Year in review: The biggest improvers and regressors
OPINION: Dave Rennie’s Wallabies swept the World Cup-winning Springboks, Wales surprised with a Six Nations title under Wayne Pivac and South Africa returned to international rugby with a British and Irish Lions series win.
On the flip side, England ended with a fifth-place finish in the Six Nations, their worst finish since 2018, while champions Wales ended up with a devastating injury toll that saw them lose all but one of their end-of-year internationals.
Argentina went winless against trying circumstances until their away win over Italy snapped a losing streak.
So, which teams impressed and which teams regressed?
The RugbyPass writers gave their answers:
Which international side improved the most this year?
Ben Smith: There are two teams that really stand out. The first is Scotland, who have continued to grow under Gregor Townsend, securing historic wins over England at Twickenham and over France in Paris earlier in the year. They are ever so close to delivering a Six Nations title with this group who have become a staunch defensive side.
The team they beat first up in the Autumn, Australia, is the second. They had competitive games under Dave Rennie last year but ended with three draws and an overall lack of wins. This year they swept the Springboks at home, had a five-Test win streak and made significant strides.
Australia are my pick for not just the improved results but the way the young players have flourished at Test level. The Wallabies are executing their game in clinical fashion, which is a testament to Rennie’s staff.
Scotland and Australia are my two most improved Test sides.
Alex McLeod: It’s difficult to get a grasp on which sides have improved more than others given the inconsistency of test results this year.
For me, though, despite their 50 percent winning record and winless end to the year, the Wallabies showed vast improvements from where they were at in their maiden season under Dave Rennie in 2020, when they won just one from six Tests.
After a series win over France (an admittedly weakened team) and back-to-back wins over the Springboks, let’s hope Rugby Australia allows Quade Cooper and Samu Kerevi to stay onboard with the Wallabies in the coming seasons.
Tom Vinicombe: While they’ve not necessarily ‘improved’ since last year, the Springboks’ return to the fold in 2021 means they’re in a much stronger position now than they were 12 months ago.
Jack O’Rourke: A team that has slowly been going about their business is Ireland. A respectable Six Nations campaign was followed up with some big wins in November, making a statement against Japan after scraping past them in July, culminating in an epic win over the All Blacks at home. They may surprise a few people in France in two years’ time if they can continue to build depth.
Finn Morton: While they didn’t win any of their three games against European opposition in November, the Wallabies showed this year that they’re capable of challenging the best teams in the world.
Especially with Quade Cooper and Samu Kerevi back in the side, the men in gold looked like a new team altogether, beating reigning World Cup winners South Africa twice as part of a stretch of five straight wins.
The Wallabies are definitely a dark horse for the World Cup in 2023, and with another year under Dave Rennie, could be considered genuine contenders this time next year.
Mike Rehu: Three Pacific Island teams improved on paper overnight as eligibility rules changed late in the year. Even though the Uruguay team underlined the growth in South American rugby beyond Argentina with its victory over Fiji at the 2019 Rugby World Cup, I’ve been impressed with both them and Chile this year.
Uruguay beat USA on aggregate to qualify early and give themselves two years to work with certainty; that meant a South American team ranked America 1 in World Cup qualifiers for the first time.
At the same time, Chile bounced back from a one-point loss to Canada to clean them up on the return leg. This meant they knocked Canada out of a World Cup appearance for the first time, and will go on to battle the USA in July 2022 for the final Americas spot.
Nick Turnbull: Scotland. When we think of who will truly contend for the Webb Ellis Cup in 2023, most think of New Zealand, South Africa, France, England and Ireland. Perhaps Wales and Australia are on the outer of the group.
Considering Gregor Townsend’s side defeated England, France and Australia in 2021, coupled with narrow losses to Ireland and Wales and a respectable defeat to South Africa, the Scots are a side on the rise.
Jordan King: The French have my vote for this one considering how well they played in their biggest test, the talent that has emerged and the combinations that have been formed.
Summary: Scotland, Australia, Uruguay, Chile, South Africa, France.
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Which international side regressed the most this year?
Ben Smith: Clearly it was Argentina, who last year managed to beat the All Blacks and draw with the Wallabies twice in Australia.
Without a Super Rugby team in 2021 and all the players now playing in the northern hemisphere, getting together with seven days to prepare for the Rugby Championship was never going to be enough.
The demands now placed on Los Pumas far outweigh those of the rest of tier one nations. They had to play all games away from home this year, and their annual tournament doesn’t align with the seasons of their players.
Their standing in the SANZAAR competition has unfortunately diminished and it’s hard to see how Argentina catch-up before the next World Cup. The benefits of most of the squad playing together with the Jaguares will slowly erode over time.
Alex McLeod: There are probably three sides that stand out as teams that have backtracked this year.
The obvious one is the All Blacks, whose one win from four of their major tests against the Springboks, Ireland and France has understandably sparked fresh concerns about the stewardship of Ian Foster amongst the Kiwi public.
The other two teams are Argentina and Japan. Los Pumas are a long way off from their exceptional Tri-Nations efforts of last year, while the Brave Blossoms endured a disappointing end to their year, with the most alarming aspect of their dud European tour being how close they were to defeat against, of all teams, Portugal.
Given they beat the All Blacks and their undefeated run against the Wallabies last year, though, Argentina have the most ground to make up next year.
Tom Vinicombe: Argentina appear to already be feeling the impacts of their players dispersing around the world following the disbanding of the Jaguares.
Last year, they were able to top over the All Blacks for the first time and also go undefeated against the Wallabies, after spending a huge amount of time together in the lead-up to the Tri-Nations.
They were a shadow of their former selves this year and it’s difficult to see how they can turn things around ahead of 2023.
Jack O’Rourke: It’s sad to say the Pumas have taken a backwards step at international level. They have been on the road playing all their games away since the start of the pandemic. The loss of the Jaguares in Super Rugby has had a detrimental impact on Argentina. Their good form in 2020’s Rugby Championship has quickly vanished in 2021, and coach Ledesma doesn’t seem to have any answers.
Finn Morton: I’m going to twist this question a little bit and say New Zealand Rugby as a hole. In 2021, the All Blacks looked shockingly far off the pace in losses against Ireland and France, and that has to be worrying for them less than two years out from the Rugby World Cup.
But also the Black Ferns who lost to England 43-12 and 56-15 in back-to-back weeks after having beaten the Red Roses by 15 in their last meeting in 2019. France also beat them convincingly in back-to-back tests as well.
Mike Rehu: Without a doubt the All Blacks. They flattered to deceive with a string of early-season canters against understrength Pacific Island teams and a Wallabies team who tried to take on the All Blacks by playing a New Zealand-style game.
Then, when the heat went on the forward pack to get some go-forward in the South African and stronger northern hemisphere match-ups, they were found sorely lacking. It’s hard to see where some of the fixes will be in the tight forwards but some changes are needed.
Nick Turnbull: Wales. They started the year with narrow victories over Ireland and Scotland, did a job on England and pushed France but have dropped away since their early season form.
Their match against New Zealand is hard to judge as they could not field their best XV. However, they struggled to defeat a 14-man Australian side and were also exposed by the Fijians.
Their performance against South Africa was an improvement but, overall, I didn’t see the end of 2021 as near as good as it started for the Welsh.
Jordan King: As unhappy as I was with the way the All Blacks tailed off towards the end of the year, no side took a bigger backwards step than Argentina.
Less than 12 months on from making history against the All Blacks and toppling the Wallabies, they only dotted down four times in six games in the Rugby Championship and managed one win in 2021 (Italy).
Summary: Argentina, New Zealand, Japan, Wales.