Once more, New Zealand start the Rugby Championship as heavy favourites. Since the introduction of Argentina to the fold in 2012, they have won all but one title. However, the last time the sides competed in the truncated three match format, as they do in a world cup year, it was the Australians who triumphed.
That said, it is difficult to imagine the Wallabies recreating the form that saw them reach the World Cup final in 2015. They have not adequately replaced stalwarts of that side, such as Giteau and Ashley-Cooper, and, regardless of his distasteful off the field activities, Israel Folau is one of the worlds best and will be sorely missed.
New Zealand will also be missing integral elements missing in the shape of Sam Whitelock and Kieran Read, and there is a possibility Argentina may be able to spring a surprise on Saturday.
However, with Sam Cane set to captain the side in their absence, it is unlikely the back to back world champions will suffer from lack of leadership. Nevertheless, such was the strength of the Jaguares’ showing in Super Rugby, few would be shocked if the Pumas broke their duck against the All Blacks.
In Pablo Matera they have perhaps the worlds form backrow at the present moment, and with the readmission of European based Juan Figallo, Facunda Isa, Santiago Cordero and Nicholas Sanchez into the fray, following a relaxing of selection rules, Argentina have the ability to beat anyone.
For the All Blacks, the prospect of a starting midfield made up of Anton Lienert-Brown and Ngani Laumape is an exciting, explosive proposition. Ultimately, expect them to have too much class, too much experience for the rest of the chasing pack.
Steve Hansen was, though, well aware of the threat posed by the Pumas when speaking to the press this week, stating, “they’re a big pack, they’ve got a lot of confidence, and they’ve just had a little bit of adversity so will be somewhat more determined,”
“It would be a great way to get rid of the pain of losing the final if they beat us.”
Australia will travel to Ellis Park in the weekends other fixture, where they have not won for half a century. Given the disarray Australian rugby appears to have found itself in, it seems unlikely that this record will be broken this year.
Nevertheless, the return of David Pocock from injury offers hope, as does the news that Aphiwe Dyantyi, the dangerous South African winger, will miss the tournament through injury.
This year, the dynamic will perhaps shift somewhat in the sense that most people’s predictions to be the two weakest sides, Australia and Argentina, both host two home games, whilst New Zealand and South Africa, the stronger sides on paper, will be forced to travel more. With coaches also wary to keep their powder dry ahead of Japan, there is an element of uncertainty surrounding this years tournament, of the like we have not seen since 2015.
Written by Joe Ronan