New Year, new start
December 29, 2011
Jake White faces a huge ask to turn around the fortunes of the Brumbies © Getty Images
The New Year usually comes with a raft of resolutions and the rugby world is no different with a host of teams looking to put the last 12 months behind them with many more keen to make a fresh start.
With glory, titles and reputations to play for, this week's Scrum Sevens looks at those sides for whom 2012 could be a decisive year.
The Pumas may have failed to match their famous third place finish from four years ago at this year's Rugby World Cup, but bowing out to the eventual winners New Zealand is no disgrace. Rugby seems to be on the right track in Argentina but this could be a defining year in the Pumas' history. Under the guidance of Santiago Phelan, who has recently been rewarded with a new two-year deal, they will make their debut in the inaugural staging of The Rugby Championship - the expanded Tri-Nations.
The rugby world has been yearning for the chance to see the likes of the magician Juan Martin Hernandez, Juan Fernandez Lobbe and their army of massive front-rowers take on the best the Southern Hemisphere has to offer and they will finally get what they wanted this year. The Pumas begin their campaign against the Springboks in South Africa on August 18 and the odds will be stacked against them with Argentina's last victory over any of their competition rivals way back in 1987 when they defeated Australia 18-16 in Buenos Aires.
The Basque side finished fifth in the Top 14 last season and reached the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup which on the face of it looks like a satisfactory, if unspectacular season. But they have failed to build on that limited success this season and not even the commanding presence of Serge Blanco could prevent them from slumping to the foot of the table and slipping on the road against Treviso and at home against Saracens in Europe.
Despite having an embarrassment of riches in their squad, with the likes of the inspirational Imanol Harinordoquy, Dimitri Yachvili and Jerome Thion all running out in their famous red and white shirts, they have failed to hit their straps of late. However, they still score some unbelievable tries - including this great effort against Saracens and Taku Ngwenya's score against Montpellier. But with 2012 only days away, they will be hoping to right their wrongs by producing the same sort of fight as that illustrated by Harinordoquy senior earlier this season.
The Canberra-based Super Rugby franchise laboured during the 2011 season and finished just four points above new side the Melbourne Rebels at the foot of the Australian conference with just four wins to their name. The Brumbies are now under new guidance with World Cup-winning coach Jake White at the helm but they have lost the likes of Matt Giteau, Rocky Elsom, Mark Chisholm, Julian Salvi, Patrick Phibbs and Adam Ashley-Cooper to pastures new. They still have Wallabies Ben Alexander, Stephen Moore and Pat McCabe in their ranks but they will still be up against with the Rebels having recruited heavily in the form of Kurtley Beale and James O'Connor, the Waratahs bringing in Rocky Elsom and the Reds keeping the majority of their title-winning squad.
And their issues do not end there with reported strife off-the-field following the withdrawal of their intended naming rights sponsor - Chinese company Huawei - who had reportedly all but put pen to paper on a four-year deal believed to be worth in the region of A$4million.
England will enter the 2012 as defending champions but the feel-good factor surrounding that Championship triumph soon evaporated during a troubled World Cup. They fell in the quarter-finals to France and endured a campaign filled with headline-grabbing strife - as covered by ESPNscrum's Review of 2011. The Rugby Football Union is not in great shape either with professional rugby director Rob Andrew's role under constant scrutiny but there is a new chief executive in place in the form of Ian Ritchie and there are hopes that the organisation might be getting its' house in order.
The wind of change has ushered in a new coaching team - albeit on an interim basis - with Stuart Lancaster, Graham Rowntree and Andy Farrell charged with lifting the gloom. Reports suggest they are poised to put their trust in youth and so Twickenham may soon find itself buoyed with renewed optimism ahead of the appointment of a new permanent coaching team in the summer.
The Hurricanes failed to make a sizeable dent in the 2011 Super Rugby competition, finishing fourth in their conference and ninth overall. Coach Mark Hammett has also risked the wrath of the Wellington public by deeming several stellar names surplus to requirements. The list of players to have swept through the exit is quite staggering with World Cup winners Ma'a Nonu (Blues), Piri Weepu (Blues), Aaron Cruden (Chiefs), Andrew Hore (Highlanders) and Neemia Tialata (Bayonne) all leaving. They are also joined by lightning winger Hosea Gear (Highlanders) and Rodney So'oialo (Honda Heat) in departing from Wellington. Hammett is clearly backing youth to fill the void in the form of exciting prospect Beauden Barrett but there is still plenty of experience on hand with the likes of Cory Jane and Conrad Smith in their back division.
Hammett is adamant he has the side and more importantly the attitude to succeed. "I'm deadset that we've got a really, really good team and we've got a team of character, hard workers, people that are really prepared to give more than they want to receive back," said the 'Canes boss. "And, while this year we are really going to have to fight harder than we ever have, I'm excited about the group and my expectation is very high, Maybe others' isn't, but ours is.''
While Bath may be struggling in the Aviva Premiership, they at least have the backing of Bruce Craig's millions to steady the ship. The same, however, cannot be said for London Wasps. The Adams Park side are currently on the lookout for a new owner and are shrouded in financial uncertainty. Their average attendance falls well below the benchmark of 10,000 and crowds are largely on the decline. They are currently ninth in the Premiership and have suffered the retirements of Dan Ward-Smith, Joe Worsley and Steve Thompson in the past six months along with the departure of Shaun Edwards - 2012 will be a big year for the side.
But with all the doom and gloom surrounding the Premiership's basement dwellers - Wasps, Bath, Newcastle and Worcester - Wasps have arguably the brightest future in terms of their playing stocks. They have the likes of flyer Christian Wade, who has eight tries to his name this season, Joe Launchbury, Billy Vunipola and Elliot Daly - complete with his monster boot - and Joe Simpson. Dai Young is a highly competent coach but with the ghost of the Lawrence Dallaglio-inspired glory days still present at Wasps, the pressure is on at Adams Park to get back into the Heineken Cup and make them a 'no-brainer' to any potential investor.
The Swansea-based side took the 2009-10 Celtic League title and were knocked out at the semi-final stage of the play-offs last season but have since made a deliberate move away from their 'Galacticos' and fake tan reputation. Internationals Lee Byrne, Mike Phillips and James Hook have long since left the region with the coaching duo of Sean Holley and Scott Johnson now bidding to build a side around earnest players and those looking to forge a Test career to match that of established names Shane Williams and Tommy Bowe.
Matthew Morgan is one such player looking to benefit from the change in policy with Dan Biggar another already on an upward curve. But it is on the European stage where the Ospreys have always failed to live up to their promise. While they are performing well in the RaboDirect PRO12 - where they are currently second - you cannot help but feel that they are struggling to live up to their billing as one of Europe's premier sides, currently lying six points off Pool 5 leaders Saracens.
Next year promises to be a fascinating year for Wales' regions with the new salary cap coming into effect ahead of the 2012-13 season and like their rivals, the Ospreys will need to juggle their resources with world-class prop Adam Jones and hooker Huw Bennett among those reportedly entertaining the idea of an overseas move.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Huw Richards assesses where Wales are after a mixed Six Nations, with front row seats still very much available for the World Cup
John Mitchell lapped up the action on 'Sensational Saturday' - but warns not to expect a repeat come Rugby World Cup time later this year
Craig Dowd warns England, Ireland and Wales they should play to their strengths rather than those of the All Blacks and the Wallabies
Tom Hamilton runs the rule over just where the six countries stand ahead of the global gathering in September