This was the year of the Irish, if not London Irish who plunged back into the Championship at the first attempt. Ireland won the grand slam and beat New Zealand at home for the first time and Leinster secured the Pro14 and European Champions Cup double.
Ireland were named team of the year at World Rugby’s awards bash last month and Joe Schmidt and Johnny Sexton won the coach and player categories. It was the cleanest of sweeps and the question to be answered is whether it came a year too early.
New Zealand remain the favourites to win the World Cup and their pedigree in the tournament contrasts with Ireland’s. The All Blacks have only once failed to make the semi-finals; the men in green never have, although they were a minute away from doing so in 1991 before Michael Lynagh, not for the first or last time, turned defeat into victory for Australia.
While Ireland and Leinster stood out, it was a year when Saracens shook themselves out of a surprise mid-season slump to re-establish themselves as England’s leading club. They went into last Saturday’s match at Exeterhaving lost three matches this year, the last of them on 1 April, once again a model of efficiency, even if they were given a reminder of their mortality at Sandy Park.
A fitting final for this season’s Champions Cup would be Leinster against Saracens, although the two may cancel each other out in a stalemate. Toulouse, like Leinster four-times winners of the tournament, have reacted to their debut in last season’s Challenge Cup by playing like the team that were once the dominant force in Europe. They are one of only three unbeaten teams after the opening four rounds, but still have to go to Leinster.
Winning makes a year successful but 2018 has been notable for the improvement in sides such as Treviso and Jaguares, easybeats maturing into mid-table material. Italy have not won a Six Nations match since before the last World Cup but the structural improvements started since Conor O’Shea took over as head coach of the national side have had an impact on Treviso and Zebre.
A problem for him is that for all the improvements in Italy, their European rivals are getting better at a faster pace, with the exception of France, who continue to make the least of their large player base and a vibrant club system. Scotland used to lurk in the nether reaches along with the Azzurri but, resuscitated by Vern Cotter, they are breathing steadily under Gregor Townsend, underpinned by Glasgow and an Edinburgh team showing some of Leicester’s traditional fighting qualities under Richard Cockerill.
Edinburgh are a candidate for the most improved team of the year. Cardiff Blues were in that category before the Champions Cup started, emerging from the hinterland to win the Challenge Cup. A region embracing Wales’ capital city has been a victim of the relatively low playing budgets of the four professional teams in the country, but Castres have the same handicap in France and won the Top 14 last season.
Cardiff were one of the world’s leading clubs in the amateur era but the Blues have barely imposed on rugby’s consciousness. They come under new management next month and with Ospreys struggling financially, the Scarlets hiccuping after two strong campaigns and the Dragons stuck in neutral, Wales’ regions are lagging behind teams in the other three home unions, if not to the detriment of the national side. The Blues should be leading the way.
Those who will make sure that 2018 is ushered out on Monday night include Australia, the 2015 World Cup finalists who suffered their worst year since 1958. Michael Cheika has survived as head coach, fortified by the recruitment of Scott Johnson as director of rugby, a maverick who was at his most influential with Wales in the 2000s when working with players individually.
Australia have major structural issues but when have they not in a country where rugby union does not rank in the top 10 of most popular sports? They have found ways to thrive but they did not rise above the ordinary in Europe last month, ending their tour with a lacklustre second half at Twickenham.
Leicester will not despair at 2018’s end. The dominant club in England for the first 20 years of the professional era failed to make the play-offs for the first time under the current system in May and have been wallowing in the bottom half of the Premiership this season while losing three of their first four matches in the Champions Cup, a tournament they are in danger of failing to qualify for for the first time.
They at least had some pre-Christmas cheer, along with their east Midlands rivals Northampton, who are adjusting to the coaching methods of Chris Boyd, which are markedly different to what they have been used to this decade. There were signs at Worcester last Friday that when the new becomes the natural, they will be a match for most sides.
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Sexton was the merited player of the year, chased by his compatriots Tadhg Furlong and James Ryan, a young player who has taken to Test rugby as impressively as Maro Itoje. The Wales captain, Alun Wyn Jones, continues to defy age, France’s Guilhem Guirado consistently rises above Les Bleus’ mediocrity and South Africa’s hooker Malcolm Marx led his side’s revival.
Among the emerging players, Jake Polledri impressed, along with Sam Underhill, who is due a break from injuries, Aphiwe Dyantyi, Joe Cokanasiga, Adam Beard, Adam Hastings and Jordan Larmour, while Mark Wilson was a contender for the late bloomer award.
In little more than a month the Six Nations will start, with Ireland’s encounter with England the highlight of the opening weekend. It is World Cup year and for the first time more northern hemisphere teams will be favoured than those from the south with Ireland, Wales and England in the top four of the world rankings. There was a tilting of international rugby’s axis in 2018; the next year will show whether that is temporary or enduring.