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Springboks’ fall from grace and other bold predictions for 2024

OPINION: Rugbypass writer Finn Morton makes some bold predictions for  2024.

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New Year, new me’ is a phrase that we all hear every 12 months. The start of a new year presents us all with an opportunity to take a step back and start again if we need to.

Fireworks, cheers and a general sense of optimism filled the air at midnight on the morning of January 1st. It’s the start of an exciting new chapter for us all – including us rugby fans.

While the memories of an incredible 2023 World Cup will never be forgotten, the start of 2024 has ushered in the beginning of a new era for teams around the world.

South Africa were worthy World Cup winners, but New Zealand and Australia are among the teams that will look a fair bit different next year. They all have a point to prove.

As fans begin to daydream in an all-too-familiar sense of optimism ahead of a new campaign, here are 10 bold predictions for what 2024 might have in store for some of the world’s best teams.

1. Scott Robertson’s All Blacks finish the year as world No. 1

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When referee Wayne Barnes brought an end to a thrilling World Cup final at Stade de France last year, the All Blacks and their fans were left heartbroken, dejected and sad.

New Zealand’s quest for what would’ve been a fourth men’s World Cup crown almost finished with a dreamlike conclusion at the Parisian venue, but it wasn’t to be.

Flyhalf Handre Pollard kicked the Springboks to glory, and their status as the world’s top-ranked side on the men’s ranking reflects that. Nobody should question whether they’re worthy champions.

But hours turned into days and days into weeks as the fallout from the All Blacks’ agonising one-point defeat continued to sink in. But the dawn of a new era awaits, and that’s exciting.

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Seven-time Super Rugby champion Scott Robertson will coach New Zealand in 2024, and if history has shown rugby fans anything it’s that ‘Razor’ knows how to win.

While there will be no World Cup up for grabs this year, the All Blacks have a responsibility to do the jersey justice and that will serve them well as they look to bounce back from that World Cup final.

The All Blacks will reportedly play England on home soil in July, and outside of their usual foes in the Rugby Championship, the Kiwis will face the best teams in the northern hemisphere.

After playing two Tests away from the Springboks during the Rugby Championship, the All Blacks will reportedly take on Japan, England, Ireland and France during their end-of-season tour.

It doesn’t get much tougher than that.

But by channelling the hurt from that World Cup final, and learning the lessons on the back of it as well, the All Blacks will show the world that they’re the team to beat moving forward.

The All Blacks will return to the top of the rugby world in 2024 – a position they once held for a decade during an utterly dominant era.

2. Wallabies start new era under mystery coach with defeat

The Wallabies will play Warren Gatland’s Wales in their first Test of the year on home soil in 2024. With a new coach leading the way, the Aussies will be desperate to make amends.

Wales all but ended Australia’s hopes of making it past the pool stage at last year’s World Cup as they handed the Wallabies a record 6-40 defeat at Lyon’s OL Stadium.

The players looked shattered, and understandably so, but they’ll have a chance to make amends at Sydney’s Allianz Stadium on the weekend after Friday 5th of July.

But that mountain will prove too tall to conquer. There’s just not enough time between now and then to turn the Wallabies’ woeful form around.

Wales will pile more misery onto the Wallabies and their fans as a golden sea of supporters will be kept quiet once again. Unfortunately, these fans will continue to ask themselves how Australian rugby got to this point.

3. Springboks’ fall from grace

The Springboks were worthy World Cup winners last year. Thrilling one-point wins over France, England and New Zealand saw the South Africans etch their names into history once again.

South Africa became just the second rugby team in history – behind New Zealand in 2011 and 2015 – to go back-to-back on the world stage after hoisting the World Cup four years earlier in Japan.

But the Springboks’ dynastic period of success is, at least for now, in the past. Whether they’re good enough to make it a hat-trick in 2027 remains to be seen, but they likely won’t.

Instead, the Boks’ fall from grace will begin in 2024.

With an ageing squad and the loss of World Rugby Coach of the Year nominee Jacques Nienaber, the Boks will need to lift their game even higher as everyone else prepares to hunt for their crown.

But they just won’t be good enough to thwart off the pressure, intensity and desperation shown by other teams.

South Africa will reportedly host the New Zealanders twice next year – expected to be a Test in Cape Town and another in Johannesburg – and the All Blacks should be expected to win one at least.

But the Kiwis could do the double.

The Wallabies will also be desperate to lay down a marker after a disastrous World Cup campaign. Then there’s Argentina who are also capable of an upset or two.

When it’s all said and done, the Springboks will come third during the battle of the southern hemisphere heavyweights – which includes three World Cup semifinalists.

4. Stephen Larkham named Australia’s third coach in as many years

In the middle of November, Brumbies boss Stephen Larkham revealed that he was “certainly interested” in filling the vacant head coach role with the Wallabies.

“However I can help in terms of improving our results and improving our growth within the sporting arena, I’d love to be involved,” Larkham told reporters.

The legendary Australia flyhalf was an assistant coach with the national team from 2015 to 2019, and has since enjoyed successful stints with Irish club Munster and now the Brumbies.

An opportunity to return to the Wallabies setup beckons, but Rugby Australia need to make the right decision by picking Larkham amidst rumours and links with other world-class coaches.

With former coach Eddie Jones resigning just 10 months into a five-year deal with the Wallabies, Rugby Australia are now looking for their third head coach in as many years.

Former All Blacks assistant coach Joe Schmidt has been mentioned as a popular choice to replace Jones, as has former Australia boss Michael Cheika.

Former Brumbies coach Dan McKellar was initially a fan favourite to join the Wallabies, but the Australian has since ruled himself out after making the move to England.

But Larkham is in Australia and interested.

Ahead of a defining four-year period for Australian rugby – the Lions tour in 2025 and a home World Cup in 2027 – RA simply have to get this coaching decision right.

They’ll do the right thing and pick Stephen Larkham as the right coach to lead the Wallabies.

5. Wallabies shock the All Blacks in Sydney Bledisloe Cup Test

Before playing the All Blacks at Perth’s Optus Stadium in 2019, nobody expected the Wallabies to cause an upset. But that’s exactly what happened.

Lock Scott Barrett was shown a red card and the rest was history. The Wallabies were relentless, but the All Blacks still retained the Bledisloe on the back of a big win a week later.

Five years later and the same can be said about this traditional Trans-Tasman matchup. The All Blacks are expected to win each and every time as nobody gives the Wallabies a chance.

Australia are coming off a disastrous year that saw them win just two of nine Tests under former coach Eddie Jones, but the dawn of a new era awaits.

Against all odds, the Wallabies will give their fans something to smile about by beating their arch-rivals at Sydney’s Accord Stadium on the weekend after Friday 20th September.

The All Blacks will still retain the Bledisloe Cup in the end, but this will be the type of win that’s talked about for many years to come.

6. Cortez Ratima and Ruben Love among All Blacks debutants

Following the All Blacks’ drought-breaking World Cup triumph on home soil in 2011, Aaron Smith, Brodie Retallick, Julian Savea, Beauden Barrett, Sam Cane and Dane Coles debuted at Test level the following year.

The start of a new Rugby World Cup cycle tends to offer youngsters a golden opportunity to force their way into the national team, and expect to see more of that during the year ahead.

With new coach Scott Robertson at the helm, there will be some Crusaders making their way into the playing group – that includes utility Dallas McLeod who played one Test in Dunedin last year.

But among the debutants, Chiefs halfback Cortez Ratima and Hurricanes playmaker Ruben Love will realise their childhood dreams by becoming All Blacks.

Both men have been included in the All Blacks XV’s plans, which shows that they’ve been on the cusp of national selection for quite some time.

Other players to keep an eye out for include Quinten Strange, Fergus Burke and Levi Aumua – all Crusaders players.

7. Michael Hooper joins Wallabies for end-of-season tour

With the Paris Olympics just a matter of months away, former Wallabies captain Michael Hooper is training the house down with the Australian sevens team.

Rugby Australia confirmed last month that Hooper will pursue his Olympic dream with the sevens team, with the four-time John Eales medallist officially joining the group in the New Year.

Whether Hooper makes the Olympics squad or even walks away with a medal remains to be seen, as does what happens next for the genuine Australian rugby great.

Hooper, 32, has not publicly retired from Test rugby. It just seems that the international centurion has hung the boots up, but there’s been no word from the man himself.

With a new coach coming into the Wallabies setup, Hooper could hypothetically return to a Super Rugby franchise in 2025, which would make him eligible for the end-of-season tour.

Hooper’s stunning omission from Eddie Jones’ World Cup squad doesn’t have to be the end of his storied Test career. With the Lions touring next year, Hooper will be back in Wallaby gold.

8. New Zealand Sevens fail in quest for Olympic gold

Both New Zealand’s women’s and men’s teams were crowned world champions at the end of the 2022/23 sevens season, but that feels like a long time ago now. Other teams have caught up.

With the Olympics just a matter of months away, the new-look SVNS Series got underway in Dubai and Cape Town last month. It became frighteningly clear that New Zealand had fallen away.

Led by captain Charlotte Caslick and try-scoring phenom Maddison Levi, Australia dominated the women’s competition to win the Cup final at both events.

The women in gold have shown no signs of slowing down, either, as they appear lightyears ahead of any other team in the competition at the moment.

They’re Olympic gold favourites for a reason.

South Africa and Argentina tasted Cup final glory in the men’s draw, with the All Blacks Sevens falling to a third-place finish in pool play at the Western Cape venue.

For a team that has never won Olympic gold since sevens was introduced to the Games in 2016, the New Zealanders will fail to overcome the pressure, hype and scrutiny of the event once again.

Unless things change, both New Zealand Sevens sides will be made to wait four more years.

9. Marcus Smith thrives in Owen Farrell’s absence

England captain Owen Farrell will take a break from the international game “in order to prioritise his and his family’s mental well-being.”

Farrell, who has played 112 Test matches for England, will not be available for the upcoming Six Nations campaign. This is incredibly unfortunate and it’s sad to see.

But Farrell’s absence does allow rising star Marcus Smith to make some headline-grabbing progress as a playmaker at the international level.

Smith has been simply phenomenal for Harlequins in the English Premiership for a number of years. With an elite understanding of the game and the skills to match, the 24-year-old is the type of player that every team would love to have.

Coach Steve Borthwick will hand Smith the keys to England’s attack for the Six Nations, and while it’s a sink-or-swim situation, there’s no reason why Smith won’t thrive as England’s go-to man.

10. Scott Barrett will be named the All Blacks’ next captain

World Cup captain Sam Cane is eligible for the All Blacks in 2024, and the flank will almost certainly play a part in Scott Roberton’s plans moving forward.

But with Robertson coming into the All Blacks as the team’s new coach, it seems like the right time to make a bold call in the captaincy department. It’s time for change.

Backrow Ardie Savea captained the All Blacks in Cane’s absence last year, and the World Rugby Player of the Year would widely be seen as the fan favourite to replace Cane moving forward.

But if Cane did decide to vacate his role as the captain of the national team, the best option under coach ‘Razor’ is clear.

Scott Roberton is a Crusader. Scott Barrett is also a Crusader.

No, there’s no conspiracy here or deeper meaning to that. The two just share an incredible rugby bond, and if you don’t believe that just look at the Crusaders’ trophy cabinet.

While Barrett has had some disciplinary issues in the past – becoming the first All Black to be sent off twice in Test matches – there’s no denying how important he is to this team.

With no Brodie Retallick or Sam Whitelock to call upon, Barrett is New Zealand’s best lock – and there’s some daylight to second.

But Barrett’s leadership under Robertson at Super Rugby level speaks volumes about the connection that have and the respect that the lock has amongst his peers. It makes too much sense.

The article first appeared on Rugbypass

 

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