The 2016 November Tests have taught us a few lessons a few weeks ago. The four Rounds of the Autumn Tour showed that the trend witnessed during the last World Cup in 2015 has changed very quickly. During the global tournament in 2015, the South was really rocking.
In fact, the semi-finals were all Southern Hemisphere with New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Argentina qualified at that stage. There were no Northern Hemisphere nations in the semi-finals with Wales, England, France and Scotland all failing in Quarter-Finals.
A year after that World Cup, it cannot be said the same as the North has definitely closed the gap with the South. The first signs were brought to the fans during the Summer Tour. Except New Zealand who brillantly did the job, Australia and South Africa badly struggled.
The All Blacks won their three home games against Wales but South Africa lost for the first time a home game against Ireland. The Wallabies went through a crisis as Michael Cheika’s team was unable to win a single game on their turf against the England squad.
Following the June Tests, the Southern Hemisphere nations had all the 2016 Rugby Championship to improve their game. Going into the 2016 November Tests, the Northern Hemisphere nations made a few big statements and are now competing with the South.
New Zealand were beaten by Ireland in Chicago for the first time in their History. England went through the Autumn unbeaten while the Springboks are already in crisis. Australia had convincing wins against Wales and France but they were beaten by Ireland in Dublin.
1. Is the Southern domination threatened ?!
The easy answer is yes and the South should be really worried because the North is coming with a lot of ambitions. The All Blacks are facing a massive challenge with the British & Irish Lions coming in the country for three big Test matches which are just unpredictable.
Also, New Zealand has to retain their best players and the battle is far from won for players like Israel Dagg, Ben Smith, Malakai Fekitoa and Aaron Cruden who are all targeted by the French clubs. Steve Hansen and Ian Foster are doing all what they can to keep them.
The Wallabies are probably the team who improved the most in the Autumn. They played brillantly against Wales but had really close wins against France and Scotland. Australia should have won against Ireland and they were not bad against England. Small margins.
About the Springboks, the situation is very disappointing as the new manager Allister Coetzee did not manage to get the results that he wanted. Giving the priority to the home-based players is right and the quotas are certainly not the reason of Springboks downfall.
Even if the Southern Hemisphere nations seem to be struggling at the moment, thery still have a got a huge advantage : Super Rugby. Often labelled as “The Crazy Competition”, the Super Rugby is the competition where the best rugby of the world is played each weekend.
It is all about adapting to the Northern Hemisphere style which is rather based on strength and physicality than the running of the ball and the skills. The All Blacks certainly learnt that in Chicago and they will probably not make the same mistake twice for the next year.
2. The next Six Nations : England in the History ?!
Obviously, before the British & Irish Lions come in New Zealand, the Six Nations Championship will be an opportunity for the players to make a statement. All the Northern countries will go into this Championship with the same goal : The Grand Slam.
England will have a massive pressure as they are on a 13-game winning strak since the 2015 World Cup Pool game win against Uruguay. If England goes unbeaten, winning the Six Nations, the Triple Crown and the Grand Slam, they will equal the New Zealand record.
Moreover, Ireland will be the other favourite to the Title as they are hosting England in Dublin in the 5th game. However, their schedule will be tougher than last season with an away fixture in Cardiff against Wales and a trip to Edinburgh to face the Scotland team.
The Welsh team has the ability to perform well in 2017 because they enjoyed a pretty good Autumn campaing with Rob Howley, named interim coach. Wales is already targeting their two big home games that they have to win : England and Ireland at Principality Stadium.
Scotland have laid down some markers during the November Tests with a so close loss against Australia and a big win against Argentina in Murrayfield. The players will want to pay Vern Cotter a decent farewell as he will leave the job after the Six Nations campaign.
Finally, France and Italy are going into that campaign in the unknown. Italy had a big win against South Africa but did not back it up against Tonga. France are focused on the forwards battle but are sometimes forgetting to add some magic in their talented backline.
3. The Champions Cup : The end of the French model
The Christmas period is there and there are always four Rounds played in that 2016-2017 campaign. The Champions Cup has been full of surprises and the Rounds which have been played showed that the French clubs are still struggling and their model is unsustainable.
Looking at the 5 Pools across Europe, the English clubs are doing the job. Saracens are topping their Pool and London Wasps have played an attractive rugby. That was more difficult for the Exeter Chiefs and the Leicester Tigers in their two respective Pools so far.
However, even if they had some losses, Exeter Chiefs showed some character when they won away against Bordeaux Bègles after a home loss against this same team. The Leicester Tigers conceded 38 points in Thomond Park against Munster but had a win the next week.
The Pro12 provinces are going pretty well as well with Munster and Glasgow Warriors battling in the same Pool, playing some brillant rugby. Connacht Rugby is in the frame after a strong home record in their first four games with Leinster Rugby, impressing too.
About the French teams, there were some mixed results. Clermont are maintaining their standards with Toulouse and Castres trying to qualify as second best. Montpellier has to be more careful about the discipline while Toulon is almost eliminated after the Scarlets loss.
Racing 92, who were the finalists last season, lost twice to Glasgow Warriors. As it stands, it seems that there will probably be more Pro12 clubs in the Quarter-Finals than English teams. There will probably be a few Top 14 sides as well and it will be exciting to witness.
4. The domestic leagues : Competition all the way !
The domestic leagues are really interesting in that 2016-2017 season as the standings are very close. First of all, the Aviva Premiership shows some changes compared to the last season. Saracens and London Wasps are up but that is the only common point today.
Bath is enjoying a brillant Premiership campaign compared to the last season while Northampton Saints, Leicester Tigers and Exeter Chiefs are not sure to be part of the play-offs. The pressure is on Jim Mallinder, Richard Cockerill and Rob Baxter at some extent.
Talking about the Pro12 league, the start of the season showed very early a clear gap between the Top 6 and the bottom 6. The Irish provinces are doing pretty well with Munster and Leinster at the top but Champions Connacht are in the bottom 6 as it stands.
After the World Cup period in 2015 which was not easy to manage for them, the Ospreys are back in contention for the play-offs battle. The Scarlets and the Cardiff Blues are battling with the Dragons as Glasgow Warriors will be contenders as well for the big Title.
Also, there is the Top 14 league with Clermont leading the race and still building on a fair academy system where many French players are given game time. Stade Toulousain tries to follow the same model but they do not have the consistency to back up their big wins.
Overall, the French league is still far from perfect even if clubs such as La Rochelle and Bordeaux Bègles are coming with huge ambitions. Toulon, Montpellier and Racing 92 are sides built thanks to the money where the gameplan is not really attractive for the fans.
5. The British & Irish Lions : Coaching staff and squad
The Wales coach Warren Gatland was unveiled a few months ago as the British & Irish Lions coach for the New Zealand Tour. Rumours said that he could remain in New Zealand and quit his Wales position even before the 2019 World Cup but it was not accurate news.
Warren Gatland named a strong backroom staff with Rob Howley, Andy Farrell and Steve Borthwick respectively as attacking coach, defence coach and forwards coach. Much criticism came to the Rob Howley annoucement but it seems to be unfair to be honest.
In fact, Rob Howley already coached Wales as interim coach in 2013 and the Welsh team won the Six Nations Championship even if there were no Grand Slam and Triple Crown. Andy Farrell showed that he bounced back from the disappointing England 2015 campaign.
Currently working with Joe Schmidt in the Ireland set-up, Andy Farrell improved the defence and some signs were witnessed during his short time at Munster. Finally, Steve Borthwick enjoyed a great year from Bristol assistant coach to England forwards coach.
About the identity of the squad, the performances of the respective Northern Hemisphere unions involved in the next Six Nations Championship will be defining. England seems to have the edge given that they are currently on a 13-game winning streak at Test level.
Some weeks ago, Warren Gatland named a few players and stated that Dylan Hartley, despite his disciplinary record, was still in the mix for the captaincy. He also wants George North and Jonathan Sexton fit while Danny Cipriani could be a potential bolter in 2017.
6. The Other News : The new rugby structures
Rugby is moving every day as the game is growing and that is why some changes are starting to come to improve that game. First of all, World Rugby is trying to get some informations about a big controversy which happened during an Aviva Premiership game.
Few weeks ago, during a game involving Leicester Tigers and Northampton Saints, the Welsh winger George North was knocked out after collapsing Adam Thompstone. He successfully passed an HIA (Head Injury Assessment) and was allowed to come back on.
That decision was not understood by most of the fans given that players’ welfare is paramount. World Rugby is investigating that and on another front, the organisation is trying to expand the Sevens circuit as it is becoming a very popular event over the world.
Super Rugby is going to come back very quickly and there are some questions whether the number of franchises should be increased or not. People are calling for less franchises such as Eddie Jones who thinks that Melbourne Rebels and Western Force should go now.
In France, Bernard Laporte has been elected as the new FFR President (French Federation of Rugby) and wants to give the priority to the French players and the academies. It is really laughable when you think that this guy has been the Toulon coach so many seasons.
To finish with, the referees are currently working on better communication with the TMO’s (Television Match Officials). The TMO’s are not helping the referees enough and the players have to adapt as the new laws are there to make sure that they are protected.
Following the November Tests, that is fair to say that the Northern Hemisphere nations have closed the gap with the Southern Hemisphere. There were no Northern countries in the 2015 World Cup semi-finals but not sure that it will be the same for the 2019 big show.
During the next Six Nations Championship in 2017, England will be chasing the New Zealand record of 18 consecutive wins at Test level. Eddie Jones’ team will have the opportunity to equal that mark if they win their last game of the campaign against Ireland.
In Europe, there is also the Champions Cup which already started and four Rounds after, things are interesting. The English clubs are there with Saracens and London Wasps while the Pro12 provinces are impressive with a few Top 14 clubs such as Clermont for example.
The domestic leagues are very close in the standings with Northampton Saints and Leicester Tigers trying to be part of the play-offs with Exeter Chiefs in the Aviva Premiership. Pro12 and Top 14 are showing big gaps between the Top 6 and the bottom 6.
On June 2017, the British & Irish Lions will face New Zealand in New Zealand. Warren Gatland is planning everything for this Tour. He named a strong backroom staff and no doubt that he will not be accused of nepotism this time contrary to the last Tour in 2013.
Finally, Rugby is a game which is moving and World Rugby is working closely on players’ safety. Sevens is developping as well with Super Rugby looking for new expansions. France have elected a new President to run the Federation and new laws are protecting players.
Exciting times coming ! Bring on 2017 !