Ollie Ritchie: Where will Scott Robertson end up? Can anyone stop the Crusaders? Ireland as world champions? Predictions for 2023 year of rugby

OPINION: The next 12 months shape as a pivotal time for rugby - both at home and overseas.

A Super Rugby season, World Cup and inevitable coaching merry-go-round to follow will lead to storylines galore in the oval-ball code.

Here's what fans, players and coaches can expect: 

Crusaders win Super Rugby again, moving Scott Robertson's ascension to the All Blacks top job a step closer

Every season in charge of the Crusaders since assuming the job in 2017, Scott Robertson has led the side to a title. There's no reason to think it won't happen for a historic seventh time this year. 

Robertson has much of the same cattle, and a terrific balance between experience and youth. This will be the last year in red and black for star first-five Richie Mo'unga, who has shone for the Crusaders in Super Rugby, but also it shapes as stalwart Sam Whitelock's swansong. 

The franchise won't lack motivation to send these club legends off with another title. 

Will anyone be able to stop a seventh title in seven years for the Crusaders?
Will anyone be able to stop a seventh title in seven years for the Crusaders? Photo credit: Photosport

There's also the small matter of Robertson continuing to enhance his own coaching stocks (not that he has anything to prove) with international opportunities beckoning. 

With so much to play for, it's tough to see them being toppled in 2023. I'm also tipping the Crusaders to host the Chiefs in the final. 

The Chiefs are a team that have shown immense potential, with a coach who will get the best out of them in Clayton McMillan. They'll also welcome back Damian McKenzie and have a fit-again Anton Lienert-Brown in their stocks.

Ireland win Rugby World Cup, create more history at the All Blacks' expense with first quarter-final victory

France deserve to be favourites for September's World Cup at home, but pressure and expectation can do funny things to teams, and I'm not sure this French side - as good as they are - can quite overcome it just yet. 

Ireland have proved they have the players and the coaches to beat any team in the world. 

Few gave them a chance of creating history last year with a first series win on Kiwi soil, but Andy Farrell's side not only beat the All Blacks, they completely sucked the life out of them and forced a major review that ultimately saw the sacking of assistant coaches John Plumtree and Brad Mooar

Ireland are looking to peak at the right time come the Rugby World Cup in France.
Ireland are looking to peak at the right time come the Rugby World Cup in France. Photo credit: Getty Images

I have the two sides meeting again at the quarter-final stages of the World Cup, with Ireland ultimately prevailing and going all the way for the first time. 

You can also lock in Farrell to lead the British & Irish Lions on their tour to Australia in 2025.

Ian Foster to bow out on his terms, Scott Robertson to land All Blacks job from 2024

Speaking of international coaches… 

The major storyline in NZ Rugby this year will revolve around three things - who, when and how? The 'who' should be relatively straightforward. 

There are really only two options for All Blacks head coach - Robertson or Jamie Joseph. Even if Ian Foster can pull off a World Cup victory, NZ Rugby is unlikely to throw its weight behind him for another four years. 

It has already signalled it may break from tradition and move early to have the next coaching group in place before the World Cup kicks off in September. 

Scott Robertson.
Scott Robertson. Photo credit: Getty Images

fWhether that is announced publicly remains to be seen, as NZR will be acutely aware of the risks of destabilising the All Blacks' World Cup campaign by announcing change too early. Regardless, the early talk of a pre-World Cup move spells bad news for Foster. 

Newshub understands NZR is softening its stance around the need for international experience when it comes to the next coach, meaning Robertson should be in pole position to take over. 

Let's not forget Foster has been part of the All Blacks coaching group since 2012, has won a World Cup as an assistant and while he's struggled to take the All Blacks to the same heights as head coach, he deserves the chance to bow out on his terms. 

I expect this option to be offered to Foster.

Beauden Barrett to sign a unique contract that sees him play in France in 2024/25, before returning to New Zealand in 2026 for a fourth World Cup

Whoever ends up coaching the All Blacks in 2024 will have an immediate problem on their hands - what to do at first-five? 

With Mo'unga confirming a move to Japan on a three-year deal from 2024, he will be ineligible for the All Blacks. 

I also expect Barrett to take up a lucrative offer to play in France - something the 112-test All Black would richly deserve - but I sense we may see something a bit different, with Barrett signing a two-year contract, before returning to New Zealand. 

Beauden Barrett.
Beauden Barrett. Photo credit: Getty Images

Essentially, NZR could offer Barrett a two-year sabbatical after the World Cup - he would also be ineligible for the All Blacks in this period - before locking in a 2026 return. 

Barrett would gain the experience of playing overseas (and the cheque that comes with it), but keeps the playmaker in the All Blacks plans for the 2027 World Cup, ensuring the side have key experience in such an important position. 

But without both Barrett and Mo'unga in 2024/25, the All Blacks will be dangerously light at 10. 

Stephen Perofeta and Damian McKenzie both shape as potential candidates, but with the jersey being so heavily dominated by Barrett and Mo'unga for the last five years, a significant adjustment period will be needed.

Eddie Jones to re-join Wallabies for Rugby World Cup

You just get the sense Jones will have a part to play in this year's World Cup and it may well be with his old Wallabies side in some kind of mentoring role. Rugby Australia has openly committed to Dave Rennie through to the World Cup, which is not to say chief executive Andy Marinos and chairman Hamish McLennan won't panic and cut ties early, but it certainly seems unlikely. 

Eddie Jones will be hot property for the Rugby World Cup.
Eddie Jones will be hot property for the Rugby World Cup. Photo credit: Getty Images

Despite being sacked by the RFU with a year still to run on his contract, Jones will remain hot property and Rugby Australia could find a way to get him involved in the Wallabies set-up for the Rugby World Cup, opening the door for him to return as Rennie's replacement afterwards. 

Watch this space.

Scotland attempt to pluck star Super Rugby coach

The international coaching merry-go-round is far from over and Scotland are another side on the lookout for a new coach from 2024, with Gregor Townsend signalling he'll stand down after the World Cup. 

Don't be surprised to see several top Kiwi contenders as potential replacements. 

Let's start with the obvious one. If Robertson is overlooked once again for the All Blacks job, he will be top of the list, which would be a chance for him to introduce his quirky style on a team that have long been near the back of the pack in Europe.

If he can turn Scotland's fortunes around, he'll be back to the top of the list to one day land the All Blacks job he's always dreamed of. 

If not Robertson, then who? Leon MacDonald, come on down.

That would be a fascinating scenario and you can bet Scotland rugby bosses would be keen to connect with MacDonald over the opportunity. 

The timing works out nicely, with the Blues coach on the last year of his NZ Rugby deal. 

The sticking point here is MacDonald is on Robertson's ticket for the All Blacks job and should his old Crusaders teammate land the top gig, the Blues mastermind would unlikely give up the opportunity to join him. 

But several Super Rugby coaches will be in wait-and-see mode this year, depending on what NZ Rugby decides to do with the All Blacks job. Should an offer emerge to lead an international side, it may be too tempting to pass up. 

Ollie Ritchie is Newshub's rugby reporter