In a look back, Last Word on Rugby views the Rugby Heroes and Villains for 2023. Not focused entirely on one or the other – balanced in as how the sport of rugby union is a team-based game; as much as for individuals who can shine or be villainised for their contributions.
Over the last 12 months, the calendar has passed through domestic Northern Hemisphere competitions, the Six Nations highlights, Super Rugby Pacific second year, The Rugby Championship, and International warm-ups before the major focal point of the year – the 2023 Rugby World Cup held in France.
Rugby Heroes and Villains of 2023; RWC, Eddie Jones and much more
So what better time to reflect, than as rugby passes into a New Year.
While the four-yearly cycle was coming into view, the reality of week-to-week domestic play still carried the attention of the majority of fans. Clubs here would aim to claim momentum over January before calendars paused for the Six Nations fortnightly interruptions.
Hero #1 – Scotland the Brave, a revival in 2023
When you begin your calendar facing England, some Scottish supporters might have wished for a miracle. However, drawn yet again against neighbours England, the men’s side stunned the Championship by again defeating their opponents to enjoy one of their most successful seasons in many years.
Meanwhile, the women would enjoy similar success, when they prevailed in the inaugural WXV2 Series, played against the likes of Italy, Japan, the United States, Samoa, and South Africa. The Scots won all three fixtures played in Cape Town at the end of October, and will look to take that form into the TikTok Six Nations Championship starting in March next year.
Gregor Townsend led his men’s group well, positive play was in abundance and his ability to prepare a side that looked to attack with their local talent. New names rose, like Ben White and Jamie Ritchie, to point Scotland in the right direction. Although there was no denying how influential the 2022 World Rugby Player of the Year, Duhan van der Merwe would turn the match with this scintillating, 2023 WR men’s try of the year!
Others played their part in a resurgence of Scottish rugby. With Finn Russell revitalized in his Racing92 club role, it transferred into a commanding display that left Eddie Jones dumbfounded. They would go on to defeat Wales 35-7, a massive blow to Warren Gatland’s return. Scotland lost to both France and Ireland, but would dispatch Italy with ease to finish third in 2023, and aimed rightly for a playoff berth in the 2023 RWC.
Note: Edinburgh and Glasgow would finish seventh and eighth respectively in the 2022/23 United Rugby Championship.
On the other hand, a sacked Eddie Jones showed little promise for the RFU, bowing out unceremoniously at the end of the Six Nations won too easily by Ireland – who would appear to be the front runners for RWC rights for the first time.
Villain #1 – Eddie Jones Wallabies/Brave Blossoms signature under ‘dark cloud’
Announced in November, the Eddie Jones Brave Blossoms second term will begin under dark clouds, after his Wallabies misery ended with his resignation – some countering that Jones had begun future role discussions even before the 2023 Rugby World Cup had commenced, having only been in the role since January.
Quick to disparage such aspersions, it was the head of the Japanese Rugby Union (JRFU) who clarified the full process when the latest Eddie Jones Brave Blossoms contract was confirmed. JRFU president Masato Tsuchida explained to media that a recruitment firm had contacted Jones for “advice” on what process and parameters the union should take when canvassing for candidates. So any video conference meeting Jones may have had before the Wallabies left for France, was not an interview.
Both Japan and Australia failed to exit their pools; the first time ever for Australia. Jones was an anchor for the nation, rather than a redeemer. It makes for an inglorious appointment, with many asking directly if it is ‘a step backward’ for Japanese Rugby? Or if the ‘second coming’ of Jones can revive the Asian nation’s attempt to maintain a Tier One status over a sustainable future?
Eddie Jones announced as Japan National Team Head Coach as of 1 January 2024
— Japan Rugby (@JRFURugby) December 13, 2023
ESPN is reporting that a guilt-free Jones answered questions regarding his actions over the last two months. He told the media, “I had a plan of what we needed to do to change Australian rugby. We weren’t able to do that, Rugby Australia weren’t able to support that. I decided to move on and I wish Australia all the best.
“I feel terrible about the results of Australia – I wanted to go back and change Australia. But I don’t feel any guilt at all about this process.”
Some have not held back, including dual-code former International player Sonny Bill Williams. He lashed out at the time, and has openly challenged the intent of Eddie Jones Brave Blossoms recruitment timeline. He told Nine Wide World of Sports, “Obviously he lied to the players. He lied to the public. He lied to the Australian rugby union. What a disgrace!”
This makes Jones our Villain of 2023.
Hero #2 – Deon Fourie, and the World Champion Springboks
On a more positive note for our Rugby Heroes and Villains feature, is one player who put his body on the line for his country especially; Dean Fourie. And his country would respond in kind, by claiming a fourth Rugby World Cup title.
When asked to come on as an injury replacement after just two minutes, Fourie did not balk. Hooker Bongi Mbonambi succumbed to an unforseen injury – meaning Fourie would play the entire 78 minutes of the Final. A massive ask, one balanced at the time by the sin-binning of All Blacks player, Shannon Frizell. However, the intensity of the match was exhausting for any other player, so a hooker who was elevated due to the injury to Malcolm Marx needed to use all his strength and temerity, to perform during the entire match.
He did so with honours. Full credit to him and his teammates.
Fourie was also a member of the successful DHL Stormers United Rugby Championship winning group. Alongside Frans Malherbe, Manie Libbok, and Damian Willemse, his contributions over the calendar year were monumental. A humble yet energetic player, Fourie made his presence felt in many ways; scrummaging being primary, yet some of his covering tackles in the 2023 Cup final will be immortalized beside the efforts of Pieter-Steph du Toit, Handre Pollard, and the men who raised the William Webb Ellis trophy at the Stade de France.
Villain #2 – Sam Cane and the AB’s red cards
When was the last time an All Black was not heralded for a peak performance? When the pressure mounted, it was more than usually answered. A high percentage of the time, it results in Victory. Yet for our next villain of 2023 you might not be able to ignore is…. Sam Cane.
The red cards come thicker and faster for this modern-day All Blacks team. A card was handed out in their most recent All Blacks v Springboks warm-up game at Twickenham, so a trend has found a notch in this most recent form of the Men in Black. With Sam Cane at the pointy end of the haka, his name is related to more than his fair share of these negative occurrences. It could be unfair to associate him solely, but fairness is not how an above-the-shoulder tackle is judged [in 2023].
By comparison, within 25 minutes of the New Zealand captain being sent to the sin bin, his mirror in Siya Kolisi felt the same call of a Yellow Card but was not adjudged to have met the same threshold. It told on the faces of the two men – Kolisi ready to hold aloft his second Webb Ellis trophy, while Cane solemnly rejoined his side after an incredibly close single-point loss.
His expression and resulting comments were gracious and to a point, defeatest. Hardly a positive narrative, yet stacked on top of numerous incidents – including his thoughtless boot to trip a pitch invader – his tenure went out with a whimper, not in the adventurous manner same believe the pinnacle NZ team can play.
Villains in the films are the ones with guns and aggression, though in literature and somehow in this review, Sam Cane gets his place by happenstance and his actions. If affected by the plight around Ian Foster’s position and/or Scott Robertson, Cane is the type who takes it on the chin, and then begins to aim for another challenge to meet.
Note: the All Blacks ended 2023 as the third-ranked team in World Rugby. By making the Cup final, it was a thorough effort earned, not by virtue (a word suggested by some past players).
Hero #3 – Joy Neville/Hollie Davidson, more female senior referees
Let us applaud how often now, a woman is the head referee in elite rugby for either domestic rugby fixtures across the Premiership Rugby, United Rugby Championship/Challenge Cup men’s and women’s matches. It is a regular occurrence, not a single example. Joy Neville was an assistant referee in the second round of the Champions Cup only weeks ago.
TikTok Six Nations appointments aside, heroes wear capes and fly, though for the game to be equitable, the common factor is not the ‘super powers’ of the official that is the qualification. How well he or she can interpret the game’s proceedings, working with their assistants and the Television Match Official is. The new governing guidelines and laws are there to hold the player’s actions to account, with the same critical eye on appointed officials. And with good experience through the programmed systems of World Rugby and organizations like the European Professional Rugby Clubs, both women are now on equal footing to the likes of Luke Pearce, Frank Murphy, or Mike Adamson.
In the women’s game, a common theme is for female officials, so when will it become anything but a gesture for men to assist a women as head referee? And then every configuration is natural selection – not any special interest. And the applause has been ringing for more than a single calendar year.
Note: there are more women’s match officials who can control men’s and women’s fixtures. If a definitive and equal judgement is made, let it be on that person solely. No sexual premeditation.
Villain #3 – World Rugby scheduling….how could you!
Take a bow, the final villain is World Rugby and how they could only schedule the first Women’s WXV series at any other time than for when the men’s World Cup was being played. Why? How difficult is it to play those games on weekends themselves? It was a blight for the original plans for the three-tier pinnacle women’s International Series.
— Yusuf Jackson (@The_Yusman) October 11, 2023
Great idea >> Poor execution there. If the marketing and fanfare can be matched with forthright decision-making and investment, it would surely help engage with the audience’s full attention. Hardly possible near the conclusion of the RWC – even if just for those nations qualifying for the playoffs – though fairly if one assesses both competitions on merit. Surely the WXV2 could have been played earlier in the calendar, or later if conditions were favourable. So in fact the hosting nations were also questioned.
Some England Red Roses players thought that more supporters would fill the stands in New Zealand; like the year’s prior RWC2021 [played in 2022]. It did not, so while the English women returned to their familiar position of number one in the World rankings, but avenged their Cup final loss.
And Scotland could have enjoyed more home stakeholders could have been able to travel to Cape Town, instead of being preoccupied in Paris. Yet they played at their very best (as seen at top of page).
World Rugby, this is your job. So please improve the timing for all fan’s sake.
“Main photo credit courtesy of Scottish Rugby facebook“