Brendan Fanning: 10 predictions for 2017 - No Grand Slam, but championship and a World Cup will compensate
A little bit of crystal ball gazing, mixed with some tea-leaf reading, reveals interesting times ahead
1. The safety debate will escalate and gradually polarise into two main camps: The Anti-Pansy Brigade, who fear a man's game is being emasculated, and will rail against the drive to lower the tackle height; and The Anti-Contact Group, who will want it played barely above the level of touch rugby. Then there will be a chunk caught in the middle, a sizeable group who can't see any future for the sport as currently constituted, but at the same time don't want it castrated.
It was appropriate that the year should wind down with a worrying affair, for World Rugby are chasing their tails on this issue. George North has become the poster boy for concussion, which for a rugby player is like an accountant admitting that figures make him dizzy. So naturally enough he had star billing.
Nothing illustrated better the surreal background to this issue than the line that North hadn't been knocked out in Northampton's Premiership game against Leicester, rather he was lying perfectly still, after he bounced off the ground, so as not to do further damage to himself.
In keeping with that state of delusion, the Concussion Management Review Group - which included reps from the RFU and Premiership Rugby, chaired by an independent medic - found that the club got it wrong, but that there should be no sanction for having got it wrong. The group made nine recommendations for future best practice, but letting Saints off the hook was hard to fathom.
Sure enough World Rugby followed up, declaring it "disappointing" that North had been left on the field in the first place. We hope that in WR speak 'disappointing' is diplomatic code for 'unreal'.
They went on to say: "It is clear that there was a failure to comply with these (World Rugby's) robust and well-established protocols, which continue to successfully protect players around the world."
Evidently they are not successfully protecting players, not least because the Head Injury Assessment protocol is not working. Because players' symptoms might not be manifest until hours after the game they can pass the test and return to play in a matter of minutes, thus opening themselves up to further injury. This will get worse before it gets better.
2. The Six Nations, now featuring bonus points, will look and feel much like Championships from previous years. It will come down to a Grand Slam shot for England in Lansdowne Road on March 18, the last game on the last day. Tickets will fetch record sums as England try to keep a couple of balls in the air: their first back-to-back Grand Slams since the Five Nations of 1991 and 1992; the first team in history to win 19 consecutive Tests.
Johnny Sexton will kick the winning points on the last play. Nigel Owens will be slaughtered by our colleagues across the water as analysis of his decision to award Ireland the crucial penalty will reveal it to be wrong. So it goes, lads. Having lost the opener - with a bonus point - to a resurgent Scotland in Murrayfield, the win will give Ireland a Championship, but no Grand Slam.
3. The Lions will win a Test in New Zealand - their first since 1993 in Wellington's old Athletic Park -but lose the series. The mood music will have as its chorus: 'If only Joe was running this show'. It will be Warren Gatland's last time behind that particular wheel.
4. World Rugby will amend the eligibility criteria around the international game, stretching it out from the current three years to five, representing a big win for Agustin Pichot for whom this is a crusade. It helps that Bernard Laporte, newly installed president of the French Federation, is introducing a 'no passport, no play' policy. The IRFU say they are happy with three, five, whatever. The SRU are less so, having led the fight to maintain the status quo.
5. The IRFU will announce its intention to withdraw the provinces from the B&I Cup in favour of an All-Ireland League, where there will be no restrictions on contracted players in the top division.
6. Ireland's Championship success will be achieved despite Joe Schmidt having to mobilise a small army of front-row forwards. Last season he had to use 10 players for three positions but this time injury will force him to search even wider - and uniquely for Ireland there will be enough layers to sustain a successful campaign. Jack McGrath, Cian Healy, Kyle McCall, James Cronin, Rory Best, Sean Cronin, Niall Scannell, Dave Heffernan, Tadhg Furlong, Finlay Bealham and John Ryan will all feature. Of that lot McGrath, Healy, Best, Furlong and Bealham will wear red in New Zealand.
7. Ireland will dominate the Guinness Pro12, with Munster topping the table, but Leinster winning the title. Ulster will lose out on a top-four place to Glasgow, and Connacht's crippling injury list will prevent them mounting a challenge to retain their title.
8. Diageo will call up the lads in the Pro12 office and threaten to withdraw their sponsorship if they don't do something about the website. "F**king 'ell lads, we're a world-class brand who have hitched our wagon to a piebald pony!"
9. The European Champions Cup will be roundly declared to have been the best since the EPCR replaced ERC. The consensus will be that while it was Irish domination that sparked the Anglo-French uprising it's actually a far healthier landscape with a strong Irish presence.
Of the Six Nations only Ireland has a consistent, sizeable core of travelling fans - which has a real impact on the television product - and the rugby is better for our being there as well. At last, however, Clermont will be crowned champions and it will be greeted with the same goodwill as Munster enjoyed in 2006.
10. Ireland will be announced as host of the 2023 Rugby World Cup. For whoever is in government at the time it will be a PR bonanza. Concerns about how Japan will engage with the 2019 gig - not having a new national stadium ready in time hasn't helped - will push the vote Ireland's way, for hospitality is our thing. As for nuts and bolts like where the fans can find a bed, the Irish Hotels Federation maintains it won't be a problem. "There is a temporary capacity issue in Dublin which is being addressed and will be resolved ahead of this event," a spokesperson for IHF told us last week. It will need to be, for according to the Irish Tourist Industry Confederation there's quite a hill to climb. "We need about 50 more hotels in the capital city alone over the next five years," their chief exec Eoghan O'Mara Walsh said on RTE's Morning Ireland last week. We're not looking at another camper van World Cup lads, are we?
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