Preview: Rugby Championship

Date published: July 16 2015

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Although the 2015 Rugby Championship will take place in the context of a World Cup year, that won't dampen the intensity of the world's fiercest competition.

With the globe's top three teams involved, it's often said that winning the Rugby Championship is harder than winning the World Cup since it's possible to be crowned world champions without facing the top-ranked countries, as South Africa showed in 2007.

The Webb Ellis Trophy nevertheless remains the biggest prize in the game and the build-up to the global showpiece is set to overshadow the southern hemisphere's annual competition as all four coaches use the competition as preparation for the showdown in England later this year.

But, unlike the warm-up 'friendly' games the northern hemisphere teams will play in August, these will be full-blooded Tests with silverware on the line in an abbreviated edition of the Rugby Championship, so coaches must juggle the responsibility of honouring proud traditions while using the next month as an invaluable opportunity to test combinations.

Australia were crowned Tri-Nations champions in 2011 as Quade Cooper and Will Genia took their hot form for then Super Rugby champions the Reds to the international scene, but the Wallabies fell short in the semi-finals of the World Cup a few months later.

Likewise, New Zealand took the southern hemisphere title in 2007 before being knocked out in the quarter-finals of the World Cup.

Super Rugby form has seldom been an accurate indicator of international prospects but it's very hard to ignore the impressive season from the Kiwi sides, who were truly dominant while playing a very attractive brand of rugby with Highlanders scrum-half Aaron Smith the standout player in the world right now. 

TEAM-BY-TEAM PREVIEWS: ArgentinaAustraliaNew ZealandSouth Africa 

As usual, Argentina's squad will be the freshest as their mostly northern hemisphere-based group will have benefited from nearly two months of conditioning work as opposed to their rivals, who are still healing up from a gruelling Super Rugby season.

Los Pumas used their second-string team in a series with the French Barbarians – which ended 1-all – before they kicked off an extended training camp. They've been in Sydney since the end of June in preparation for the opening game against the All Blacks.

But coach Daniel Hourcade has already indicated he won't use his strongest team in the first two games (they play the Wallabies at home in Round Two) as they manage game time before fielding their first-choice XV against the Springboks next month.

The Pumas scrum was a cut above everyone else last year, and they are likely to provide the benchmark once again, but it's hard to see them troubling New Zealand with a below-strength side.

The draw has been very favourable to Australia, who host both the Boks and All Blacks. The Wallabies have not played any warm-up games so it's difficult to judge Michael Cheika's approach to bringing Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell into the fold.

Those two will add invaluable experience and creativity though. Amongst Cheika's hardest choices will be whether to go with the half-back duo from the Waratahs or Reds. On the side of the scrum, will Michael Hooper or David Pocock start? Or both?

The Springboks did play a warm up game but their clash against the World XV proved to be a disappointment as the invitational team failed to provide Heyneke Meyer's troops with a real test. There are a few veterans surviving on reputation at the moment and Meyer will watch the performance's of a group of young props with great interest.

The rematch of last year's epic battle with the All Blacks at Ellis Park will be probably the biggest landmark in the World Cup build-up as the top two ranked teams face off. They are seeded to meet in the semi-finals and if the Boks can repeat their victory of 2014 in Johannesburg, they'll head to England truly believing they can go all the way.

While Fourie du Preez's injury-enforced absence must be considered a serious setback, the emergence of Damian de Allende as an attacking force bodes well for the Boks' ambition of having more bows in their quiver than their countrymen in 2007.

As ever, New Zealand start as favourites, despite having to travel to Sydney and Jo'burg. The reigning champs have the most balanced, settled squad and have quality back-ups in every position, with the exception of the hooker berth, where Hika Elliot and Cody Taylor have yet to prove themselves on the international stage.

Steve Hansen must strike a balance between fielding proven performers and developing his squad and the future of the team. He must also make tough choices in terms of risking Richie McCaw and Dan Carter or providing them with the game time they probably need. 

The only real concern, for lack of a better word, is the form of Kieran Read, who has been way off his best this year. The historic test against Samoa would have provided more clarity in who isn't up to scratch – Andy Ellis probably makes that list.

A handful of All Black veterans are playing for their places in the World Cup squad. The likes of Israel Dagg, Keven Mealamu and Tony Woodcock have had a poor season so far and cannot count on their experience to earn automatic seats on the plane to England. 

It's set to be an enthralling competition. 

 Find the Rugby Championship fixtures HERE.

By Ross Hastie

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