Following the short break after the conclusion of the Super Rugby season, international rugby returns to the Southern Hemisphere with the commencement of the revamped Tri-nations in the form of the Rugby Championship.
The addition of Argentina to the competition this season adds an element of excitement to what had become a slightly tired format in recent years.
Australia is the defending champion and host New Zealand in the first game of the new competition as well as the first game of the battle for the Bledisloe Cup in Sydney on Saturday evening. South Africa host the new boys, Argentina, at Cape Town in the early hours of Sunday morning (Australian time).
Game 1: Wallabies v All Blacks
The great rivalry of Southern Hemisphere rugby continues in the first game of the Rugby Championship with the Wallabies coming into this fixture off the back of a less than stellar campaign against Wales and Scotland, and their teams in the Super Rugby championship ending the season a whimper rather than a roar. The All Blacks on the other hand will be buoyed by their performances against the Irish during the June test break and by the fact that the Chiefs possess the mantle of Super Rugby champions.
The last fixture between these two teams was the semi-final of the World Cup last year which saw the All Blacks easily dispatch their cousins across the ditch. Indeed if one only considers statistics the All Blacks must be roaring favourites to win this game having held the Blesidloe Cup since 2003 and until the Wallabies victory at Suncorp Stadium last year having not been bested in Australia in the previous four encounters between the sides.
The Wallabies have made only two changes to the team that took the field against the Welsh in May and both of those changes have arisen off the back of injuries to Palu and McCabe with Dennis and Faingaa replacing them respectively. The side selected is, frankly, replete with New South Wales players which is concerning for all Wallabies fans given that provinces failure to win in their last 9 games of the Super 15 series. The Wallabies line-up has the look of a team that will be defensively strong whilst not setting the world on fire in attack. Barnes, Faingaa and Horne will need to find attacking flair that has escaped them in previous test matches to get the ball to the likes of Ashley-Cooper, Ioane and Beale. Equally, the backline will have little roll to play if the Wallabies forwards cannot win more than their share of set pieces and at the breakdown so the performance of Timani and Sharpe in the line out and Pocock and Higginbotham at the break down will be absolutely vital.
The All Blacks have named a very strong side on paper with a mixture of stars of Bledisloe’s past and players of the future in their line up. They will again rely upon the brilliance of their talismatic super stars McCaw and Carter to lead them around the park. Liam Messen and Luke Romano have been rewarded for excellent Super Rugby seasons and join a very experienced forward back that welcomes the return of Kieran Read from injury at number 8. The back three for All Blacks in Gear, Jane and Dagg all possess electric speed and if the ball can get past Nonu and Williams to them at speed they could wreak havoc. The World Cup champions arrive in Sydney with only three changes to the side that won the World Cup and if they perform anywhere near the level of play they showed in the Worl Cup and against Ireland they will be tough to beat.
This game really presents a clash in styles between the defensive (looking) Wallabies and the attacking might of the All Blacks. For the Wallabies to be a chance to restrain the All Black’s juggernaut they must stop them from scoring tries and must frustrate them into making enough mistakes to allow for the Wallabies to score.
That said the All Blacks seem to have just a bit too much class across most positions and if parity is maintained in the forward battle it is difficult to see the Wallabies backline getting over the top of their counterparts. So, whilst the heart is telling me the Wallabies will win, I have no option but to tip the All Blacks to win this one and possibly to win well. All Blacks by 11.
Game 2: Springboks v Los Pumas
The Los Pumas have been added to the Rugby Championship this season and will come to Newlands Stadium with great hopes of causing an upset in their first fixture. They come into the game off the back of wins by their second string players over France and Italy as well as having recently completed a training camp in Pensacola, Florida, which will have left the Pumas in great shape. If they are to prove the naysayers, such as All Blacks coach Steve Hansen wrong through they will need to overcome their terrible record against South Africa whom they have never beaten.
Fly half Juan Martin Henandez returns to the Puma’s outfit after being on the outer for the last 3 years and be looking to form a smooth combination with Nicolas Vergallo the half back. Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe has been named captain for this fixture in what presents as the 35 year old’s last international campaign before retirement. In Rodrigo Roncero’s 50th game he will again form a vital part of the front row for the Pumas and it is in the front row that they will be looking to assert some level of dominance against the Springboks front row with a view to setting a platform for their backs to attack.
The Springboks come into this fixture off the back of an excellent Super Rugby campaign for three of their teams and a final appearance by the Sharks against the ultimate champion Chiefs. They also were excellent in their series victory against the English during the winter series and they have picked a very strong line-up with only five changes from the team that ran out against England in June.
The forward pack has a new look to it with Andres Bekker returning to the Springboks team in place of Juandre Kruger for his first test in two years, Keegan Daniel making his first start in Springbok colours and Willem Alberts returns to the flank in place of Jacques Potgieter. In the backline Zane Kirchner returns to the custodian role in place of Gio Aplon whilst Lwazi Mvovo replaces the injured JP Pietersen. Frans Steyn will also return to the lineup to play his 50th test in Springbok colours.
This is a team full of combinations that were successful in Super 15 competition with the front-row and loose forwards being from The Sharks, the locks play together for the Stormers and the half-backs are from the Bulls. These combinations will bode well for a Springboks line up that will be looking for an early big win to get them on their way in this season’s tournament.
With pace to burn in the backline, a massive forward pack and their metronomic kicker in Morne Steyn I cannot see the Springboks threatened in this fixture and am tipping them to get off to a flying start to the season. Springboks by 17.