Championship preview: New Zealand

Date published: July 14 2015

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We preview each of the team's prospects ahead of the upcoming Rugby Championship. First up, it's reigning champions New Zealand.

Can the All Blacks make it four titles in a row? On the back of an all-New Zealand Super Rugby final they are rightly favourites but with trips to South Africa and Australia, don't expect an easy ride as Steve Hansen looks to whittle down his squad in time for their Rugby World Cup tilt.

Last year: They didn't get off to the best start as a 12-12 draw with the Wallabies in Sydney was a surprise, but in Round Two they found their swagger against Australia in Auckland, running out 51-20 winners thanks to a six-try effort. It was then off to Napier in Round Three where the Pumas gave them a tough game in an eventual 28-9 win. The following week saw New Zealand edge South Africa 14-10 in Wellington before they put the cherry on the top of their Rugby Championship crown by overcoming Argentina 34-13 in La Plata. Julian Savea topped the try chart with four.

This year: As mentioned it's going to be a tough ask to go three wins from three in 2015 in the shortened format of the competition. Following hosting Argentina in Christchurch, they travel to Johannesburg and then Sydney for tricky matches against the Springboks and Wallabies. Factor in head coach Hansen being keen to see most, if not all of his 41 players, and building combinations and fluidity could be more difficult than New Zealand usual find. The vast majority expect a comfortable win to open things before tournament-defining games against their bitter rivals.

Key players: He was the general of the Highlanders' Super Rugby title success and Aaron Smith is likely to be asked to do a similar job in the black jersey this season for the Rugby Championship and the World Cup. An outstanding organiser who sniffs weaknesses in opposition defences – whether that be via his pinpoint passing or fine running game. If he can combine with either Dan Carter and Beauden Barrett, the likes of wing Waisake Naholo could transfer his own Super Rugby form onto the international stage. In-form inside centre Ma'a Nonu is also vital to the team.

Players to watch: If he gets a decent opportunity then Nehe Milner-Skudder is worth the entrance fee (or TV subscription) alone. His electric feet troubled defences all season in Super Rugby and it is expected that he and Naholo will battle for the number fourteen jersey due to Cory Jane's dip in form. Brodie Retallick will of course stand out up front while Kieran Read needs to recapture his best form after a spell out of the game with concussion. It's fair to say that the number eight isn't firing on all cylinders and might come under pressure from Jerome Kaino should Hansen decide to go with Liam Messam on the blindside. Also keep an eye out for the form lock of Super Rugby this year, James Broadhurst.

Prospects: The All Blacks should have enough firepower in their attacking game to pick up at least two wins from three and a fourth successive Rugby Championship trophy. They will be desperate to seal a bonus-point win over Argentina to begin their charge and then changes in personnel are expected on the road as they travel the 11,500km to Johannesburg. A week off before playing Australia in Sydney is a boost in terms of the recovery for players and we just feel they boast the strongest options and most game-changers to unlock defences. First place for New Zealand.

Fixtures:

Fri, 17 July v Argentina (Christchurch)
Sat, 25 July v South Africa (Johannesburg)
Sat, 8 Aug v Australia (Sydney)

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