DURBAN – The 2017 Rugby Championship promises to be one of the more intriguing showdowns between the four Sanzaar countries for many a year.
That is so given that three of the nations are in a state of flux, while perennial champions New Zealand had their invincibility questioned by the British and Irish Lions.
The one thing we have learned over the years is that Super Rugby form is not always a guarantor of how a country will perform, although it can often be a pointer. Regional teams can battle in Super Rugby only for a national composite team to come good under a national coach.
This year’s Championship is shaping up to be a cracker and could be one of the closer events for some time.
The back-to back World Cup winners won 47 consecutive matches on home soil before the Lions beat them in the second Test of their June series, and then the tourists had the effrontery to draw the “decider” at hallowed Eden Park.
Unquestionably, the drawn series was interpreted by New Zealanders as a “loss” and a “victory” by the Lions.
Inevitably, the Kiwis will take that series result as a clarion call to raise their game to a higher level, to banish any possible vestiges of complacency and re-impose themselves on world rugby.
How dare the Lions question their supremacy...?
Unfortunately for South Africa, Australia and Argentina, a visibly shaken All Blacks side is going to rebound with a vengeance, and with respect to the other three countries, this Championship could end up being about who comes second to New Zealand, unless the Boks, Wallabies and Pumas can raise their games to new levels, having seen that the All Blacks can be beaten.
Sonny Bill Williams: The heavyweight boxer, former Rugby League star and All Blacks centre is one of sport’s larger-than-life figures.
His sending off in the second Test against the Lions was regarded as game-changing and the master of the off-load is going to be in hungry mood to redress the damage he will feel he inflicted on his country by his moment of shoulder-charging madness.
Questions have been asked about the strength of the French team that toured here in June, especially in the first Test when they were short of a number of first-choice players, but the Springboks played even better in the second and third Tests, and there can be no denying that a clean sweep of France signals that the Boks have turned the corner after the horrors of 2016.
Coach Allister Coetzee has learned the hard way and this year the spine of the Bok team from the very first Test was comprised of in-form Lions players from South Africa’s in-form Super Rugby team.
The Boks this year are playing with a distinctive game plan (after the muddled performances of 2016), they have confidence, smiles on their faces and they have momentum.
They also have a more experienced and composed back-room staff, notably including Brendan Venter (defence).
Jan Serfontein: The 2012 World Junior Player of the Year has yet to reach his potential, but in June against France, there were signs that he is not far off.
In 2016 he was sidelined by a wrist injury and probably only got his chance against France because of injuries to in-form No 12s such as Rohan Janse van Rensburg, but boy, did he grab the opportunity to show what he can do to defences.
The Jaguares were much improved in their second season of Super Rugby, which is a good sign for the Pumas, who are pretty much the Jaguares in sky blue and white disguise.
But this is also slightly misleading because there is no doubt that Agustin Creevy’s men grow an inch or two when they pull on their national colours and national coach Danial Hourcade seems to be able to get more out of his players on the international stage than his counterpart at Super Rugby level.
The Latin temperament and the deeply rooted patriotism of the Argentinians contributes significantly to this.
The Pumas came fourth in the 2015 World Cup playing a new style of attacking rugby (encouraged by consultant former All Blacks coach Graham Henry) and they continue to grow in a style of rugby that suits their disposition.
They will continue to play positive rugby and will target the Springboks in Salta, where they have had success against the Boks, and the Wallabies in Mendoza.
Martin Landajo: The 29-year-old scrumhalf has proved a worthy heir to legendary Puma Agustin Pichot and is a 70-cap veteran for his country.
He is the catalyst for the attacking rugby the Pumas are intent on playing. He is exceptional at reading the game and probing defences to target where best to attack.
Rugby sentiment is at an all-time low in Australia after their Super Rugby sides were swept aside, notably by the Kiwi teams that won every single game against Australian teams.
In June, the Wallabies struggled against touring Scotland and lost one of the Tests to the tourists.
There is unhappiness in Australia over the axing of the Western Force and even talk of players striking as a result.
The heartening news for Wallabies fans is that coach Michael Cheika is a supreme motivator and will believe he only needs the best 15 players, plus substitutes, from the ravaged Super Rugby franchises to build a strong national side.
In 1998, South Africa had one of their worst Super 12 years, but Nick Mallett built a Bok team that won the Tri-Nations.
Cheika, a fierce competitor, will have had the Wallabies for a month before their first game, against the All Blacks in Sydney, and will whipping his underdogs into a frenzy.
Michael Hooper: The new Wallabies captain was often a lone figure in the front line of the desperately disappointing Waratahs side this year. He tackled himself to a standstill and won many a turnover.
The Waratahs just did not have the quality of player or the belief in their coaching staff to raise their game as a unit. Hooper is the kind of lead-from-the-front player who will get more out of better company.
1. New Zealand
2. South Africa
August 19: Australia v New Zealand, Sydney; South Africa v Argentina, Port Elizabeth
August 26: New Zealand v Australia, Dunedin; Argentina v South Africa, Salta
September 9: New Zealand v Argentina, New Plymouth; Australia v South Africa, Perth
September 16: New Zealand v South Africa, Albany; Australia v Argentina, Canberra
September 30: Argentina v New Zealand, Buenos Aries; South Africa v Australia, Bloemfontein
October 7: Argentina v Australia, Mendoza; South Africa v New Zealand, Cape Town