they should be confident of overturning Wales and Italy, leaving Ireland as their most difficult task.
A home encounter against England will also be troublesome but the Red Rose will certainly be wary of the Murrayfield outfit’s attacking threat, even if the previous game ended in a comfortable win for Jones’ team.
With Glasgow impressing in the PRO14 and Edinburgh also improving under the guidance of Richard Cockerill, it is a good time to be a Scottish rugby fan.
4) An Irish side to win the Champions Cup: The Irish teams have enjoyed tremendous success in Europe but have surprisingly not lifted the title since 2012, when Leinster defeated Ulster to secure their third Heineken Cup. With Toulon and Saracens making it an Anglo-French duopoly over the past five years, the provinces have undoubtedly redoubled their efforts this season.
Munster and Leinster have been outstanding so far in this year’s Champions Cup and look set to gain a home quarter-final in the play-offs, where they would back themselves to qualify for the last-four. Although La Rochelle have impressed and Clermont Auvergne remain a threat, the Irish sides appear a class above this campaign.
5) Australian Super Rugby teams to improve after Western Force cull: While everything surrounding the decision to axe the Force was handled poorly, it should improve Australian rugby in the short to medium-term. The country, with other sports taking precedence over union, simply could not sustain that many Super Rugby sides and be competitive.
Although the New Zealand franchises appear a long way off, expect those Australian teams to at least display an improvement and have their top side in the conference go into the knockout stages with a winning record. That would ease last season’s embarrassment which saw the Brumbies qualify for the quarter-finals having only secured six victories in their 15 matches in 2017.
6) Jaguares and Argentina to continue to struggle: It has been a pretty terrible year for Argentinean rugby and it is difficult to see that changing in 2018. Hampered by their inability to select players from overseas, as well as their incapability of matching the financial power of the European clubs, they are struggling to compete with the other top-tier nations.
Although it is admirable to take the same stance as New Zealand in the non-selection of individuals based overseas, it is not feasible for the South American outfit. Equally, the introduction of the Jaguares into Super Rugby and aligning the franchise with the national squad appeared a wonderful idea on paper but, for whatever reason, it simply has not worked. Expect their struggles to continue next year.
7) Bristol to revel being back in the Premiership: As many teams have found out, however experienced you may be, the Premiership is a different beast to England’s second-tier but, if anyone can succeed, it is Bristol. They were a huge disappointment during the 2016/17 season as, despite large investment, the Ashton Gate-based outfit ultimately succumbed to the relegation trapdoor.
Unperturbed, majority shareholder Steve Lansdown opened his chequebook again and in has come, among many others, internationals Ian Madigan, Luke Morahan and Steven Luatua. Charles Piutau will also join for the start of next season where the West Countrymen should be back in the Premiership and this time ready to compete with England’s elite. Pat Lam has already done a neat job of implementing his style and the New Zealander, who is an astute coach, should lead them to a successful year.
8) Returning players to shine: Injury has affected a number of players in the latter part of 2017, particularly international teams south of the equator, with Israel Dagg, Joe Moody, Owen Franks, Jordie Barrett and Israel Folau all seeing their seasons ended prematurely.
With Ben Smith and David Pocock set to return from their sabbaticals, there are a number of top class individuals who will hopefully be rejuvenated in 2018. In particular, it makes New Zealand an especially fearsome prospect should those five ultimately hit their best form.
9) Asafo Aumua to be starting hooker for New Zealand by the end of the year: On the subject of New Zealand, they would be doing the sport a favour should they unleash Asafo Aumua next season. A lot has been said about the front-rower on these pages but it is for good reason; he is a special talent. It also helps his cause that New Zealand have a few question marks noted against their hooking position.
With Dane Coles struggling with concussion last season, and Codie Taylor and Nathan Harris not exactly setting it alight in his place, Aumua could do what Rieko Ioane did and become a first team regular. The All Blacks are generally cautious when it comes to introducing young players but, as Ioane and Jordie Barrett showed, age is not a barrier if you are that good.
10) South African youngsters to impress: The 2017 World Rugby U20 Championship was ultimately disappointing for the Junior Springboks but, on talent alone, they should have been in that final. It was to England’s credit, with over 10 players missing due to injuries and national team call-ups, that they ended up winning their semi-final but South Africa effectively threw it away.
However, those youngsters have plenty of chances to redeem themselves and that should begin in 2018. With the country’s financial issues seeing the more experienced players depart and thus accelerating their introduction into the first team, expect a number of those to both start and impress. The Stormers in particular have an excellent crop coming through with Damian Willemse, Zain Davids and Juarno Augustus just three players who could have a significant impact in Super Rugby.