The 16th of August is around the corner and all four teams are fine-tuning their game plans for the weekend. The Rugby Championship 2014 is very much different to that of last year. 2013 we saw a dominate New Zealand squad show the rugby world yet again why they have been the No. 1 test side for the past 5 years.
The global rugby landscape has changed and the duel to see which hemisphere is capable of producing the better quality of rugby is reignited. Statistically, the Southern hemisphere is leading the way as New Zealend, South Africa and Australia hold the top three spots respectively. On the other hand, we know the threat that France and England can pose on the big international stage.
Southern hemisphere teams have the edge against the Northern sides simply because they play a more expansive style of rugby – incorporating a wide running game, mixed with offensive plays from set pieces. This is definitely attributed at the level of tournaments SANZAR players are exposed to week-in week-out. Make no mistake, the boys from the North can hold their own physicality wise, and have solid set pieces; but the depth of players mixed with the standard of rugby in the likes of Super Rugby is far greater than what the North are show casing.
This Saturday, and the weeks to follow, are indefinitely going to be used as trial runs for the World Cup next year.
Firstly, congratulations to the Waratahs for winning the 2014 Super Rugby tittle for the first time in their history. It’s worth noting that the ‘Tahs had 14 starting international players in the final against the Crusaders. As much as the Australian outfit hasn’t collected any silverware lately, and their best results were the June tests where they convincingly put away the French, they make for strong contenders in this Championship.
Coach Ewen McKenzie and his troops will want to start the tournament on a good note as they challenge the All Blacks to the coveted Bledisloe Cup – another prize they have their eye on. They boast a talented side apart from the injured regulars. Michael Hooper has been selected to lead the side for their first encounter in Sydney and most likely the rest of the Championship.
The call to shift Kurtely Beale to number 10 ahead of the Bernard Foley is probably the biggest move out the Australian camp. Three of their hookers are out injured and McKenzie has had to dig deep to replace the regulars. We can expect to see some intensity and flair from the Wallabies, but one would think a little bit more than that is required to even challenge the star-studded Kiwis.
The last time we saw the Haka performed was a 3-0 Test series victory by the All Blacks against England. The series was a great battle to witness. It was full of running, tactical and brilliant individual rugby – a kind of game we’ve come to expect from New Zealand. It also illustrated that the No. 1 Test side in the world have weaknesses – and you can be sure the Wallabies will have had late nights conducting video analysis sessions.
Earlier in the week, Beauden Barrett told Allblacks.com that the Kiwis would be taking a defensive approach in their opener on Saturday. The All Blacks understand the threat the Aussies pose on attack and have mentioned that they want to display an effective kicking game. New Zealand have deprived the Aussies the Bledisloe cup for 11 straight years, but Chiefs and All Blacks lock Brodie Retallick mentioned the desire to keep the Bledisloe Cup is still very much present and that winning it was only second to the World Cup.
Following the decision by Saru to prevent all players selected in Heyneke Meyers 30 man squad from participating in the Currie Cup, the Saru has made it quite obvious that the goals and efforts of the Championship are based around the upcoming World Cup. The South African rugby society welcomes this decision. How often do we have to excuse our players and performance due to mismanagement of national players? This decision is a step in the right direction.
The starting Springbok line-up has a total of 620 test caps. More importantly, the coach has opted with a nice variety of youth with Lood de Jager, Handre Pollard and debutante Damien de Allende.
The Springboks always start the Championship with high hopes which is usually at the back of a good Super Rugby campaign from either of the South African franchises. As they are rated No. 2 in the world rankings, South Africa seem to stumble on one specific obstacle: the All Blacks.
The benchmark for any team in World rugby is playing and beating the current Rugby World Cup champions. Playing the All Blacks is usually the most effective way for a squad to gauge where they are, metaphorically speaking. We can expect the forward pack to put in some hard yards but what will be interesting to see is how Ruan Pienaar, Handre Pollard and the centers pair up.
Argentina will once again be the underdogs of the tournament, but the Pumas have made some progress since joining the Rugby Championship in 2012. Their physicality and skill has undoubtedly been raised – and playing against the world’s three best teams will do just that.
The one thing Argentina has struggled with is selection consistency. Coach Daniel Hourcade continues to mix up the combos to find the right fit to take on the likes of the Springboks, All Blacks and Wallabies; however, he is starting to find his in-form Test quality players.
The likes of Nicolás Sánchez, Lucas González Amorosino and captain Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe should provide enough stability and moments of individual brilliance to stand up to the Boks, for a while that is; but the South Americans are going to need a lot more to actually challenge any of the sides seriously.