As the new year gets underway it’s a time to look ahead to what the next 12 months might bring, as well as reflect on the past year, and I’m looking forward to just a second England win over New Zealand in the last 15 years.
They might have lost 14 of their last 15 Tests against the All Blacks but England have closed the gap on the number one team in the world enormously of late and are ready to beat them again at Twickenham in November and potentially return to top spot in the world rankings for the first time since 2004 as well.
New Zealand are still the best team in the world at the moment but home advantage is crucial and England will have another 10 months of development and progress under their belt by then, so I think they’ll win by 10 points when the two sides meet on November 10.
Scotland will be a massive test away from home in February but I expect England’s experience and quality to tell at Murrayfield, I can’t see them having any problems away to Italy and France in the Six Nations and it’d be a shock if they didn’t win their home games.
Domestically, Wasps are improving and Saracens will be there at the business end of the season, despite their recent struggles, but it’s impossible to look past Exeter when it comes to picking the Premiership winner this season.
The Chiefs only won promotion from the Championship seven years ago and were playing in Courage League Division 4 as recently as 20 years ago but lost just two of 24 Premiership games in 2017 and I’m backing them to win back-to-back titles and add another chapter to their incredible story.
Rob Baxter’s men are still just about in the hunt in the Champions Cup but the team to beat in Europe this season are Leinster after beating them in back-to-back games last month.
The Dubliners have been in exceptional form in the PRO14 this season as well and I expect to see them in European rugby’s showpiece occasion in Bilbao in May fighting it out to win a fourth crown and a first since 2012.
Clermont are languishing in 10th place in the Top 14 at present but we saw at Allianz Park last month just how dangerous they can be and I think we could be set for a Leinster v Clermont final full of free-flowing attacking rugby in just over four months’ time.
It’ll be tough for anyone to match that for a breakthrough year in 2018 but I’m excited to see the development of Sam Simmonds. He is the standout young English player for me at the moment. He can play at six, seven or eight and I’d love to see him given a run of games in the Six Nations.
Jordan Larmour announced himself to the world with a late contender for the try of 2017 for Leinster against Munster on Boxing Day and the 20-year-old could well be one of the breakthrough players of this year after making a good start to his domestic career with four tries in his first nine PRO14 games.
With Rob Kearney getting a bit long in the tooth and Simon Zebo off to France, there are some spots up for grabs in that Ireland back three and he looks a really exciting prospect who might just be ready to seize the opportunity with both hands.
Steff Evans did play five times for Wales in 2017 but I expect him to explode onto the international scene this year. Wales could do with a spark and he’s scored five tries and set up another eight in his eight PRO14 appearances so far this season, so looks like just the man to provide it.
Huw Jones played in all of Scotland’s Six Nations games and their three autumn internationals, with a spell back in South Africa winning the Currie Cup in between, and most people are already aware of his talents but he’ll go from strength to strength this year.
He’s taken to international rugby like a duck to water and five tries in his last five Tests suggest he’s ready to have a big year in 2018.
This year looks set to be another blockbuster, albeit without the absolute pinnacle of a Lions tour or World Cup to look forward to, but if I had one wish for 2018 in rugby, it’d be that the sport continues to uphold the values of sportsmanship as opposed to gamesmanship.
We’re now seeing players being coached to bend the rules and taking it upon themselves to appeal for decisions and even attempt to get fellow players yellow-carded at times.
It’s something that’s creeping into the game and it’s up to all of us to make sure that we don’t follow football down that path and rugby continues to be a sport that people look at with respect for the values at its core as well as for the entertainment it undoubtedly provides.
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