For a year that promised so much, the fact that any test rugby was able to be played in the Southern Hemisphere at all was a massive achievement.
Still, the three sides that competed in this year’s Tri Nations – New Zealand, Australia and Argentina – will have all emerged from 2020 with as many questions as they have answers.
The All Blacks took out the competition, but their two-win, two-loss record illustrates how tight the battle was.
While head coaches Ian Foster, Dave Rennie and Mario Ledesma won’t necessarily be happy with how the year unfolded, there are still some bright sparks amongst the gloom that could help propel the Southern Hemisphere sides onto brighter and better things in the years to come.
In the second part of RugbyPass’ Tri Nations review, five writers have put pen to paper to assess who performed well in 2020, and who might be nervously looking over their shoulder.
Who was the best newcomer to international rugby throughout this Tri Nations?
BS: Marcos Kremer isn’t a newcomer to international rugby but it is hard to argue that another player had as much of a leap as he had in the 2020 Tri-Nations.
His unrestrained physicality at times bordered on psychotic, but his performance against the All Blacks almost single-handedly shut down their attack with 28 tackles.
As a disruptive force, Kremer manhandled some of the best players in the world and seemingly stripped away their superhuman strengths. You don’t see many players stopping Ardie Savea’s leg drive and putting him behind the gain line.
Caleb Clarke for New Zealand and Harry Wilson for Australia are two deserving picks otherwise.
The announcement of World Rugby's Team of the Decade on Tuesday has brought with it an avalanche of criticism from fans over the selection and non-selection of certain players.https://t.co/yK7iv1s1lJ
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) December 7, 2020
FM: Harry Wilson – it has to be.
In his first season in green and gold, Wilson was among the standouts week to week, and was one of the Wallabies’ more consistent performers as well.
The Number Eight’s work rate is incredibly impressive, and he isn’t afraid to put his body on the line. Wilson was one of four players to have started every test match this year for the Wallabies, all from the back of the scrum except for the first test where he lined up at Blindside Flanker.
His ability is simply beyond his years, which is why it’s not too outlandish to see that questions about his future test captaincy credentials are being asked.
Having only turned 21 late last month, Wilson isn’t just a player for the future, but he’s quickly become a key part of the Wallabies’ resurgence towards glory.
TV: Caleb Clarke was exceptional in his first two games for the All Blacks but wasn’t quite as influential during the Tri Nations itself. Argentina’s Santiago Chocobares did everything that was asked of him when called upon, especially in his debut against the All Blacks, and probably deserved more chances.
It’s hard to go past Australia No 8 Harry Wilson, however, who started in every Wallabies match this year. The 21-year-old never took a backwards step and gave the Wallabies a big presence in the midfield – both on attack and defence. Dave Rennie blooded plenty of youngsters this season, but it was Wilson who had the biggest impact.
NT: Santiago Chocobares – his performance against the All Blacks in round 3 was something to behold. The young centre had no fear of his seasoned opponent in Jack Goodhue and simply out thought, out muscled and out enthused his opponent.
Based on this season’s performances, has Ian Foster done enough to secure his place as All Blacks head coach beyond next year?
BS: The best thing about Foster’s staff was their ability to adjust and fix problems. After the draw against the Wallabies, they changed the entire scheme to a power-based system which bullied the Aussies at Eden Park.
After losing to the Pumas, they increased their attacking kick game by over 20% in the second test instead of trying to run through a brick wall.
They patiently built scoreboard pressure and forced the Pumas to implode trying to chase a game, blowing out from 17-0 to 38-0 over the last quarter of the game.
These are important steps to make as a squad but in order to win a World Cup they can’t adjust after the fact, they need to rescue games in the moment.
The jury is out whether he will be extended, but with Italy and Fiji scheduled for July, there are some low-pressure games to start 2021.
FM: The All Blacks’ fans, players, staff and board members have all come to expect excellence from the team, but this year was far from that.
Drawing with the Wallabies in the opening test of the year was shocking in itself, but to then lose to the Pumas for the first time ever, shows that the All Blacks aren’t headed in the right direction.
For next year though, Ian Foster is the coach – I can’t see any change happening. Even though fans are crying out for Scott Robertson to save the day, waiting at least one more year will likely be the case in my opinion.
But beyond that, if Foster can’t turn the All Blacks around and begin to steer them in the right direction, then nobody would win by continuing to have him on board.
Loyalty is important to the All Blacks but surely only if it warrants results?
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) December 7, 2020
TV: No – but that would be the case even if the All Blacks had won all six of their matches. 2020 has not been an easy year for first-time coaches thanks to all the disruption and while New Zealand Rugby won’t be overly happy with the results, they certainly will reserve judgement until next year.
NT: Let’s see what happens next year. If he fails then the question might be asked but even Sir Ted failed before he won. I think New Zealand should get off Fozzie’s case and back him. Give him the latitude others have enjoyed before consigning him to the dust bin.
How do you rate Dave Rennie’s first season in charge of the Wallabies, and what needs to change for him to get them to where he wants them to be?
BS: The Wallabies are playing much better rugby in 2020 despite the three draws. As a season grade, it has to be a pass.
This was a side who were losing by an average score of 41-13 to the All Blacks consistently over the last World Cup cycle.
They are on the up and you’d have to think that trajectory will continue as they build more experience.
FM: When he put pen to paper with the Wallabies, Rennie knew what he was signing up for – realistically, it was never going to be smooth sailing right from the get-go.
In his first squad, he selected 16-uncapped players and 10 more with fewer than 10 tests to their name.
But having won just one from six, including three draws, he still would’ve wanted more from a largely inexperienced side. That being said, that win was over the All Blacks.
For that reason, Rennie has led the Wallabies to a ‘C+’ level, but what the foundations he’s laid could lead to future successes.
Honestly what needs to change is the test schedule. Obviously COVID-19 meant that the test calendar was restricted, and that they’d have to face the heavily favoured All Blacks four times. It’d do the Wallabies a lot of good to test themselves in Europe, namely against the likes of Italy and Scotland, as they look to build a bit of confidence for the years ahead.
TV: Despite the fact that Rennie is coming in as a first-time international coach and he significantly rejigged the Australian squad, there’s still no excuse for finishing third in a Tri-Nations played entirely at home. The Wallabies should have beaten Argentina twice – and probably New Zealand at least once more too.
Still, like Foster, the jury will be out until Rennie is able to run an uninterrupted campaign and gets to play some more non-All Black opposition.
NT: I am satisfied with Dave Rennie’s first season with the Wallabies. He is building a connection within the side and with the Australian rugby public and only positive things will come from that.
The Wallabies have no issue in gaining possession but have issues with what to do with it. Their backline play is misaligned all too often and their accuracy at the point of contact is abysmal. This is a side that does not respect possession as much as it should.
Rennie must be ruthless in his pursuit of excellence if he wants to get the best out his side because they don’t know how good they could be. He needs to show them. Otherwise, he may just become ‘Kiwi Dave’ who is a cracker of a bloke and coached the Wallabies for a bit.
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