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'This isn't boxing where you can dodge opponents that threaten your title': The case for stripping the Springboks of the number one ranking

By RugbyPass
(Photo by Pablo Morano/MB Media/Getty Images)

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RugbyPass writers Tom Vinicombe, Ben Smith and Alex McLeod look some big questions left remaining after 2020 and looking ahead to 2021. 

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If World Rugby was proceeding with their annual awards, who would you give the Player of the Year for 2020?

Tom Vinicombe: First thing’s first – the World Rugby awards recognise exceptional performance in international matches. That automatically excludes any players from the likes of South Africa, Japan and, realistically, Fiji.

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Western Province assistant coach and Damian Willemse
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Western Province assistant coach and Damian Willemse

Semi Radradra has been exceptional for Bristol when fit and available but the Fijian national side managed just one match this year due to a bad case of in-camp coronavirus. Fiji’s best performer from their sole match was the retuning Nemani Nadolo, however, who nabbed a well-taken hat-trick of tries.

Looking at other Southern Hemisphere nations, Sam Cane, Aaron Smith, Michael Hooper, Nicolas Sanchez and Pablo Matera were the pick of the bunch. The Argentinians played just four matches in 2020, however – which puts them on the back foot compared to their Tri-Nations rivals.

In the north, it would be hard to look past England and France for nominations – the two nations that were head-and-shoulders above their rivals. England were crowned champions in both the Six Nations and Autumn Nations competitions but it was Les Bleus’ Antoine Dupont who was arguably the most exciting and game-changing of any Northern Hemisphere player.

Virimi Vakatawa would be a genuine candidate, especially if club form were taken into account while Maro Itoje continued his development into a World Class lock – and possible British and Irish Lions captain.

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On the balance of things, halfbacks Aaron Smith and Antoine Dupont were arguably the top performers across the globe for 2020.

 

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Ben Smith: The Player of the Year pool of nominees for 2020 would have to be a Northern Hemisphere-dominated ticket, with the likes of Antoine Dupont, Charles Ollivon and Gregory Alldritt all genuine candidates worthy of selection after France’s showings throughout the Six Nations and Autumn Nations Cup.

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Dupont was awarded the Player of the Tournament for the 2020 Six Nations, the first French player to win it since its inception in 2004, while Alldritt picked up multiple man of the match awards throughout the campaign

As the team that won both tournaments, England would have surely secured a couple of nominations with Maro Itoje and Jonny May. Itoje delivered consistent performances built on stoic defence while May had some individual moments that few could replicate. Two tries in a loss to France come to mind, while his effort against Ireland in the Autumn Nations Cup will be remembered for a long time.

CJ Stander would have a claim for nomination after industrious performances in the Six Nations for Ireland, who were still in with a chance to win the tournament heading into their final game in Paris.

In the Southern Hemisphere, Sam Cane, Aaron Smith and Richie Mo’unga did enough to warrant a look in but it is hard to build a solid case for any player down south given the lack of variety in the schedule and of dominant results.

The All Blacks limped to a Tri-Nations win and had a historically bad year with losses to the Wallabies and Argentina whereas England and France each put together strong calendar seasons with wins over traditional rivals. The absence of the world champion Springboks from the Tri-Nations left a big fish off the schedule that would have bolstered the All Blacks’ players claims.

Dupont for mine was deserving of the World Player of the Year for 2020, Itoje a close second.

Alex McLeod: Had World Rugby gone ahead with their annual awards show rather than honour the best of the past decade at the end of last year, it would have been hard to go past Antoine Dupont to claim the top gong.

Working in tandem with halves partner Romain Ntamack, the pair are the face of a youthful, rejuvenated French side that look capable of causing other international sides serious problems in the coming years.

The influence of the 24-year-old halfback on the Les Bleus set-up can’t be understated, though, as evidenced by being awarded Six Nations Player of the Tournament in 2020.

By the time Aaron Smith pulls the pin on his international career – which could be at the end of this year when his contract with NZR and the Highlanders expires – Dupont looms as the successor to his throne as the best No. 9 on the planet, if he isn’t already.

That speaks volumes of his ability when you consider much more experienced operators like Faf de Klerk and Conor Murray would also be in the running for such a title.

So, Dupont can feel aggrieved at missing the chance to become the first Frenchman to be crowned the best player in the world since Thierry Dusautoir in 2011.

Who would you give Breakthrough Player of the Year for 2020? 

TV: Caleb Clarke was New Zealand’s best and most damaging debutant for the year and could continue the trend of a young wing earning Breakthrough Player of the Year, with Nehe Milner-Skudder, Rieko Ioane and Aphiwe Dyantyi all claiming the award in the past five years.

Hunter Paisami also made a strong case for the award, plugging gaps wherever needed in the Australian midfield. Wallabies number 8 Harry Wilson was perhaps the most consistent newcomer in 2020, starting in all six of Australia’s matches and leaving plenty of bodies in his wake.

In terms of young players making their debuts, the Six Nations sides weren’t exactly liberal in terms of handing out caps to new players – a product of having the season split in half due to the global pandemic.

Ronan Kelleher made some solid appearances (primarily off the bench) for Ireland while his teammate Jamison Gibson-Park did a solid job replacing Connor Murray in the Autumn Nations Cup. Meanwhile, Caelan Dorris’ debut match lasted just minutes but he developed into one of the first names on the Ireland team sheet throughout the season and was arguably the best of the Six Nations debutants in 2020.

Former Saracens Ben Earl and Max Malins looked promising for England when given the chance, but ultimately had few opportunities to push their case.

The Australiasian pair of Caleb Clarke and Harry Wilson had the best breakthroughs for the disrupted season.

BS: The Northern Hemisphere teams didn’t blood many newcomers in test rugby who went on to have significant seasons.

While Caleb Clarke burst onto the scene with a brilliant performance at Eden Park, Harry Wilson stepped into the Wallabies back row and instantly became a key player in a team trying to re-build from a disastrous Cheika-era.

Given where the Wallabies were in 2019 and the role that Wilson filled, the 2020 Breakthrough Player of the Year should have his name on it.

 

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AM: Not many players can generate as much hype and as many comparisons to Jonah Lomu in their opening couple tests of their career, but that’s exactly what Caleb Clarke did in his first two matches for the All Blacks last year.

Injected off the bench during the 16-all draw with the Wallabies in Bledisloe I, Clarke provided the match with its most damaging ball carrier across just 18 minutes of action, but it was the following week where his talents were most telling.

A barnstorming display in front of his home crowd at Eden Park saw the 21-year-old was responsible for more than a quarter of Australia’s 40 missed tackles as he charged through tackles and bumped off defenders at will.

It was unsurprising, then, to see Clarke’s name light up headlines as media worldwide capitalised on the similarities between the youngster and Lomu.

While it’s far too early to compare the hulking wing to one of the greatest players ever to grace the game after only five tests, the emphatic fashion in which he introduced himself to the international stage was very impressive.

So impressive, in fact, it seems he has the New Zealand No. 11 jersey locked down for the foreseeable future, well and truly dislodging previous incumbent George Bridge leading into the new season.

It’s for that reason that Clarke would have warranted the Breakthrough Player of the Year award had it been available, although the efforts of Wallabies No. 8 Harry Wilson would have pushed him close as a recipient.

What was the match of the year for 2020? (Any pro competition)

TV: At the highest level of the game, three matches stand out as the greatest showcases from throughout the year.

The Six Nations clash between France and England in Paris was excellent viewing for neutral fans, with France racing out to a lead before England clawed their way back late in the game. Underdogs France ultimately held on for the victory – which really kept the Six Nations interesting throughout the many rounds of matches.

The re-match between the two sides during the Autumn Nations Cup was also a standout. It was the last test match played for the year and after a relatively dire competition, the long-time rivals capped the tournament off with a worthwhile final, which extended into extra time. The fact that France had to field a side that boasted fewer caps in total than England players Ben Youngs, George Forward and Owen Farrell individually possessed on their own just added some extra flavour to the game, which eventually fell England’s way.

Down south, few matches really reached any major heights, but the final eight minutes alone of the opening Bledisloe Cup match of the year elevated the game and kept fans on the edge of their seats. With the scores locked at 16-all, Wallabies sub Reece Hodge hit the posts with a 50-metre penalty that would have won Australia the game. The All Blacks eventually worked the ball into their opposition’s 22 but ultimately failed to convert their territory into any points.

At the lower levels, the Super Rugby Aotearoa battle between the Blues and the Hurricanes at Eden Park was special for a number of reasons. It marked Beauden Barrett’s first appearance for the Blues – and it was against his former side. The sight of the Hurricanes piling in around Barrett to celebrate a Dane Coles try is perhaps the greatest rugby image of the year. It was also a rare Sunday afternoon game, which comes along once in a blue moon in New Zealand.

The Hurricanes victory over the Crusaders in Christchurch was also special, because it ended a four-year winning streak for the home side in front of their local supporters. Despite the Hurricanes holding the lead for much of the match, there was always the expectation that the Crusaders would claw the win back – but the visitors held strong.

Despite there not being a huge number of brilliant spectacles amongst the top-tier matches this season, the Autumn Nations decided between England and France would be near the top of the chart in any year, and is arguably the best match of the season.

BS: The one game that stands out for me is the Blues versus the Crusaders down in Christchurch. The cancelled return match at Eden Park may have topped it, but this game had an intensity to it that was hard to find in 2020 with many crowd-less fixtures and a lack of anticipation surrounding many games.

The Blues were legitimate contenders in the early rounds of Super Rugby Aotearoa, building up anticipation for this clash to levels not seen in decades for a Blues-Crusaders clash as it seemed the Crusaders had a true competitor. As three-time Super Rugby champions, the Crusaders had seen off many challengers having not lost at home under Scott Robertson during his reign.

There was a sense the Blues would break this streak and a sellout crowd turned out to witness a classic encounter. Of course, the Hurricanes would eventually do it a fortnight later, but the Blues challenge saw a ferocious fight that stunned the Christchurch crowd as the visitors took a double digit lead.

On the back of some Mo’unga magic, the Crusaders mounted a comeback that sent the crowd into a fervour that left the Blues coming up short once again. The game as a spectacle was fast-paced, action-packed and was played in front of a fever-pitch crowd giving it all the ingredients for a classic.

The return of test rugby in the north missed the atmosphere that the crowds bring, that often add that special ingredient. The two tests that brought back the magic of international rugby were the Wallabies-All Blacks clashes in Auckland and Brisbane.

AM: Perhaps it would be better branded as the most bizarre game of the year, but the spectacle that was Bledisloe IV threw curveball after curveball as the Wallabies notched a famous 24-22 win over the All Blacks in Brisbane.

The match’s legacy will forever be marred by the controversy that surrounded the decision to send Ofa Tuungafasi from the field for a tackle that connected with the chin of Tom Wright, who had a blinder of a match on his test debut.

Arguments over whether it was a legitimate red card will continue to swirl on among players, coaches, fans and pundits, but Nic Berry’s decision to send Tuungafasi off set a precedent for the rest of the encounter.

Just minutes later, Wallabies debutant Lachlan Swinton was brandished a red card for a similar tackle on Sam Whitelock, and while most Kiwi fans felt avenged with his dismissal, many shifted the debate to how negatively red cards impact modern rugby in its endless pursuit to make the game safer.

One could argue the dismissal of both players actually added plenty more intrigue to the spectacle, as did the pair of yellow cards handed out to Marika Koroibete and Scott Barrett – neither of which were related to dangerous tackles.

Add into the mix Australia’s exposure of New Zealand’s fragile mentality in such tense circumstances – which was again brought to light a week later in the loss to Argentina – and it made for compelling viewing as it generated far more interesting storylines than trans-Tasman rugby fans are used to in this All Blacks dominant era.

 

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Does South Africa deserve to retain the number one ranking after not playing at all in 2020?

TV: The only nation that really has a case to make for being the best in the world at this stage are England. They suffered just one defeat this season – in their opening game of the year against France in Paris – and ultimately avenged the loss in their final game of the Autumn Nations Cup.

New Zealand, meanwhile, are probably the next best side, but still fell to both Australia and Argentina and ended the season with just a 50 percent win rate.

South Africa earned their number one ranking off the back of their World Cup title but the only top side they tipped over was England – and that was after the latter’s massive effort against the All Blacks a week earlier.

It’s hard to argue that the Springboks don’t ‘deserve’ their number one ranking – because the rankings are an objective measure. Subjectively, are the Springboks the best team in the world and would they have destroyed all in their wake in 2020 had they actually played any matches? Unlikely.

BS: For me, no they don’t. Any ranking should always be earned and South Africa hasn’t earned anything in over 14 months. If what mattered in their decision was player welfare, they shouldn’t have an issue with being stripped of an objective ranking in the process.

Their reasons for not playing in 2020 were understandable from a welfare point of view but at the same time that decision shouldn’t be without consequence. Untold amounts of revenue was lost by the decision to not play, just when the game needed it most. Every other major test playing nation made sacrifices to restart international play in 2020, except South Africa.

The Pumas squad were ravaged by Covid and went to extreme lengths to participate in the competition, spending months away from family and the comfort of home. They fought valiantly to beat the All Blacks and earned two draws against Australia.

They proved their commitment to the SANZAAR relationship and allowed their partners to minimise the loss of much-needed broadcast revenues in a dire 2020 season. The SARU on the other hand, pulled four teams out of Super Rugby for the lure of Europe and left everyone hanging when they bailed on the Rugby Championship without any repercussions.

We were told by Rugby Australia officials SARU had agreed to the original schedule before their backflip and no-show, which left the other SANZAAR members hanging out to dry. This isn’t boxing where you can choose to dodge opponents who threaten your title.

It would be reasonable to suggest the Springboks should receive six losses by default for not showing up for the 2020 Rugby Championship, if they did in fact agree to attend, which could be counted by World Rugby in calculating their ranking score.

A number one team doesn’t dodge challenges, they embrace them. The Pumas proved it was feasible to play and be competitive despite all the challenges involved. Not only did they prove it, they took the risk before they knew that.

The SARU, when push came to shove, weren’t up to the challenge and didn’t put a Springboks team on the field.

AM: Probably not.

Their place at the summit of the World Rugby rankings was well-deserved when they claimed the World Cup title at the backend of 2019, but it’s difficult to justify it without having played in 14 months.

By the time they face the British and Irish Lions in July, that drought will be stretched to 20 months, and even then it’s increasingly unlikely that the tour won’t go ahead due to COVID-19.

So, we could be bordering on two years since the Springboks last played a test match and they very well could still occupy the No. 1 spot on without having to prove themselves in between.

Regardless of how well they live up to their world champion credentials upon their return to international action, the fact they could go that long without having their mantle as the world’s No. 1 team challenged doesn’t sit well.

Which country is best placed for 2023 success after the first year of the new World Cup cycle, and who took the biggest step back?

TV: France led the way in blooding new talent in 2020 with 19 new players getting an opportunity under coach Fabian Galthie. 13 of those debuts came in France’s final two matches of the Autumn Nations Cup, when they were forced to refresh their squad due to their arrangement with the Top 14 sides.

Ireland and Wales, meanwhile, handed 11 players debuts while the likes of New Zealand, England, Scotland and Australia brought in close to 10 new players each.

France, as it stands, have one of the youngest international squads in the world but are still footing it with the best, coming within a whisker of nabbing the Six Nations and Autumn Nations crowns from England. By 2023, they’ll have an exceptionally talented team of players who have all notched up double figures worth of caps and will be a huge threat at home to the other nations vying for the World Cup.

While the northern teams blooded more players than their southern counterparts, they also had more games to play around with and actually gave the newer players fewer minutes than what was on offer in the Southern Hemisphere.

The likes of Caleb Clarke, Hoskins Sotutu, Harry Wilson, Hunter Paisami and Filipo Daugunu have all made cases for more permanent selections in their national sides whereas many of the young players in the north have been more slowly brought up to speed.

Still, questions remain over the coaching of the All Blacks and Wallabies, with neither team ending the year with a great record, all things considered.

Somewhat surprisingly, South Africa, Japan and Fiji may be in a better position than what many would expect. Both Japan and Argentina have shown in recent times that player a greater number of international matches does not necessarily correspond with better performances and a year of rest could do some teams wonders heading into 2023.

Fiji have also done some exceptionally astute coaching recruitment and will have done plenty of work as a team, even though they weren’t able to run out on the park as many times as they would have hoped.

Still, it’s hard to go past France, who are always one of the best teams in the world but perhaps have the highest ceiling of any nation right now.

 

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BS: Without a doubt France, who have adopted Shaun Edwards’ defensive tactics and found the back row to implement them, are best-placed for 2023 after the first year of the cycle.

They are tough, gritty and have found the old French way of creating tries out of nothing.

They have the world’s best halfback in Antoine Dupont and have three attacking flyhalves developing, Romain Ntamack, Matthieu Jalibert, and Louis Carbonel, all who will peak in a few years time.

The question mark for England is whether some of their current crop will be past their peak in 2023.

France proved in 2020 they are right there with England, beating them in Paris to start the Six Nations and just falling short with a C-side in the Nations Autumn Cup final. Their demolition of Ireland in the final round of the Six Nations was frightening considering the Irish were playing for the title.

Many will point to hosting the World Cup as an advantage, but it can be a gift or a curse. If they don’t embrace it in a positive way, the pressure may result in an implosion if they try to shut themselves off from the spotlight a home tournament will bring.

Out of the major playing nations, the Springboks took the biggest step back in 2020, even over Wales.

The Welsh moved forward, tried to implement new structures under a new coach and continued to add new players. It wasn’t pretty but they are at least one year closer to figuring it out, whereas the Springboks don’t know where the problems or improvement areas are yet. Knowing where you are is better than not knowing.

While you would expect the Springboks to beat Wales right now, it’s more about whether they have slipped back behind France, England or New Zealand by losing a year.

AM: You can’t look at what France has managed to achieve since the 2019 World Cup and not include them as title contenders – at this stage – for the 2023 event in their own backyard.

It will be interesting to see whether their staging of the tournament will make or break Les Bleus – just ask the 2015 England squad of how it can all go pear-shaped in front of your home fans.

But, given how they’re tracking with their youthful stars at hand, it’s very much conceivable to see Fabien Galthie’s side challenging the All Blacks, Springboks and England for global supremacy.

From Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack, Gael Fickou and Virimi Vakatawa in the backs to Camille Chat and Charles Ollivon in the forwards, France have a good core of established squad members and prosperous youth in their ranks.

Together, those players can form a dangerous team for any side, as evidenced by their showings in the Six Nations and Autumn Nations Cup in 2020, and with a further two years to hone their collective craft, a maiden World Cup crown could be calling.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, just three wins from 10 outings puts Wales in a dire state at this stage of the World Cup cycle, leaving new boss Wayne Pivac with a mountain of work between now and 2023.

If they can’t improve themselves before then, the Wallabies and Fiji will be thankful to have been drawn alongside the Welsh in the pool stages for a third and fifth straight time, respectively.

What is your prediction for the 2021 Lions Tour of South Africa?

TV: The British and Irish Lions will arrive in South Africa with plenty of rugby under their belt – perhaps too much. The 2020-21 season is going to be incredibly long for many international representatives, especially given there was very little breaks between the end of the last season and the beginning of the current one.

Meanwhile, the South African players haven’t had to play any international rugby this year and will enter the series refreshed and raring to go.

Regardless, the Lions side that travels to Africa could be the strongest they’ve been able to field in decades, with many of their players entering their peaks now.

Selection will play a huge role in how the Lions fare, and if Warren Gatland takes a conservative approach then the Springboks may be able to better their tired opposition at their own game.

If Gatland takes a few chances, however, and lets some of the Lions’ more maverick men play their natural game, then the game-poor Springboks may take a while to adjust.

Expect an overall win for South Africa – but the Lions may nab a win in the first two weeks of the series.

BS: It’s difficult to know what not playing test rugby for a year and a half will do, but you have to assume it won’t be good. These won’t be the same Springbok players that played in Japan what will be nearly be two years ago.

They will always be a formidable opponent at home, with many players anticipating this tour as a defining challenge of their careers. The ‘must play’ category of players for the Boks includes Faf de Klerk, Cheslin Kolbe, Lukhanyo Am and Pieter-Steph du Toit. They possess world class depth at lock to deal with the loss of one, but cannot replace what the aforementioned players bring.

The biggest question for the Lions is who will play 10 and whether they continue with two on the field at the same time as they did in the second and third tests against the All Blacks in 2017, while halfback remains a question mark position with few world class candidates. Conor Murray is still the frontrunner to get the job for his third tour of duty.

Overall, the Lions will have a squad that will arguably be their best ever and have plenty of rugby under their belts. There will be few excuses to make for not winning the series.

If it goes ahead, the Lions should win 2-1 but that’s no guarantee.

AM: It could fall either way, and whoever does win the series will do so with only two victories to their name.

But, even without any tests for nearly two years, the Springboks will be a difficult side to beat on home soil, especially with their status as world champions.

Still, we haven’t seen them perform under new coach Jacques Nienaber, who acted as an assistant coach to Rassie Erasmus at the 2019 World Cup, while this will be Warren Gatland’s third time at the helm of the Lions.

He knows what’s expected of him and he knows how to achieve success having already done so to varying degrees in Australia and New Zealand.

That experience, combined with established veterans such as Owen Farrell and Maro Itoje reaching their peaks, may nudge the Lions in front as slight favourites, but the quality throughout the Springboks roster can’t be ignored.

It may as well come down to a flip of a coin, but my money will be going on a Springboks series victory.

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'This isn't boxing where you can dodge opponents that threaten your title': The case for stripping the Springboks of the number one ranking

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