A year to forget?
December 29, 2010
France coach Marc Lievremont has it all to do in 2011 to revive his side's fortunes © Getty Images
2010 - a year to forget in terms of northern hemisphere rugby.
After they won the Grand Slam in this year's Six Nations, I expected France to kick-on and, as usual, peak nicely for the World Cup next autumn. But somehow, in a very French phenomenon, coach Marc Lievremont seems to have lost the support of key players and is fighting insurrection in the ranks.
Forty-point defeats in Argentina and South Africa last June were not supposed to be on the menu and after a couple of lacklustre wins against Argentina and Fiji in November they were put to the sword by Australia. A 59-16 reverse was not just a beating it was a massacre especially as the Wallabies were in terrible trouble in the scrums even conceding a penalty try.
Now Lievremont has a huge task ahead. He created a great rapport during the 2010 Six Nations and now he has to do it all over again in 2011 or France will be going into the World Cup in disarray.
My French friends tell me he is in the mountains with his family recharging the batteries and working on a new philosophy especially with regard to selection. Apparently we should expect a stronger more forceful Lievremont next year - we'll see, the senior French players are a strong bunch and he will have to work hard to regain their confidence.
We have dissected England's problems and progress in these columns but, despite being put firmly back in their place by South Africa, there are real signs that they are making progress and have, at last, decided that 15-man rugby is the way forward. They have shown they can compete with the southern hemisphere giants and are now the flag bearers for Europe.
But what of the other home nations? The World Cup record of Ireland, Scotland and Wales is woeful. Wales finished third in the inaugural World Cup in 1987 but have had a torrid time since playing some truly awful rugby to slide to banana skin defeats - they failed to make the quarter-finals in 1991, 1995 and 2007 which is a terrible return for a nation that has won two Grand Slams in the last five seasons.
The omens are not good because they appear to be going backwards at precisely the wrong time yet again. They can point to a couple of unfortunate injuries and if Jamie Roberts comes back to show the sort of form he showed on the Lions tour and if Gavin Henson returns to anything like his former self the backline might still be transformed but they are all 'ifs' and that is the problem.
It used to be primary possession from the set pieces but that is no longer the case. Despite having the best front row since the Pontypool legends ruled the roost back in the 70s - and therefore a very stable scrum - Wales are still playing off the back foot because the back five forwards are simply not strong enough to punch the holes needed in modern rugby.
Ryan Jones has already lost the captaincy and should lose his place unless he can rediscover the dynamism he showed when he burst on to the scene in 2005. Priority? A Welsh Jerome Kaino!
Ireland have never gone beyond the quarter-finals and failed to even make that stage in 2007. They have never looked like progressing further except in 1991 when they should have beaten Australia, only to make a very Irish hash of the last play to gift the game to the eventual winners.
Again that is a pretty poor return for a nation that has been riding high over the last few years. Brian O'Driscoll has been the best centre in the northern hemisphere for over a decade now and with him providing the cutting edge they have had a pretty potent back division but they too have a forward problem albeit the opposite to Wales'.
The back row is terrific but the front row is hopeless. Even when national treasure John Hayes was in his heyday scrummaging was the weak point but now he has gone it is an insurmountable weakness. Priority? An Irish Beast Mtawarira!
Scotland did get to the semi-finals and could have beaten England in 1991 but have not threatened since. At last they have a decent pack of forwards with a very effective back row - that famous 21-17 victory over the might of South Africa was testament to that - but all their points came from the boot of Dan Parks.
Last season the backs improved but they are still desperately short of real power and pace. Priority? A Scottish Dan Carter.
OK I'm in dreamland but the reality is that the Celtic nations have seriously under-achieved in previous World Cups. They are all capable of better things and it would be great to see them really competing in New Zealand next year.
Blwyddyn Newydd Dda.
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John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and currently the managing director of London Welsh