The countdown to next summer’s World Cup is firmly on.
The most prestigious tournament in world rugby, the Rugby World Cup is the perfect platform for players to announce their talents on the global stage.
Ahead of next year’s tournament, we take a look at three players who could have a serious impact in the lead up to the competition in Japan.
CLUB: Auckland Blues
NEW ZEALAND CAPS: 13
Ioane has progressed into one of the most prodigious talents in the world since making his All Blacks debut 14 months ago.
Possessing pace, skill and power, the Auckland native – with 11 tries in 13 matches – should have won World Player of the Year ahead of Beauden Barrett in November on the back of some virtuous displays in 2017.
Still only 20, there are few weaknesses evident in his game so far, with solid defending and deft footwork at the centre of his excellent skilset.
The towering Ioane is so effective that he has put Julian Savea out of a place in the All Blacks team – a player who has scored 46 tries in 53 matches.
It’s enough to get any rugby fan excited with former All Black Dougie Howlett hailing the lethal winger, saying: “He can move like Christian Cullen, he has the strength of a Jonah [Lomu], and he can pass and play the ball like a Tana Umaga”.
SOUTH AFRICA CAPS: 14
Hands down the best hooker in the world in 2017.
The South African may have come under fire for his poor line-out throwing during the Springboks’ 57-0 mauling by the All Blacks in September, but he went from zero to hero, to produce a world class performance against the same opposition the following week.
With just 14 caps to his name, the Johannesburg native has catapulted himself into being a key part of Allister Coetzee’s side within 16 months of making his Test debut.
Each Springboks hooker brings his own style to the game, with John Smit a leader, Bismarck du Plessis a voracious tackler and Marx possessing sharp ball-handling skills and fitness.
His throwing may still be improving, but the 23-year-old had more turnovers (10) than any other player during the Rugby Championship.
He also scored 10 tries for the Lions during the Super Rugby season – the same as the influential All Black Rieko Ioane.
The Springboks may still be going through a transitional period after the retirements of star names, but with Marx in sparkling form, he has the chance – alongside Eben Etzebeth – to lead the nation back to a place among the game’s elite.
IRELAND CAPS: 4
The Ulsterman has made a tonic start to his Ireland career and looks set for a starting berth in the Six Nations.
The 21-year-old was one of the leading lights in Joe Schmidt’s side during the November Series, scoring tries against Argentina (2) and South Africa (1).
Four weeks out from Ireland’s first Six Nations match against France, Stockdale looks a certain starter on the left wing – with Keith Earls surely to get the nod on the right – barring injury.
At 6’3, the Lisburn man possesses gas, power, good defence and reliability under the high ball, and can act as an option for full-back.
Although it is still early in his professional career, he is sure to be an inspirational presence for Ulster and Ireland for years to come and it looks impossible for Schmidt not to include him in his starting 15.
It’s been an eventful year in regional rugby and Sport360‘s Matt Jones had plenty to ponder when putting together this 2017 review.
Cost-cutting and better competition has meant that Abu Dhabi Harlequins are facing a stiffer challenge for trophies while the UAE national team are seeing positive signs allowing for optimism under the guidance of Apollo Perelini.
Dubai Exiles ended an 11-year drought at the Dubai Rugby Sevens while Quins’ coach Mike McFarlane showed class in his side’s dominant 2016-2017 season.
Here are our picks for standout players, coach, achievement and game from a year gone by in regional rugby…
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Saki Nasau (Jebel Ali Dragons)
A truly special talent. Impressively understated last season after a summer switch from Al Ain Amblers, the athletic centre has scorched a trail in the early part of this season. Lightning pace, a muscular frame, he can beat you with searing pace or raw power. Impressed in defeat to Fiji ahead of the Sevens. He will lead Dragons’ charge.
COACH OF THE YEAR
Mike McFarlane (Abu Dhabi Quins)
After sweeping all trophies in 2016/17, who else was it going to be? Quins were utterly dominant last season, lifting the West Asia Premiership and West Asia Cup in the early part of 2017, while April’s UAE Premiership triumph over Dragons bookended a truly memorable campaign following Dubai Sevens and Asia Rugby Champions League success in 2016. Bravo Mr McFarlane. The gauntlet has been laid down.
ACHIEVEMENT OF THE YEAR
Dubai Exiles win Dubai Sevens
All the talk heading into the Sevens centred on three-time defending champions Quins looking to make it four wins in a row, with last year’s finalists Dragons hoping to go one better. Exiles, who last won the Gulf Men’s League in 2006, snuck under the radar and then produced a monumental display to win a thriller in the final over Dragons, 19-12.
GAME OF THE YEAR
Dubai Exiles 18-22 Jebel Ali Dragons (October 13, 2017)
A see-saw encounter that really announced Dragons as a force to be reckoned with. There had been a lot of hype surrounding Henry Paul’s side since the summer but this was the game where they proved it is far from bluster. Carel Thomas’ brilliant sniping run looked to be the winning try at the death for Exiles, only for a contentious refereeing decision to rule it out for a knock-on. Ferociously entertaining.
TEAM OF THE YEAR
Replacements: Epeli Davetawalu (Dragons), Mark Burnell (Bahrain), Conor Coakley (Eagles); Stephen
Hamilton (Saracens), Andrew Semple (Quins), Durandt Gerber (Exiles), Iwan Phillips (Bahrain)
Financial toil so crippling that one club was forced to fold, the summer of 2017 will not be remembered fondly by the UAE rugby community. But with the advent of a new season has come renewed optimism.
And after Abu Dhabi Harlequins swept all before them last season, the 2017/18 campaign, blighted by the cost-cutting summer crunch, has begun with a rich variety of challengers looking to take them down.
Mike McFarlane’s men have already relinquished their hold on one of the five jewels in their 2016/17 season crown when storied rivals Dubai Exiles won a thrilling Dubai Sevens title earlier this month – hoisting a trophy at a tournament they started over 50 years ago for the first time in more than a decade.
Jacques Benade’s side are making up for lost time in more ways than one. Their defence of the West Asia and UAE Premiership titles from two years ago was shoddy 12 months on as they fell by the wayside while Quins and other rivals strengthened.
They tore into new boys Dubai Eagles – created in the summer and given a chair at UAE rugby’s top table immediately – on opening night in September and followed that up with victory over Dubai Hurricanes.
But three successive defeats have followed, to Quins, Bahrain and Jebel Ali Dragons, the trio leading the way at the top of the West Asia Premiership after five games in what has been a disjointed start to the season.
Only a point separates joint leaders Bahrain and Dragons, and second-placed Quins, going into 2018. Exiles are seven points adrift of Quins but will hope their Dubai Sevens triumph reignites their bid for glory.
Quins claimed the quintuple a year ago while Exiles won the double prior to that. But everything so far suggests picking a winner of the WAP, UAE Premiership, UAE Premiership Cup and West Asia Cup will be an absolute lottery.
The four main contenders appear to be in a league of their own. All have scored north of 160 points (Dragons have the most with 194, Bahrain the least, 160), and all have shipped less than 100 (Bahrain 64, Quins 96).
Quins and Bahrain drew 15-15 at the end of September – Louie Tonkin still searching for a maiden win over Mike McFarlane.
The West Asia side have improved dramatically during the Welshman’s 17 months in charge. Dragons, meanwhile, continue to look impressive under the stewardship of former dual code international Henry Paul, having made giant strides last term.
If any team looks more of a threat to Quins’ haul of trophies, it is them, although they will be smarting following a defeat to Exiles at the Sevens that they didn’t feel was strictly legal.
A tantalising January schedule – featuring Dragons hosting Bahrain, Quins hosting Dragons and then Bahrain the following week – means the teams will have to come out of the blocks all guns blazing in the new year.
There will be no room for error, with Exiles looming in the background, waiting to pounce on any mistakes.
Meanwhile, Canes, Abu Dhabi Saracens and Eagles look likely to be left fighting for scraps – although each has their own agenda. Canes will fiercely want to exert their grip on fifth spot, while they can be pleased with progress – a semi-final place earned at the Sevens after they overcame Bahrain in the last eight.
After Dubai Wasps were forced to fold in the summer, there were real fears Sarries would follow suit after they were shorn of players mounting into double figures. They were also kicked out of their Al Ghazal home in August.
Yet playing numbers have hardly been higher, and while they won’t threaten the silverware and suffered the ignominy of being Eagles’ first prey, getting through the campaign would represent massive success for director of rugby Stephen Hamilton and Co.
As for Eagles, they are just trying to build a nest among the established core sides. A maiden win as a club came perhaps sooner than expected, against Sarries in just their second game.
That has given them a launch pad and they will just look to maintain their lofty status among the elite and build for the future – a thriving mini and youth section has already been established.