‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ So goes the quote from Dickens, but for the sport of rugby union, things are looking rosy. A new year, new goals and new expectations. So, how will fans be rewarded in 2017? Will fans see great tries? Amazing place kicks? or stunning solo efforts to win games? They hope so, and one would hope for all that and more, as many will have Great Expectations in Rugby Union.
2015 was a Rugby World Cup year, so there was an air of apprehension. 2016 was what you might refer to as a ‘fresh start’. The opening year of the four year cycle–building toward to the next World Cup–where the slate was wiped clean. So as Last Word On Rugby puts up our new rugby calendar, there is much to expect over the next twelve months.
Great Expectations in Rugby Union
For a start, the game is healthy. No controversy that will undermine participation has broken the good feelings. The ball is still oval, the field still 100 meters and two sides still send 15 men, women, boys and girls out to compete. That much is known.
World Rugby have made a new High Tackle Directive, which will bring with it benefits and some confusion naturally. Coaches will make the target for tackles no higher than the chest, and the purists will say ‘around the legs’. That is true, and the expectation is that it will make it a fair contest.
The contest is what fans should expect. The most critical component of any sport, is competition and fair play. Rugby have them both, from North to South, East to West, the competitive spirit to win is equal worldwide.
And to begin the year, that competition continues in the Northern Hemisphere:
Round 13 opens the New Year, with matches scheduled for January 6-8. These games over the holidays are usually sold out, with only the weather the unpredictable factor.
The Premiership, the Principality Premiership [Wales] and the lower divisions are all well supported. All 12 sides will be pushing hard to redeem their season, so expect the Newcastle v Bath, Saracens v Exeter and Wasps v Leicester encounters to all have direct impact on the table standings (above).
With Six Nations sides to be selected, Eddie Jones will watch all matches closely. The outcome, as well as the form of players. And so too will Warren Gatland–the British and Irish Lions are still at the back of everyone’s minds.
Top 14 French Rugby
Round 16 will begin the new year, as the draw ticks over halfway through the season. Being one of the longest across all nations, commitment and fitness are the two elements that lead to a successful year.
That, and bonus points. They will all add up to the knockout rounds in May.
French rugby has consumed a large quantity, and high quality, of International players. The ranks are full, so many fixtures allow fans to enjoy a smorgasbord of talent. That alone is reason to watch and hold great expectations in rugby union in the Top 14.
Guiness Pro 12
The third of the ‘big three’ European competitions. The Pro 12 brings the many of the leading Irish, Welsh, Scottish and Italian sides into one International championship [formerly the Heineken Cup].
Round 13 see’s teams play fixtures from Friday the 6th; as the first matches of the new year were played on Sunday December 31. The triple-header on Friday will see action from Newport, to Dublin and Llanelli in Wales. All these United Kingdom games will surely be all sell out fixtures, considering the holidays.
With Munster leading the way, and 2016 champions Connacht falling by the wayside, the next few rounds are critical for positions fourth to eighth. If they make strides now, it could help them secure a semi final place.
European Professional Club Rugby
European clubs will restart their campaign for Champions Cup and Challenge Cup competition. The former has one game to complete their 2016 schedule–the delayed game between Racing 92 and Munster. That match was abandoned after the tragic death of Anthony Foley, but once it is completed on January 7, the next full round of Champions Cup/Challenge Cup matches are scheduled for January 12-15.
Last years’ Champions Cup winners Saracens, and Challenge Cup winners Montpellier will be looking to assert themselves in 2017. While different teams place a different focus on the EPCR competition, the chance to achieve ‘the double’ is still a goal for most.
That covers the most popular of northern competitions. And while fans there enjoy sustained, weekly fixtures, down in the Southern Hemisphere, rugby fans sit patiently.
Fans may be enjoying their holiday from work, but not the players. They will have enjoyed a Christmas ham, but the very next day they were all back ‘on duty’. Preparing for either actual games–or readying for upcoming fixtures.
Bayleys National Sevens – January 14-15
The first fixture for New Zealand fans of rugby sevens is the National Provincial tournament. Representative teams from across the country have competed in regional competitions to determine the top 16 men’s and 12 women’s sides. They will all descend on Rotorua to see who carries away the national honours.
Last Word On Rugby will be on hand to report over the two days–partly work, and a holiday trip on top–and that will apply to other fans. But the players will all take it seriously. Almost the perfect build-up for those NZ representatives (see Sarah Goss above) in preparations for upcoming International tournaments.
HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series
After Dubai started both the Women’s and Men’s seasons, the later then played in Cape Town a week later. That was a tremendous start, and all men’s teams now prepare for the first World Rugby Sevens tournament of the New Year.
Round 3: WELLINGTON SEVENS – January 28-29
The New Zealand leg of the series has always been a benefit for the hosts. The All Black Sevens have won the event nine times, but this will be the first without Sir Gordon Tietjens. Interim New Zealand co-coaches Scott Waldrom and Tomasi Cama will need all their men to dedicate every ounce of their energy towards defending local pride. With support from the expected crowds, this is a critical point for the side in the HSBC Sevens Series.
As well, the tournament will be a barometer of how the Wellington event is perceived. It has waned in it’s popularity, so the host union will hope fan support translates into patronage. Beside the numbers, for the Kiwi’s to be victorious, it will be a very difficult task. Fiji, the reigning title holders are yet to secure a win, so they will be motivated, as will Australia.
In terms of the season, teams cannot allow others to get a points advantage–even in these early rounds. Both England and South Africa hold the ascendancy at the start of the new year, so each will be the form nations going into round three….but surprises are what makes the sevens game that much more exciting.
All sides must be ready for the challenge.
Plenty of Entertainment on Offer
As well as the on-field action and series points on offer, fans can expect plenty of attractions at Westpac Stadium. Family zones are set aside, so Mums and Dads can take the kids–and fans who want to dress up and enjoy a drink, can have a blast! The organizers have booked a number of high profile bands to ‘bring the noise’. Once the matches end, Saturday night entertainment will go on well into the night, with music and food to keep the revelers happy.
And then, the very next week, sides converge on the Sydney Sevens. There, they will be rejoined by the Women (who play their round two tournament) so it is a wonderful start to 2017.
Super Rugby Building Toward Kick-off
The premier professional rugby competition in the Southern Hemisphere is biding it’s time. All 18 franchises have been training since November, all with one goal in mind. To get ready for the official start date on February 23–Rebels v Blues, Melbourne.
Most sides will use their full squads for opposed training, but over January and then building into February, sides ramp up their preparations. Weight training, cardio and skills development, as well as testing their offense and defense. And the best way to do that, is a warm up game.
Brisbane Global Tens tournament – February 11-12
For those teams involved; barring injury, the Brisbane Tens should be the perfect build-up. Some will take it very seriously, while others will just want their core players to sustain some physical contact that is so hard to simulate. A tournament like this, or a quality pre-season fixtures are exactly what all teams need.
Blues v Hurricanes – February 4, Auckland (and Open Day)
Hurricanes v Crusaders – February 17, Waverly
Only a small list of some of the pre-season matches planned [see your local team for more details] but they are all steps toward the major goal. By the eighth week of 2017, the clock ticks over, and the season begins proper. No more time to practice, so every one of the 18 sides needs to be at 100% if they wish to be competing in the finals series, in July.
Fans will be full of anticipation, with Great Expectations in Rugby Union that the second Super 18 competition will produce more matches of high-calibre. LWOR are sure that the sides introduced in 2016 will all provide more opposition than some did in their debut seasons; Sunwolves, Southern Kings and Jaguares.
The Next Twelve Months are Looking Great
So fans of rugby have great expectations in 2017, and so should you. Team sports have that important role in society that brings people together. Be it 15 players, 10 or just 7, the co-operation of men and women to reach a goal in any competition is a naturally occurring, and healthy function of sport.
Rugby Union is one of the many choices fans can make, and the one that this page is dedicated to. In 2017, our writing staff will cover all major competitions, from Super Rugby to Pro 12 to Sevens.
The second year in the World Cup cycle could be thought of as ‘calm period’. But that would be the wrong attitude. Rugby must promote the ball! Like any sport, maintain high standards and hold onto their support base, while growing new fans across all regions. That is the key to success. And with great expectation in Rugby Union, there will be plenty to report on over these next twelve months.
“Main photo credit”