CAPE TOWN – A shortened version of the Rugby Championship starts this weekend, and teams will be looking to strike telling blows before the World Cup in Japan. Our rugby writers take a look at the chances of the four contenders.
South Africa (Jacques van der Westhuyzen)
1. Why they could win it
Not for a long time has the Bok squad been so balanced; there is experience, but youthfulness, too. Coach Rassie Erasmus will use two different teams, of equal strength, to tackle the Wallabies and All Blacks on back-to-back weekends, giving the squad an excellent chance of picking up two wins. And Argentina, in the last game, could be flat after a demanding Super Rugby campaign.
2. Why they could lose it
The Boks, with a number of potential new combinations, might be cold and error-prone in their first game against the Wallabies, and the same could happen a week later, against the All Blacks in Wellington, when a completely new team takes to the field. Chopping and changing a team from one week to the next does nothing for continuity and momentum.
3. Hot shot to watch
Kwagga Smith is expected to start in one of the first two Tests and possibly also against Argentina, in Beunos Aires, and could be the surprise package. He’s coming off a superb Super Rugby campaign, is comfortable in any back-row position, and has all the skills and pace to be of real value to the Boks. As starter or sub, he’s got X-factor.
The All Blacks will probably win it because it is what they do! Since 1996, when this competition started as the Tri Nations, the New Zealanders have won the title 16 times in 23 attempts; Australia have won four times and South Africa trails behind with just three titles while Argentina, who joined in 2012, have yet to get off the mark.
2. Why they could lose it
The All Blacks tend to take their eye off the Rugby Championship ball in World Cup years. In 2011, the year they won the World Cup on home soil, they had earlier in the year surrendered their Championship title to Australia.
3. Hot shot to watch:
Richie Mo’unga. Imagine having the luxury of being able to choose between two-time World Rugby player of the Year Beaudon Barrett and the world’s most in-form flyhalf, Richie Mo’unga? Better still, imagine being able to use both of them in one game. Barrett will start, but All Black coach Steve Hansen will surely add Mo’unga magic in the second half.
Quite frankly, there’s not much on the technical, tactical or form side of things that would give the Australians the favourites tag. But as the old adage goes, beware the wounded beast. The Wallabies aren’t expected to win the Rugby Championship or the World Cup, and that lack of pressure or just might count in their favour.
2 Why they could lose it
If you look at their recent results, it would be safe to assume that the Wallabies are desperately low on confidence. It’s highly unlikely that their poor Test results of recent years are going to see a drastic change come the Rugby Championship, and their preparation and overall vibe couldn’t have been positively influenced by off-the-field happenings this year.
3 Hot shot to watch
Flyhalf Christian Leali’ifano’s comeback is an inspiring story, and his Super Rugby form was a very pleasing sight in another rather bleak season for the Aussies. He’s been consistent, his Super Rugby productions have been sensational and the way he guided the Brumbies to the top of the Australian conference was fine.
Will Genia: Keeping barbers in business since 1999!
Farewell Genia and his many haircuts at Suncorp Stadium as the #Wallabies take on Argentina on Saurday 27 July.
The Jaguares’ maiden appearance in a Super Rugby final is enough reason to take Argentina seriously.
The majority of the national team is made up of players who featured in their successful Super Rugby campaign. They will go into the Rugby Championship as a well-oiled machine with some European players like Nicolas Sanchez adding star quality to the side.
Los Pumas will have the added belief they can trump Australia, New Zealand and South Africa after the Jaguares beat Super Rugby franchises from all three countries away from home.
2. Why they could lose it:
Super Rugby form may not translate to Rugby Championship success with Los Pumas facing the best each nation has to offer.
Since Argentina was included in the tournament in 2012, they have won only five matches and drawn one. Three of their victories and the draw were against South Africa, while they have beaten Australia twice. The odds still favour their southern hemisphere counterparts, but they have closed the gap in recent years.
3. Hotshot to watch:
Los Pumas will welcome linchpin Nicolas Sanchez to the national team after spending the season with Stade Francais instead of the Jaguares.
Sanchez is one of the team’s most influential figures, both as a playmaker and as a points scorer. He was the leading points scorer (67) in the competition last year with four tries, 16 conversions, four penalty goals and a drop goal.