SYDNEY, Australia - New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Argentina launch the seventh edition of the Rugby Championship on Saturday, a series won by the All Blacks in five of the six previous years. Whether they can maintain this dominance has become a key talking point.
Can the All Blacks be beaten?
The back-to-back world champions have only lost twice in 33 Rugby Championship games but the South Africans always feel confident and the Australians sense the All Blacks are vulnerable, especially in the series opener in Sydney on Saturday.
The Wallabies notably beat the All Blacks in their final game of the 2015 championship to win the crown, and have their tails up after beating them again the last time they met 10 months ago. By the numbers, the All Blacks record won 30, drew one, lost two, Australia 15-3-15, South Africa 14-3-16 and Argentina 3-1-29. In the Tri-Nations, before Argentina joined in, New Zealand won 50 of 72 games and 10 of 16 championships.
Will the high ball create further controversy?
The rules surrounding how the high ball should be enforced remain an enigma despite controversy during the June Tests. Frenchman Benjamin Fall's red card for toppling Beauden Barrett in a mid-air collision was quickly rescinded, but the yellow card for Australia's Israel Folau after a similar incident against Ireland remained. Expect all four teams to use aerial bombardment early to get a read on how the referees react to any clash of bodies.
How will next year's World Cup impact the tournament?
While winning the championship remains at the forefront of weekly training, all four coaches also have an eye on the 2019 World Cup and fine-tuning an array of combinations will rank high in their planning. The All Blacks and Springboks are in the same pool and meet first up in Japan next year. Australia want to go one better than being beaten finalists in 2015, while Argentina need to show they are closing in on at least a top-six ranking.
It's all on the line this Saturday as @RugbyNamibia face @OfficialKRU for a place in Pool B at Rugby World Cup 2019
The loser will join the #RWC2019 repechage, in Marseille this November with @RugbyCanada, @HongKongRugby
and @DRVRugby pic.twitter.com/0oP4phB8vl
Will Hooper and Barret justify their selections?
The pressure is on Michael Hooper to prove he is worth being Australia's six-million dollar man with his lucrative new contract. Critics have already questioned the deal, pointing to Hooper's record for receiving more yellow cards than any other top-tier player. All Blacks fly-half Beauden Barrett needs to prove he is a class above Richie Mo'unga who was the form pivot in Super Rugby. With Duane Vermeulen unavailable, South Africa have pinned their hopes on Siya Kolisi as their prime fetcher. The key issue for Argentina, who lost all six games last year, is whether new coach Mario Ledesma can revive them.