CRAIG LEWIS looks ahead to a big rugby year and what could be in store for supporters.
Ireland to win Grand Slam
The 2018 rugby season belonged to Ireland, who lost just one game all year, while enjoying an unbeaten run on the way to winning the Six Nations and also celebrating a first-ever win over the All Blacks on Irish soil. Unsurprisingly, Ireland were named World Rugby’s Team of the Year, with Joe Schmidt and Johnny Sexton walking away with the coach and player of the year awards. On 2 February Ireland will kick off the defence of their Six Nations title with a highly-anticipated clash against England. One should expect Schmidt’s charges to start the season with a win in Dublin and progress through to a second consecutive Grand Slam success.
Lions to again lead SA Super Rugby charge
The Lions will head into the 2019 season without the services of key stars such as Franco Mostert, Jaco Kriel and Rohan Janse van Rensburg, and they may struggle to replicate the success of recent years in which they reached three successive finals. Having said that, there is little doubt that the Johannesburg-based side should still be regarded as favourites to claim South African conference honours. The Currie Cup-winning Sharks will be hoping to build on that domestic success and could challenge strongly, but the rebuilding Bulls and perennially under-performing Stormers will have it all to do. One way or another, it’s the Lions who still have enough quality to maintain the mantle as South Africa’s leading team.
All Blacks to bounce back at World Cup
Last August, a respected New Zealand rugby writer suggested it was ‘time to jump the gun’ as they might as well hand the All Blacks the Webb Ellis Cup already. It’s a proclamation that hasn’t aged well. At that point, the All Blacks were cruising to another Rugby Championship title, but then they were beaten by the Boks in Wellington and Ireland in Dublin. Yet there is no doubt that New Zealand coach Steve Hansen would have seen these reality checks as a blessing in disguise. It has provided the opportunity for the All Blacks to assess some problem areas, and the humbled world champs should be expected to come back strong in 2019. The All Blacks are now just 1.37 ranking points ahead of Ireland, but I still believe that they have the experience and class to claim a third successive world title.
Boks to continue progress, but World Cup a bridge too far
The Springboks finished 2018 with a 50% win record. While there was undoubtedly progress in terms of performances (their biggest margin of defeat was 15 points), they still slipped to seven losses. The most encouraging aspect of their 2018 season was their improvement against the All Blacks, and the Boks will head into a World Cup year feeling that some important building blocks were duly put in place. One should expect the Boks to continue on an upward curve in 2019, and to be highly competitive in the truncated Rugby Championship. Yet the fact remains that the Springboks sit in fifth place in the world rankings, and it’s a stretch to suggest that the World Cup should be within their grasp at this juncture of a new rebuilding phase.
More overseas Boks to get a look in
Towards the end of 2018, Rassie Erasmus suggested he wasn’t likely to cast the net much wider in terms of his overseas-based contingent. However, any injuries or form fluctuation during the course of a long Super Rugby season, and then the Rugby Championship could quickly change thinking such as this. It can’t be forgotten that experienced Boks such as Bismarck du Plessis and Frans Steyn were originally named in the first squad of 2018 before being ruled out due to reported injuries. The likes of Jan Serfontein, Cobus Reinach, Pat Lambie and Marcell Coetzee also remain on Erasmus’ radar, and don’t be surprised if at least one or two get a look in before the World Cup rolls around.
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