With the regular season of super rugby coming to a close, it’s time to look forward to the rugby championship. This championship is arguably the showpiece rugby tournament of the southern hemisphere, and rightly so. Last year’s epic Ellis park encounter between the All Blacks and the Springboks was arguably the game of the decade.
A lot of questions surround this year’s edition: Will the All Blacks get beaten? Will the Wallabies spoil New Zealand’s winning streak party once again? Will Los Pumas actually chalk up a win? Can the Springboks pull further away from the rest of the world and closer to the All Blacks?
To be able to answer these questions, we’ll have a look at the individual nations that make up the Rugby Championship.
The winner of the past two editions, they will be gunning for nothing less than another grand slam. This All Black team can start making claims to being the best rugby team of all times. The current world cup holders have been going from strength to strength, nearly breaking the record for the longest winning streak by an international team ever, only to be denied by the wallabies. Last year, they completed the first ever unbeaten season by an international team. Is there any chance they won’t do so again this year?
The short answer: Yes. Australia has denied them this opportunity to write history before, and will be looking to do so again. The game where the All Blacks are set to break this record is versus Australia in Sydney, Where the support for rugby union has increased due to the current form of the Waratahs. The Wallabies should fancy their chances here, since it’d go a long way to securing the Bledisloe cup again, which hasn’t been in Australian hands since 2002.
South Africa, too, would be looking to avenge their defeats at the hands of the All Blacks last year. They looked ready to spring a surprise before Bismarck Du Plessis got controversially yellow carded. The following Ellis Park epic between these two sides was one of the best adverts for the game, and it will have given the Springboks the belief they can actually defeat the All Blacks.
Even though Los Pumas won’t be expecting to win against New Zealand, they shouldn’t be forgotten about. Especially when playing with home advantage, they have turned out to be formidable opposition.
Key player: Brodie Retallick can start making claims to be the very best lock in world rugby. He’s been a shining light for the chiefs in a season which had more dips and ducks than your average rollercoaster. Confrontational and physical, he’ll be a constant source of go forward ball and he will be instrumental in cutting down incoming attackers.
Expectation: Winner, but with possibly a loss to either Australia or South Africa, or potentially both.
This Wallabies team has been coming on in leaps and bounds. Whereas they were dire in last years rugby championship, they came good by the end of it with a dominant display against Los Pumas. They lost their game against England in the summer tour, but bounced back to beat all who played them in entertaining fashion. The incoming series against France were not really indicative of where the Wallabies are as a team now, since les bleus were dreadful.
Their first game against the All Blacks will be important to see where the men in gold are in the international ladder. However, with the Waratahs being unbeaten at home, and a lot of the Wallabies playing for this team, they will be relishing playing New Zealand at the ANZ stadium. Support has been renewed, and if the Waratahs go on to win the super rugby championship this could give them the psychological edge needed to beat the All Blacks.
South Africa will provide a stern examination. Since Heyneke Meyer’s Springboks are arguably the side the closest to NZ’s class, they will be out to prove this point by trouncing the aussies. However, I’d expect the Wallabies to win their home game, and to narrowly lose the game in South Africa.
Los Pumas have been unlucky against the Wallabies. They have come close to recording that elusive first win, but have never seemed able to do it. However, they are set to break their hoodoo sooner or later, and the Wallabies make a good candidate. They are well known to be rather inconsistent, and I can certainly see them drawing or dropping a game against the South American team.
Key player: Bernard Foley has size-able boots to fill. With Quade Cooper out with injury, the young playmaker will have to step up and announce himself as a player of the future. If he manages to get a backline firing which includes the likes of Matt Toomua, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Israel Folau, this team will be one to reckon with.
Expectation: Third with one win against each opponent, but winning back the Bledisloe will make them forget about the Pumas loss.
The Springboks came agonisingly close to defeating the All Blacks at Ellis Park and will fancy their chances to win the rugby championship. However, Heyneke Meyer’s insistence to pick older players might become their undoing, since they still rely on the likes of Victor Matfield, Fourie Du Preez and Bakkies Botha. Class players like Heinrich Brüssow and Francois Hougaard not getting a look in.
The South Africans have been playing a different brand of rugby in the last couple of matches, looking more expansive then they used to do. This game plan seems to bear fruit as they have only been beaten by the All Blacks last year. They will also be the team to beat this year. Although the game in Wellington may be a bridge to far, they will be keen to win at Ellis Park this year. Last year an early injury to Bryan Habana seemed to stop him from playing the best game of his career, so he will want to make amends and defeat the opponent that had seemed to be just a couple of steps ahead.
Ewen Mckenzie has never won against the Springboks so far. Although this may sound somewhat dramatic, we should keep in mind they have only played two games under his watch against this opposition. The Springboks do not fear the Wallabies and will be looking to outmuscle them in the setpiece. If Bernard Foley can get his backline firing, they will probably win at home, but the South Africans should comfortably win at home.
Los Pumas have run the South Africans close on multiple occasions. Although they were cut to shreds in the opener last year, they came back to nearly win their home game, only to have some controversial refereeing calls take it out of their reach. The springboks will want to avoid losing or drawing against the Argentineans, since doing so would severely dent their ambitions to raise the trophy. They are the only team to record a draw against Los Pumas, and will hope to not become the first one to record a loss as well. They are notoriously bad travelers, however, so the men in sky blue will fancy their chances in the hostile atmosphere of Salta.
Key player: Willie le Roux is the heartbeat of the Springbok attack. Give it to Willie has become a reasonable tactic, since the elusive runner can terrorise even the best defence in the world. A bit of a magician in attack, South Africa will hold their breath whenever he touches the ball. Negate le Roux and you negate the Springbok backline. Give him breathing space and he will tear anyone to shreds.
Expectation: Second with a loss against the All Blacks and the Wallabies.
Los Pumas’ admission to the showpiece event of the southern hemisphere hasn’t quite been the success that we’d have hoped for. Their glory days where they made it to the third place in the 2007 world cup has long gone, and due to their best players playing in the English or French league, they haven’t been able to gel.
A win will be hard to come by for the Argentineans, but they have steadily improved over the last couple of years. With a couple of promising youngsters coming through and an Argentinean franchise to play in super rugby, the future is looking bright.
However, the present does not look as bright. Now in their third season in the Rugby Championship, Los Pumas are still hunting that elusive win. Even though they have come very close against the Sprinkboks and the Wallabies and they even pressured the All Blacks, they are yet to come up with the results. Their best chance this year would be either Australia or South Africa at home, but even that would be a tough demand. Only time will tell how much they have improved over the last couple of months.
Key player:Martín Landajo is charged with the unenviable task of making the Argentinean public forget about a certain player called Felipe Contepomi. While doing so, he will also need to unleash a talented but inexperienced backline in a team that is notorious for playing 10-man rugby.
Expectation: Last with a win against either Australia or South Africa.