RWC 2015: New year, new goals
After every Rugby World Cup, whatever size or shape the ball may be, there is a period of upheaval – players retire, coaches inevitably leave their posts (of their own accord or having been asked to do so), replacements are recruited and appointed, philosophies change and the world takes a deep, cleansing breath.
Now, as we reach the mid-point of January, as things start to settle down, thoughts turn to the next round of international rugby battles. For some that round comes sooner than others, so here's a round-up of what's facing your national side this year and beyond.
Of all the major European teams, 2012 is a particularly big year for England. With a host of famous names either retired or discarded, interim coach Stuart Lancaster will be looking to use the upcoming Six Nations to transform his new squad of exciting youngsters into a coherent unit.
For France, the outlook looks bright. After reaching the RWC 2011 Final, despite an apparent rift between coach Marc Lièvremont and his players, there should be genuine excitement about what new boss Philippe Saint-Andre might be able to get from his squad.
Elsewhere, after keeping hold of coaches Warren Gatland and Shaun Edwards, Wales will be looking to prove they were not a one-tournament wonder. Ireland are preparing for the future, learning to play without injured talisman Brian O’Driscoll.
At the wrong end of the table over recent years, Scotland will look to live up to the statement by SRU Chief Executive Mark Dodson that they aim to win RWC 2015. Italy’s new coach Jacques Brunel has already identified finding a solution to his team’s inability to score tries as his first ambition.
For the Tier 2 nations of Europe, the continuing European Nations Cup will be the main focus, with Georgia, Romania and Portugal all in contention for the title. But for the likes of Belgium, Moldova, Spain, Poland and other developing nations, the biggest moment of 2012 will come in March, when Rugby World Cup Limited unveil the qualification set-up that will determine how their path to RWC 2015 will unfold.
African rugby’s powerhouse, South Africa, will be confident they have the ability to make a real challenge for The Rugby Championship title (previously known as the Tri Nations before Argentina's inclusion). But while there’s no doubt about their playing staff, the key part of their year will be the appointment of a new coach and a new captain to replace Peter de Villiers and John Smit respectively.
For teams like Namibia, who fought so valiantly in New Zealand last year, the key thing will be learning how to play the big sides – which is why Namibian captain Jacques Burger is hoping England will play them in midweek matches during their summer tour of South Africa.
For Asian rugby, the most telling part of the 2012 calendar will be the way work will really step up on Rugby World Cup 2019, which will be held in Asia and hosted by Japan for the first time. On the pitch, Japan’s new coach is Australian Eddie Jones, who has already mentioned his desire to break into the world’s top 10. The first step in that quest will be the annual HSBC Asian 5 Nations which begins in April, with Hong Kong likely to again be Japan’s closest rivals.
2012 will be a potentially momentous year for North American rugby. With the scrapping of the annual Churchill Cup, both the USA and Canada will be looking to play top sides regularly and move up to the next level.
Things are changing even more dramatically in South America, with Argentina finally becoming a part of The Rugby Championship. Their first match against South Africa in August will be the biggest moment in the history of Los Pumas.
For the teams from the Pacific Islands – Fiji, Tonga and Samoa – the coming year will again be all about pushing each other to improve in both their Sevens and 15-a-side games. As for the region's top two teams, the youthful nature of Australia’s squad should mean their exciting brand of rugby continues to develop, particularly when Wales arrive on tour in the summer.
And as for the new world champions? New Zealand will no doubt enjoy their status as RWC winners, and will hope that the coaching switch from Graham Henry to his assistant Steve Hansen will be seamless.