Following a shortened format in 2015 due to an upcoming World Cup, the Rugby Championship proper returns this year with Australia holders.
Just three games per team took place last season as the Wallabies managed to prevail in all three, defeating the All Blacks in the final match.
But in 2016 we are back to teams facing each other both home and away, with world champions New Zealand the bookmakers’ favourites to win.
On paper the All Blacks should get their hands back on the Rugby Championship trophy, which would make it four wins in the last five years. Australia are next in line with the so-called experts while South Africa aren’t far behind them, with Argentina the rank outsiders to lift the title.
Steve Hansen’s side will of course enter their first competition since the likes of Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu and several others hung up their international boots. But still they look the main protagonists as Ardie Savea, Beauden Barrett, Dane Coles, Ben Smith and co. have looked in top form during Super Rugby. The only area of concern for them is centre where Ryan Crotty and Malakai Fekitoa need to fire.
Another hint of slight worry is the form of Julian Savea, but doubters would be foolish to forget his game was questioned before the World Cup, a tournament he went on to finish top of the try chart. It would not be surprising to see this left wing recapture his scoring touch.
The Wallabies are somewhat at a crossroads at the moment. Beaten 3-0 at home to England was a defeat that rocked them to their core but in come Adam Ashley-Cooper, Matt Giteau, Will Genia, Drew Mitchell and Quade Cooper as they hope to bounce back, starting in Sydney this week.
On paper they have a strong line-up but one wonders about the aforementioned quintet’s readiness for action as they are still just winding up for their club seasons in Europe. If they’re rusty in Saturday’s opener New Zealand will make them pay, making it then an uphill battle for the rest of August, September and October as they head to Wellington next week. Getting out of the blocks quickly is therefore crucial.
Shots have already been fired between Hansen and Michael Cheika which hints that the pressure is on, more so Australia after June’s losses.
From one intriguing opener and tournament prospects to another as South Africa host Argentina, two teams who have largely been written off.
South Africa certainly has the forward pack to challenge and the same can be said of the Pumas but after disappointing Super Rugby seasons – minus the Lions of course – both nations need to up their game significantly if they’re to threaten the All Blacks for 2016’s silverware.
Those Lions have been a breath of fresh air in South Africa over the past two years but calls for the Boks to adopt their game-plan appear to have fallen on deaf ears. Warren Whiteley, Faf de Klerk and Elton Jantjies though do look set to be the 8, 9 and 10 after recent injury problems hit Allister Coetzee’s squad so we do expect an extra edge to their attacking play, which should hopefully put more bums on seats.
Finally and to the enigma that is Argentina who have been priced as 80/1 underdog with one bookmaker. Not one year ago the Pumas finished fourth at the World Cup but what has followed in Super Rugby for the Jaguares – a squad full of internationals – has left many scratching their head. On their day though they have the class to trouble anyone in world rugby so don’t be surprised if they claim a couple of wins.
In summary it could be a runaway title for the All Blacks with the fight for second far less clear cut. Key matches will come between the Wallabies and Boks in Brisbane (September 10) and Pretoria (October 1), with perhaps the biggest fallout from the tournament being which coach feels the most heat; Cheika or Coetzee? For Argentina, they should relish the challenge as they look to recapture their 2015 form.
Rugby Championship Prediction
1 New Zealand
2 South Africa
Saturday, August 20: Australia v New Zealand in Sydney
Saturday, August 20: South Africa v Argentina in Nelspruit
Saturday, August 27: New Zealand v Australia in Wellington
Saturday, August 27: Argentina v South Africa in Salta
Saturday, September 10: New Zealand v Argentina in Hamilton
Saturday, September 10: Australia v South Africa in Brisbane
Saturday, September 17: New Zealand v South Africa in Christchurch
Saturday, September 17: Australia v Argentina in Perth
Saturday, October 1: South Africa v Australia in Pretoria
Saturday, October 1: Argentina v New Zealand in Buenos Aires
Saturday, October 8: South Africa v New Zealand in Durban
Saturday, October 8: Argentina v Australia in London
Will Australia retain their title? Or can New Zealand, South Africa or Argentina take it away from them? Let us know – email@example.com