The eighth edition of The Rugby Championship, the southern hemisphere’s answer to the Six Nations, kick’s off this Saturday.
The question on everyone’s lips is this – can anyone blunt the magnificent All Black machine? New Zealand head into the tournament looking for a record fourth title in a row. Since the competition was expanded to four teams to include Argentina in 2012, the Kiwis have only once not finished as champions. That was back in 2015 when Australia took the crown.
But with the All Blacks ranked as the top nation in the world, the current World Cup holders and boasting a squad stacked with a potent blend of youth, experience, speed, size and skill, they will take some beating.
In their 116-year history they an awesome 77.41% win rate and took out both the 2011 World Cup and the 2015 event. Last year they lost just twice out of 14 Test matches. They are not invincible, but not far from it either.
As they prepare for the 2019 Rugby Championship, and to defend the World Cup in Japan later this year, they will usher in some new blood. Sevu Reece, Super Rugby’s top try-scorer, and his Crusaders teammate Braydon Ennor, will make their debuts against Argentina this weekend.
Three other rookies will make their debuts in Buenos Aires. They will be without key quintet Keiran Read, Sam Whitelock, Owen Franks, Joe Moody and Ryan Crotty, who have been rested. But there is still an abundance of veterans and world-class operators to lead the way in Brodie Retallick, Dane Coles, Same Cane, Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett. It’s a frightening array of weapons.
The All Blacks have never lost a match against Argentina, and that record is likely to continue tomorrow. But don’t write off the Pumas completely. Argentine rugby is on the rise, as shown by the Jaguares reached the Super Rugby final this year.
Backs Emiliano Boffelli, Sebastian Cancelliere, Tomas Cubelli, and Joaquin Diaz Bonilla, as well as forwards Marcos Kremer and Tomas Lavanini, are all potential match-winners. On home soil they will be difficult to break down and while they have slipped down the rankings to tenth in the world, they are no easybeats.
South Africa and Australia will present the biggest challenge to the All Blacks, but both are in admitted rebuilding phases. Both have dropped to fifth and sixth in the rankings, respectively, and Wallabies coach Michael Cheika was lucky not to lose his job after a disastrous 2018. Springboks boss Rassie Erasmus is only his second year at the helm and will be hoping for a better return than last year, after recording only seven victories from 14 victories.
While New Zealand and Argentina get it on in South America, South Africa and Australia will lock horns in Johannesburg. Interestingly, the Boks have decided to rest most of their best players for their round two clash against the All Blacks. A Springbok ‘B’ side, including Eben Etzebeth, Elton Jantjies, Warrick Gelant, S’busiso Nkosi, Makazole Mapimpi, Andre Esterhuizen and Jesse Kriel, will take on the Aussies.
The likes of Fly-half Handre Pollard, fullback Willie le Roux, hooker Malcolm Marx and prop Steven Kitshoff have been left out and sent ahead to New Zealand. It’s a risky strategy and one that could back-fire big-time as a show of disrespect to the green and gold.
There’s no denying the Wallabies have been crisis over the past 12 months. All of their provincial teams in Super Rugby have been dire, apart from the Brumbies, and now they have lost the services of their talisman, Israel Folau, after his social media scandal ended in his sacking. Australian rugby fans are craving some good news and positive results.
Much will be revealed in this opener against South Africa. The Wallabies have brought back James O’Connor and Nic White from England, and they will give their attack a much-needed boost, while old heads Michael Hooper, Bernard Foley and Will Genia remain.
It will be intriguing how young guns Tom Banks, Harry Johnson-Holmes and experienced forward Isi Naisarani, all making their debuts on Saturday, fare. Australia badly needs some fresh impetus to give it a new edge and additional firepower.
With the All Blacks in the driver’s seat, this is their Rugby Championship to lose. But in both previous World Cup years, in 2011 and 2015, they lost the Rugby Championship and then went on to win the World Cup. Will history repeat itself? We wait to find out.