Wallabies to get new skipper, Bledisloe joy and shock Rugby Championship win: XV fearless predictions for 2024
A lot has happened in 12 months. Just ask Hamish McLennan, who triumphantly celebrated Eddie Jones’ return to Australian rugby, yet was speared in the end because of the blood on his hands by doing so.
So what will 2024 bring?
We’ve delved into the crystal ball to predict the fate of Australian rugby – and other events – next year.
1: Joe Schmidt to coach the Wallabies
Realistically, there are three serious contenders to succeed Eddie Jones: Schmidt and Australians Dan McKellar and Stephen Larkham.
All three options would be somewhat of a gamble for different reasons. That includes Schmidt because no foreign coach has left Australian rugby with their stocks higher than what they arrived.
While Larkham would be the easiest to land, Schmidt looms as RA’s No.1 target for the vacant Wallabies role because he has the runs on the board and is fresh after four years out of the head coaching realm. But don’t rule out McKellar.
2: A new Wallabies skipper
After the year from hell, the Wallabies need to get back on track and Brumbies tight-head Allan Alaalatoa is the man for the job.
Although Taniela Tupou is a wrecking ball and Australia’s current highest-paid player, Alaalatoa has the respect of his peers and can do a job over the next 24 months. More than that, he’s a quality front-rower with a strong work-rate.
3: Wallabies to win the Rugby Championship
After winning just twice in 2023, it would seem preposterous that the Wallabies could challenge in 2024. But the stars might align.
The Wallabies will return to South America for a two-Test tour of Argentina and then will host the Springboks in Australia. That’s a golden opportunity to find some form before taking on the All Blacks.
Argentina will have a new, unproven international coach in Felipe Contepomi after Michael Cheika finished up recently, while the Springboks historically have struggled in Australia and will have a new coaching team after Jacques Nienaber joined Leinster.
New Zealand? Well, it’s a tough start for Scott Robertson by playing twice in South Africa, particularly after a changing of the guard.
Australia, meanwhile, already has the building blocks in place after Jones brutally farewelled several household names a year earlier and bizarrely looked past others like Pete Samu and Len Ikitau.
4: A drawn Bledisloe series
The Bledisloe Cup will remain on New Zealand soil, but the Wallabies will win the second match at home.
Although the All Blacks will continue to roll out some gems, experience and leadership aren’t found overnight.
The loss of second-rowers Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock, as well as halfback Aaron Smith, will be felt.
The absence of Richie Mo’unga, who found his feet on the international stage over the past 12 months, will also hurt Robertson’s chances of making a seamless transition.
The Wallabies, too, will experience change. But after the Jones disaster, where the Wallabies had some talent but were bereft of intellect in the coaching team, it’s only up.
The fact the team will be settled is a huge plus too.
5: Brumbies to break Super Rugby drought
It’s 20 years since the Brumbies claimed their last Super Rugby title, but things could be falling into place for them.
Not only do the Brumbies have a strong roster, they’ve got a reasonable draw and some of their major challengers like the Crusaders will face some serious challenges.
Not only have the Crusaders lost three of their best from 2023 (Mo’unga, Whitelock and Leicester Fainga’anuku, they’ve also got a new coaching team. That’s a big enough challenge without also losing Codie Taylor for most of the season (rest) and fly-half Fergus Burke to a major injury.
The Crusaders’ grand final opponents, the Chiefs, meanwhile have lost several big-name forwards including Retallick, Sam Cane and Pita Gus Sowakula.
The Brumbies on the other hand have only really lost halfback Nic White and back-rower Pete Samu.
Although Allan Alaalatoa will miss the opening rounds of the competition, if they start well they should be in a strong position to finish in the top two – and give themselves the best chance of hosting finals.
Plus, they’ve got depth in the halves with Noah Lolesio returning from France to challenge for the role alongside Jack Debreczeni.
Crucially, they’re also stacked in the back five of the forwards and have Wallabies across the front-row.
Look for the Brumbies to feature prominently in next year’s Wallabies squad.
6: Gold in Paris
John Manenti made a calculated punt ahead of the Tokyo Games believing Maddison Levi would be a superstar. He wasn’t wrong, and Tim Walsh stands to benefit.
The tryscoring machine had barely played a match when Manenti picked her ahead of Ellia Green, but she’s now very much the dominant tryscorer on the women’s sevens circuit.
After scoring 57 tries during last year’s series, Levi is once again flying and has been a huge part of the side’s early success.
But she’s by no means a lone ranger, with Charlotte Caslick still at the top of the game. The captain has been joined by the maturing and growing likes of Madison Ashby and Teagan Levi.
Bienne Terita and Faith Nathan offer two more threats out wide, while Alysia Leau-Fakaosilea has another powerful figure ally alongside her in the emerging Isabella Nasser. Those bigger bodies are crucial against the physical threats of France, New Zealand and the United States.
This is a squad well balanced and, crucially, used to winning. They’re primed for gold.
7: More ammunition needed for men’s medal hopes
Australia’s men’s side showed they’re capable of causing upsets and competing on the international stage in Cape Town earlier this month.
Manenti’s side made the final after upsetting South Africa and Fiji before they were blown away by Argentina.
But come Paris, Australia’s side will need a couple more threats to help Maurice Longbottom and Dietrich Roache.
Nathan Lawson has come on well, while Henry Hutchison, Henry Patterson and former Wallabies captain Michael Hooper will return early next year, but Manenti will be hoping to call on Corey Toole and Darby Lancaster for the Olympics.
The two speedsters, who offer different threats out wide, are a must for Australia’s hopes to match the likes of Argentina’s Marcos Moneta.
If they do, they can very much make the last four and medal.
8: France to win the Six Nations
The first weekend of the Six Nations could well decide it, as Ireland travel to Marseille to take on Les Bleus. Good luck.
Home ground advantage is everything but when the margins are tight, they are significant.
Even though Antoine Dupont will miss the tournament, to concentrate on the Olympics, France has depth for days.
Ireland, meanwhile, will have a new fly-half running the cutter.
9: Bolter at halfback
One of the Wallabies’ shortcomings in 2023 was goal-kicking. To be fair, it’s been an Achilles heel for years, with consistency alluding Australian rugby for decades.
Compare that to South Africa’s Handre Pollard who lives for the pressure moments. Ditto, Owen Farrell.
Ryan Lonergan’s goal-kicking is a genuine strength and how he shares the responsibilities with Noah Lolesio will be fascinating at the Brumbies.
But regardless of who kicks during the Super season, Lonergan’s kicking strength could prove vital in the Test arena. His strong pass would also free up some more time for his playmaker.
Lonergan’s leadership skills are extremely well-regarded, too.
The halfback position is just one of several positions wide open, with Teddy Wilson to emerge as another competent option in the role.
10: Eddie not far off the mark at fly-half
Quade Cooper has made it known he still hopes to pull on the gold jersey again, but is it time to look beyond the 35-year-old?
Jones wasn’t wrong to back Carter Gordon for the No.10 jersey in 2023. He just probably needed to out an experienced playmaker in with him, particularly in the absence of some rugby coaching nous in France.
Gordon should be stronger for the experience of playing at a World Cup, after going from playing in front of mostly empty stadiums to running the show in front of packed crowds baying for Wallaby blood.
By playing behind a Rebels pack that has plenty of muscle and size, Gordon has to lead the Rebels to at minimum a top-six position. If he does, and learns how to win, the Wallabies No.10 jersey will be his.
11: Randwick to go back-to-back
In his first year in charge, former Wallaby turned coach Stephen Hoiles led Randwick to their first Shute Shield title in 20 years. They’ll go back-to-back.
They’ll beat Scott Wisemantel’s Hunter Wildfires in the final.
In Brisbane’s Hospital Cup, Mick Heenan’s Bond University will beat Brothers.
12: Leinster back on top
The United Rugby Championship has quickly emerged as one of the best competitions and it’s only going from strength to strength.
The inclusion of South Africa’s sides has given the competition an extra edge, while the improvement from Italy’s sides means there are few easy matches.
The Stormers will rise through the rankings as the season progresses and the Bulls will go deep, but Leinster’s incredible depth will allow them to be primed late in the competition. What’s more, they’ll do the double and win the Heineken Cup.
13: Saracens too good, again
Dan McKellar’s move to Leicester has given more reasons for Australians to pay attention to the English Premiership, but Saracens will get the job done again.
Owen Farrell’s decision to step away from international rugby will help Saracens throughout the Six Nations tournament.
14: La Rochelle back on top
They lost it late to Toulouse in an epic French Top 14 final, but Ronan O’Gara’s men will be too good this season.
They’ve started slowly but that’s no great surprise given the great number of players who were involved in the World Cup that have come back slowly.
Siya Kolisi’s Racing 92, who are well coached by Stuart Lancaster, will be a force, as will Bordeaux, while Toulouse will be there and thereabouts despite Dupont’s availability not entirely clear as he puts his sights on playing at the Olympics.
15: Rise of Japanese League One continues
The sooner Australian and New Zealand officials decide to include representation from Japan for their own Heineken Cup-esque competition the better, but the Japanese League One competition will continue to turn heads.
The influx of players to the competition following the World Cup has slightly shifted the balance of power.
Traditional powerhouses the Wild Knights and Sungoliath will continue to challenge, but Mo’unga’s arrival at Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo has already seen a new power emerge.
The combination of Smith and Beauden Barrett at Toyota Verblitz will see them regularly compete, while Dave Rennie’s Kobe will also make the final four.
The champion? Mo’unga’s Lupus.