Can anyone catch New Zealand?
They became the first country to retain the World Cup with a dominant performance in England – going through the tournament unbeaten. Questions were raised in the Pool phase of the tournament as they seemed to be stuck in first gear. However, like the consummate professionals they are, they peaked at the right time and romped to glory with ease.
In the last two tournaments t.The 2011 Final was the only time anyone has really come close to beating them in a World Cup setting – a narrow one point victory over France allowed them to claim their first title in 24 years.
Having lost the likes of Richie McCaw, Keven Mealamu, Ma'a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Dan Carter and Tony Woodcock to retirement, will the mighty New Zealand be able to sustain their dominance without some of the greatest players to have ever played the game?
The answer, in my opinion, is yes. As humans, we compare those who have left with those who will come in based on the achievements of the predecessor. However, the incumbents need to be looked at for their skills. Many question whether or not Same Cane can fill the crater left by McCaw but I feel that he will come into his own and bring a different dimension to the game.
We all know about the achievements of Dan Carter but with the likes of Beauden Barrett, Aaron Cruden and Lima Sopoaga waiting in the wings, the flyhalf position is well covered. Nonu and Smith were a deadly centre pairing but with the likes of Malakai Fekitoa, Sonny Bill Williams (depending on availability due to Sevens commitments), Rieko Ioane and Charlie Ngatai currently on the conveyor belt of talent, it is hard to see them struggle to move on.
This begs the question – Can anyone knock them off their pedestal in 2016?
Taking a look at the last two year (2014-2015), the performance stats are something to behold. Played 26, won 23, lost two, drew one – that's an 88.5 percent winning record. Those two losses came at the hands of South Africa at Ellis Park on October 4, 2014 (25-27) – thanks to a Pat Lambie drop-goal at the death – and Australia in Sydney on August 8, 2015 (19-27).
Australia, currently ranked second, are probably the only real threat to New Zealand at the moment. They have been rejuvenated under the guidance of Michael Cheika and, within the space of a year, have turned their fortunes around, which saw them claim the 2015 Rugby Championship – being the only side to beat the All Blacks in the calendar year.
Cheika's tenure began in November 2014 with a victory over Wales in his first year-end tour match but followed that up with three consecutive losses to France, Ireland and England – and then came 2015. They bagged 10 victories from their 12 matches – the only defeats coming at the hands of the All Blacks in the Bledisloe Cup and the World Cup Final
We can expect even more from them in 2016 as they continue to grow and with a current average age of about 28, they will be serious contenders at the 2019 World Cup in Japan and could potentially retain the Rugby Championship for another year. Will they win the Bledisloe Cup? We certainly won't rule that out either.
Third-ranked South Africa will need to pull a rabbit out the hat to come close to the World champs. At the time of writing this., they have no coach and there is major political influence – with the whole transformation saga.
Their 2014 Rugby Championship campaign was a bit of a mixed bag. They saw Argentina off on two occasions before slumping to away defeats against Australia and New Zealand. To their credit, they responded by picking up victories on home soil against the same opponents and were the only side to beat the All Blacks that year.
The mixed results trend continued in the year-end tour with victories over England and Italy overshadowed by losses to Ireland and Wales. Their start of their 2015 international campaign was an absolute disaster as they succumbed to Australia, New Zealand and the now-famous loss to Argentina in Durban.
Then came the World Cup, which will forever be remembered for their loss to Japan in their opening match. With the likes of Victor Matfield and Jean de Villiers confirming their retirement from the international arena and numerous others who are unlikely to don the green and gold again (Zane Kirchner, Bryan Habana, JP Pietersen, Morné Steyn, Fourie du Preez, Ruan Pienaar, Francois Louw, Schalk Burger, Bismarck du Plessis, Schalk Brits, Jannie du Plessis).
Those players will either fall by the wayside before the next World Cup or will have limited playing time due to the restrictions on using overseas-based players, which will leave them with a mountain to climb if they are to regain their status as a serious trophy contender. I foresee them struggling in the Rugby Championship again.
Argentina have steadily improved over the years and I expect them to continue on that upward trend. It all started back in 2014 when they claimed their first Rugby Championship victory – against Australia in Mendoza – having had a lean period of eight consecutive defeats.
Losses to the All Blacks and Australia in the 2015 Rugby Championship could have sent them back onto the dark road, however, they produced a scintillating performance in Durban to brush the Springboks aside.
They set the World Cup alight with their no fear approach to their matches and that will certainly continue into 2016. We will see them claim more victories this year and the general level of their game will improve, as the country now has a Super Rugby franchise which allows their players to consistently play at a high level.
The Six Nations will be starting soon and although it will be a closely fought competition, I just can't see any of them coming close to the top spot on the rankings. England are in a rebuilding phase under the guidance of Eddie Jones. Ireland will be in the same boat as they have lost influential captain Paul O'Connell and France, well, they're France – you never know which team will rock up on the day.
My pick for the Six Nations is definitely Wales, if their players remain fit and healthy, which opens up the possibility for them to climb into the Top Three.
My projected rankings at the end of 2016:
1 New Zealand
4 South Africa
By Tauriq Ebrahim