The 2022 year cannot be accused of lacking storylines or talking points from a rugby union perspective. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on his good and bad moments from the year that was.
Ireland beating New Zealand in New Zealand
The start of the tour was quite ominous. There was a welcome to New Zealand fixture as the Maori All Blacks taught several Ireland prospects of the standards and style of play in New Zealand.
The management and side though regrouped immensely well after an opening test match loss which identified potential within the Ireland ranks to create try scoring opportunities.
Ireland’s adjustments and overall cohesion deservedly won the remaining two tests. Tadhg Beirne in the last quarter of the final test was playing at a different level above anyone else on the park.
An immense achievement to secure an international series win in New Zealand and setup Ireland for a successful November series.
Ireland hopefully deliver in the RWC 2023 but backup to Sexton and front five depth chart needs to be addressed before the start of the tournament.
No silverware but plenty of optimism for all four provinces.
Leinster Rugby continued to be the standard bearer, topped the URC regular season standings and advanced to the Heineken Champions Cup final where they lost to La Rochelle in the dying embers of the contest.
Bulls arrived to Dublin in the URC playoffs and secured a deserved win. Leinster Rugby have learned lessons and with the likes Ngatai and Jenkins in the squad, physicality and experience in the business end of this season is strengthened.
Ulster Rugby progressed nicely under Dan McFarland. They trounced Munster Rugby in the playoffs and were left to rue what might have been with a late loss to the Stormers in the semi-final.
The last few weeks will test the character and makeup of the team but no side becomes a bad team overnight so optimism should be high around Kingspan for a strong 2023 with an exciting back field and physicality in Vermeulen and Henderson in the pack.
Connacht Rugby finish the year with optimism also. The redevelopment of the Sportsground will kick into a few gears in 2023.
Andy Friend’s stewardship of the team has seen the province blossom in URC and European competitions. He leaves a solid foundation and base for his successor to take the province to the next level.
The injuries to Paul Boyle and particularly Gavin Thornbury at Brive was big blows and will test out back row and second row depth albeit the Murray brothers have stepped up nicely this season along with David Hawkshaw in the half back and three quarters. Optimism abounds in the province ahead of a busy festive period.
Munster Rugby left the JVG era behind. The manner of the Bath Rugby announcement and the complete breakdown in the team’s cohesion exposed at the business end of the season.
Yes, there was an epic fixture with Toulouse in the Aviva but the required reality check came with a home loss to Leinster Rugby who fielded a side loaded with young prospects as well as the rout to end the season against Ulster Rugby.
The Rowntree era has arrived. The results have picked up and the Leamy / Prendergast coaching ticket is seeing the side looking to attack with pace and width while continuing to be abrasive and physical in the defense and breakdown areas.
An interesting festive period will dictate whether Munster Rugby will be involved in a playoff run or looking at a EPCR Challenge Cup appearance next season.
Pairc Ui Chaoimh and the South Africa XV was a massive high point. The demand for more games in Cork continues but it has to be the right fixture given Thomond and Musgrave Park bases.
South African teams in the URC
This was a slow burner this time last year but the South African inclusion to the URC is paying dividends.
The league has increased in quality and has enhanced the battle for Heineken Champions Cup places with a resurgent Lions, Bulls along with the Sharks and Stormers who won the competition last season.
Stormers were a joy to watch in the playoffs along with the Bulls whose road trip win over Leinster Rugby was an exceptional performance of pack cohesion and clinical finishing. Evan Roos superb for the Stormers.
November series competitiveness bodes well for RWC 2023
The mere fact that so many teams were close in November indicates that that the top ten sides on their day can beat anyone else. Italy even surprised Australia and their win at the Principality will live long in the memory.
France will enter the tournament as favourites but New Zealand are more than capable after a shaky 2022 to beat the hosts and throw the competition wide open.
I am excited for the tournament. It will be great to see Portugal and Uruguay feature in the tournament.
The governance of the league is under the microscope. Worcester Warriors and Wasps both went bust early this season. No financial tests conducted to sense problems in both ball clubs. It left management, backroom staff and players without jobs.
A desperately sad situation and when you consider recent reports on several other clubs about to hit the wall, it could be a tough 2023 for the league.
It is a tough job at the best of times but the increased abuse received from match officials is now unacceptable.
The social media abuse, the death threats online are a disgrace. Rugby Union supporters should be better than this.
How the social media platforms clamp down on this behaviour remains to be seen. The Wayne Barnes interview was horrendous. Grabbing officials by the arm is a new low. Reset and look to be better everyone.
The disparity in disciplinary sanctions remains an enigma. What constitutes a ban or not?
The high tackle offense needs to evolve. The tackle for me should be from the waist down but there are borderline hits going unpunished tackling around the midsection.
The breakdown and players propelling themselves out of control is still an issue; some referees police it while other don’t. The welfare of the player at times does not come into the equation.
Nic White in November at the Aviva was a horror show. The officiating and medical crew for Australia should have acted. The reaction postgame means that there is plenty to do in educating the masses further on this matter.
World Rugby looking to speed up the game but I would suggest the areas cited are the problem areas.
Officials looking for mitigation at any opportunity to not issue a red card. Interpretation of the rules creates ambiguity.
Touch judges passively watching key incidents not providing the support required for the man in the middle. At times, I find it sad for the referee to officiate powderkeg fixtures given this backdrop. More required to support our matchday referees.
An organisation which appears to be stagnant in their growth plans of the competition.
Please bring back the four team pool format as the opening round format does little to whet the appetite. Teams fielding ghost teams needs to be addressed.
The debacle of Ulster Rugby vs. La Rochelle needs to start discussions on contingency planning for fixtures in the winter time. Ulster Rugby lost massive revenue streams, behind closed door was a La Rochelle fan assembly.
EPCR revenue streams and their ambitions for the competitions need to evolve as a breakaway league may form between some of the juggernaut teams potentially.
Munster Rugby Transfer Policy
The policy of the ball club with regards to key personnel exposed this year.
James Cronin departed the club with some raised eyebrows and then John Ryan was told to pack his bags after not been offered a contract.
Tighthead prop depth chart completely blown apart. Ryan left for Wasps but the English club collapsed, Ryan arrived to Munster Rugby to steady the front row set piece.
The news that John Ryan was leaving the province to join Waikato Chiefs is a sore one personally.
You don’t produce solid tighthead props like Ryan and this personnel issue could be felt down the stretch. No pressure on Stephen Archer to come back all guns blazing from his ankle injury, a big ask.
The lack of activity in the pack personnel perhaps due to the departure of a head coach who should have departed as soon as the Bath Rugby appointment was made.
It hindered Munster Rugby preparations for the new season. The Fekitoa signing had risks and unfortunately, it looks like the player is struggling to make an impact with the ball club.
An early 2023 decision between both parties may be required here. A player with a big salary and reputation not making a matchday squad for URC and Europe exposes fundamental scouting flaws.
Player scouting and personnel matters need a thorough review at the organisation next year.