A New Zealand columnist who should know better, but quite often does not, asked why the All Blacks should not be handed the World Cup now, just in time for first South Africa, then (without quite closing the deal) England and, conclusively, Ireland to show exactly why.
Eddie Jones’s third season syndrome kicked in and Jonny Sexton’s giant drop-goal on what seemed like about the 632nd phase in Paris was the catalyst for the best year in Irish history.
Wales and Ireland reversed the tides of more than a century of history against South Africa and New Zealand respectively, while appointing new coaches well in advance — and Wales became fun to watch! That was the year that was, one to whet appetites for 2019 and the World Cup, seen here by the numbers.
0 draws in matches between tier-one nations, but two of the three recorded further down the food chain affected season records. Croatia’s 18-18 draw away to Andorra deprived them of a 100 per cent record for the season, while Morocco’s 23-23 draw with Zimbabwe in Harare rescued them from following a spotless 2017 with a complete washout in 2018 as they lost their other four matches.
2 drop-goals by Beauden Barrett do not exactly make him the second coming of Pierre Albeladejo, given that he played 70 tests before landing his first against England. But potting another the following week against Ireland suggests a change of thinking by the previously drop-averse All Blacks.
3 consecutive years in which the All Blacks have not had the best winning percentage. Ireland topped the 2018 averages with 91.66 per cent after England headed them in 2016 and 2017. But the All Blacks, top six times in a row before that, are not exactly crashing down the rankings. They achieved more wins (12), tries (78) and points (549) than any other team in 2018 and have the best playing record (86.90 per cent) over that three year period, ahead of England’s 80 per cent and Ireland’s 75.71 per cent.
3 consecutive 100 percent seasons appears a record unique to Gibraltar, even if it does amount to only four matches. And their 2018 programme, with victories over Hungary and Finland on the Rock, was longer than those of 2016 and 2017.
4 All Black victories after trailing at half-time reflected both their unmatched self-belief and the extent to which rivals may be catching up, while France’s four losses after leading at the break suggest the inverse — a team which is travelling in the right direction, but still struggles to close out tight contests.
5 red cards were issued in international matches in 2018. Brazilian prop Chabal Paulo’s marching orders during the 67-5 victory over Colombia in Sao Paulo made him only the fifth player to be sent off twice, and in only his 20th test, considerably faster than the other four repeat offenders.
8 yellow cards remains the all-time test record, with Georgian flanker Vito Kolelishvili joining Australia’s Michael Hooper, uncarded in 2018, at the top of the list when Nigel Owens ejected him for 10 minutes during the 28-0 defeat by Japan in Aichi. He has now been carded three times on three different continents against Japan, while getting to eight cards in only 50 matches makes him a serious rival to his Clermont club-mate Jamie Cudmore, who received seven yellows in 39 tests for Canada, as the international game’s outstanding recidivist.
8 appearances in losing teams by Argentinian centre Matias Orlando was far from the most in 2018. Seven of his fellow-Pumas played in all 10 of their losses and another six in nine. But playing only in defeats, while missing the memorable Rugby Championship wins over South Africa and Australia, makes Orlando the ill-luck charm of 2018.
9 wins in 10 matches looks like a high point of United States rugby since those prelapsarian days when they won Olympic titles and, following on from six in 10 in 2017, suggests an upward curve superbly timed for next year’s World Cup. And it wasn’t done against cannon-fodder either. The Eagles beat both Samoa and Scotland 30-29, Canada home and away and Russia and Uruguay by more than 60 points. Only Ireland beat them, by 57-14.
10 appearances in winning teams left giant Irish lock Devin Toner trailing four All Blacks who played in 11 wins and tied with seven more players, including team-mates Cian Healy and Jack McGrath. But missing Ireland’s only loss, to Australia in Brisbane, gave him a 10-0 record, making him 2018’s inverse of Matias Orlando (see 8).
11 tries in as many matches made New Zealand wing Rieko Ioane the leading scorer of 2018, followed by Canadian veteran DTH van der Merwe with nine. Jonny May and Ireland’s prodigious Jacob Stockdale were the leading Europeans with eight. Ioane now has 20 tries in 24 tests, and is still only 21, suggesting that he might be the man to finally cross the All Black Sargasso Sea (see 46).
14 was the most caps won by any player in 2018, forwards Steven Kitshoff and Pieter-Steph du Toit appearing in all of South Africa’s matches. But both made some appearances from the bench, while team-mates Aphiwe Dyantyi and Siya Kolisi and Australia’s lock Izack Rodda made 13 starts.
18 years and 319 days was the age of Belgian prop Bastien Galliere when he became the youngest international player of 2018, an anything but gentle debut as a replacement against Georgia in Kutaisi. Russian centre David Patikhanov was the year’s youngest starter, and scorer at 18 years 345 days against Namibia in Krasnodar. The youngest Tier One player was also perhaps the unluckiest. French outside-half Matthieu Jalibert suffered a serious knee injury 29 minutes into his debut, aged 19 years and 89 days, against Ireland on February 3, and has not played since.
27 tries in 57 appearances at outside-half make Beauden Barrett the highest scorer in the history of the position. Number 26, taking him past Daniel Carter’s previous mark of 25 in 100 matches, was scored against against Australia in Yokohama.
38 years and 87 days was the age of Canadian hooker Ray Barkwill when he played against Hong Kong in Marseille, making him the oldest international player of 2018. Nor is the Niagara Falls-born Barkwill fading out gently, as he was the only player to start 12 matches for Canada during the year. Hookers showed similar durability among the Tier One nations, Springbok Schalk Brits (37 years, 38 days) and Scotland’s Scott Lawson (36 years 128 days) making one-off appearances after long hiatuses, and the apparently indestructible Rory Best continuing as the senior Tier One regular, aged 36 years and 95 days when he led Ireland to victory over the All Blacks.
39 points to 42 by South Africa at Johannesburg made England the highest scoring losers of 2018, typical of a year in which four of their six defeats were by single-figure margins.
46 tries looks likely, following his signing for Toulon, to be the final total for Julian Savea, making him the fifth victim of the All Black Sargasso Sea, becalmed forever between 44 and 49. He should, though, finish as the leading scorer of the 2010s, with van de Merwe (37) or George North of Wales (36) his fairly distant closest pursuers into the final year of the decade.
56 appearances as a replacement is the new all-time record set by Ireland’s Sean Cronin, overtaking All Black Kevin Mealamu’s previous mark with exquisite timing when he replaced Best for the last 16 minutes of the defeat of New Zealand. Argentina’s Juan Montoya, like Cronin confined to the bench by a hooker-captain, has come off the Pumas bench 47 times and is still only 25.
65 years and counting since Wales beat New Zealand, a sequence which if it were a person would have qualified for its Old Age Pension on December 19.
95 winning appearances since 2010 for All Black Sam Whitelock, who will surely become the first player to play in 100 test wins in a decade some time next year. The next nine on the list are also All Blacks, followed by Dylan Hartley (60). Dan Cole (58) and Romanian Florin Vlaicu (57) are the leading winners with no New Zealand roots.
100 international defeats, the predestined fate of the game’s incarnation of grace in adversity, were duly completed by Sergio Parisse when Italy lost to Scotland in March. Next up on an all-time list dominated by Italians is Martin Castrogiovanni (88 defeats). Parisse’s 134 caps and 131 starts are the most among active players, followed by Alun-Wyn Jones, 129 caps and 117 starts, giving him a serious shot at Richie McCaw’s all-time marks of 148 and 141.
101 caps have been won by Portuguese lock Goncalo Uva, equalling the national record set by elder brother Vasco. They became the first brothers in rugby history to win 100 caps when Goncalo played in the 27-25 win over Poland in Lodz in March. Outside-half/full-back Yuri Kushnarev who became the first Russian to three figures in the match against Namibia at Krasnodar and leads their scorers with 733 points, also ended the year on 101.
106 tests without scoring a point by All Black prop Owen Franks, who became the first scoreless 100-test man against Australia at Auckland. His abstinence has done the All Blacks no obvious harm, since they won that day, as they have in 91 of Franks’ 106 matches.
127 points scored by Denmark against Estonia in Odense, the highest score of 2018. Estonia at least had the consolation of an unconverted try, unlike Tunisia — once one of the better teams in Africa — who went down 118-0 to Namibia in Windhoek.
130 points made Beauden Barrett leading scorer for the second year running, but with the lowest tally since Matt Burke’s 115 points led the list in 1998. Handre Pollard (121) and Owen Farrell (113) were his closest pursuers.
524 points were conceded by Germany in a distinctly mixed bag of a year which saw them perform creditably in the World Cup repechages, but ship 359 points in five FIRA matches.
709 points, the year-ending tally for Nicolas Sanchez, make him Argentina’s all-time record scorer after passing both Hugo Porta (656) and Felipe Contepomi (651), although Italy’s Diego Dominguez retains the record for anyone born in Argentina, with 1010. Sanchez needs two drop-goals in 2019 to overtake Scotland’s Dan Parks, who played his last test in 2012, as leader for the decade.
888 points make Vlaicu the leading active scorer. He extended his lead over Merab Kvirikashvili (840) when the Georgian lost his role as the Lelos’ kicker, but his chances of being the first Tier Two player to 1000 may be fading, as he added only 34 in a year when four of his seven caps were won as a replacement. Kvirikashvili maintained his narrow lead, by 115 to 113, in their contest to be the most capped Tier Two player. The active Tier One scoring leaders are a similarly closely grouped – Leigh Halfpenny on 762, Farrell 757, Sexton 743 and Sanchez 709.