We may be a month and a half into the year, but it is never too late to throw out some hopes and dreams for the rugby to come. Here are my hopes for the 2018 rugby union year:
An Irish team ends their European drought
It's hard to believe that by the time the European Champions Cup Final rolls around in May it will have been six years since Leinster cemented their dominance over the continent against Ulster in an all-Irish final. Since then, Toulon won three on the bounce and Saracens squeezed the life out of everyone upfront in winning the trophy for the last two years.
Leinster and Munster have always been on the periphery when it has come to the business end of the competition and Ulster have tended to flatter to deceive whenever they have survived the pool stages. Munster looked like they could be the ones last season to dethrone Sarries in the semis, but like everyone else they came up short against their monstrous pack.
Leinster have been banging on the door for a couple seasons, but this year they look like breaking it down. They have their strongest squad since Joe Schmidt was at the helm and they are playing some fantastic rugby. Ironically, their first place seeding after the pool stage sees them face two-time reigning champions Saracens in a tasty-looking quarterfinal tie..
Munster also topped their group and their reward for being the number three seed is a clash with Toulon in the quarters. My sits on a Leinster versus Clermont final in Bilbao, with Leo Cullen being the first man to have captained and coached the boys in blue to European glory.
A try filled Six Nations
There are two sides to this coin. On one face you have the genuine contenders in England, Ireland and (potentially still) Scotland. England will continue with what's worked so well under Eddie Jones and that's to bludgeon their way up the pitch until their opposition show their cracks and release their lightning fast backs to score tries or kick their way to victory. Gregor Townsend has been sharpening the Scottish sword all year and looks set to continue their rapier like style of play to score countless tries, even in defeat. Ireland look very strong at the moment and are backboned by their provinces performances on the domestic and European stages.
On the other side of the coin you have Wales, a team who's decision making with ball in hand near the try line is still simply atrocious and which rules them out for scoring many bonus points over the rest of the competition. Italy have their moments in broken play and a good coach in Conor O'Shea, but they just aren't very good at this point and most of the bonus points in their games will come against the Azzuri.
The French - again - are the unknown commodity here. Even after two games I don't know what side of this stylistic scale they fall on. I was incredibly disappointed to see Guy Noves go who sought to restore their brilliant back play and undo the damage of the French Federation and their awful coaching selections of Phillipe Saint-Andre among others. I wish all the best for Jacques Brunel and hope he does not revert to Mathieu Bastareaud in midfield.
The biggest factor over the final three rounds though will be the Northern Hemisphere winter/spring weather. We need dry conditions for the rest of this tournament for it to be a true success.
South Africa, Australia and Argentina emerge from the All Blacks shadow
No one has taken ant version of the Tri Nations or Rugby Championship off of the All Blacks since 2011.
Argentina initially made unbelievable strides since joining the trio, but they need to take that next step and make Buenos Aires a fortress that the Boks and Wallabies can't touch and the give the All Blacks the game of their lives whenever they come knocking. The Springboks flattered to deceive on many occasions in 2017. Consistency was the buzz word amongst the South African coaching ticket last year, let us see if Rassie Erasmus can be the one to bring this team together and get them playing at the level they should be reaching.
The Wallabies are also striving to find the ability to produce performance after performance week in week out. They reserve their best displays for the All Blacks, do what they have to do against the Pumas, and have back-and-forth arm wrestles with the Boks. I have never seen a more night and day team than when David Pocock plays for the men in gold and if they can get him back fit and pillaging again before the championship; they remain the biggest rivals to their antipodean neighbours.
Tier 2 Nations get the recognition they deserve
I am mainly talking about Georgia and Japan here though I'd also like to address the financial crisis of the Polynesian states.
Starting with Georgia and the fact they are not included again in this years Six Nations which is wrong on so many levels. They are consistently challenging the top ranked sides and are ahead of Italy in the international rankings. They have won the Tier 2 European competition seven times in a row. I would like to see them either involved outright or a relegation system introduced to the Six Nations. It would increase the standard and the stakes of the Six Nations and European Nations Cup competitions instantly.
Japan, meanwhile, I would like to see included in the Rugby Championship. Like Georgia they have grown up and above the sides around them and its time to see how good they can become before they host 2019 World Cup. If not, then how about forming a new competition in collaboration with the Rugby Championship and have a relegation promotion play-off every year with the second division comprising the USA, Canada, Uruguay, Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, Chile, Namibia and Zimbabwe. It would also give the Polynesian's a financial base from which to build and protect their rugby futures.
Seeing World Rugby take a stand against French club spending
This has become the greatest threat to modern rugby on both the club and international levels. Spending power has ruined French Rugby where youngsters can't break through, and also South African rugby robbing the nation of its premier talent such as Duane Vermeulen, and the buying power is slowly creeping its way to New Zealand and Australia.
The clubs have also hoovered up the stars of smaller nations like Sergio Parisse of Italy and Mamuka Gorgodze of Georgia. It prevents smaller clubs and countries from developing stars and starts a player drain from the top nations that makes covering for injuries almost impossible.
It is not the players fault by any means. They are doing what is right by their families as they have such a limited time to make money in an increasingly physical game where we are seeing more retirements due to concussions and injuries. If you don't believe that the French spending is directly effecting the game, just look at the state of the Rugby Championship. The Springboks are in a state of crisis where they have a list the length of your arm of players they can't select because they are playing in France.
You can also look to the attempts of Treviso and Zebre to climb the ladder of the Pro14 without their international standard players. The example on the other side is the new system Wales have created - similar to that of Ireland's - in an effort to keep hold of their star players such as Alun-Wyn Jones and Jonathan Davies. Even then, star half-backs Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb are moving out of Wales for a greater payday.
The FFR needs World Rugby's help to curb their spending and put a cap on how many foreigners may play at the French clubs to save their national team. More than that, a move like this would help remove the very real threat of the collapse of international rugby as we know it.
What do you think of these hopes? Let us know in the comments!