The kick-off of the Rugby Championship on Saturday heralds a new era that could change the face of world rugby as we know it.
The kick-off of the inaugural Rugby Championship on Saturday heralds a new era that could change the face of world rugby as we know it.
At last, potential giants Argentina have a place in an annual competition. Their integration into the Southern Hemisphere's yearly showdown represents the single biggest leap forward in the global calendar since Italy joined the Six Nations.
But unlike the Azzurri – who are still struggling to break into the ranks of the world's top five – given the right conditions (like participation in Super Rugby at club level), Argentinean rugby has the ability to become a consistent force in the global game in the near future.
This weekend represents the crucial next step in their development.
Regular visits from the world's top three sides will raise the sport's profile – in a country with a population close to 41 million – to new heights and the challenge for local administrators will be to channel that fervour in the right direction. Rugby's amateur status means that youngsters in Argentina are still attracted to play the game by the values it represents and with the domestic professionalism looming large on the horizon, the ARU are desperate to make sure that ethos is not lost. It'll be a delicate balancing act.
The launch of the new tournament also corresponds with the true beginning of the next four-your cycle ahead of the 2015 World Cup. The All Blacks in particular have an ageing group (13 players in their extended squad are 29 or older) and it will be interesting to note how coaches find places for new blood, especially when old stalwarts are still performing as well as ever.
Injuries might well make some of those tough decisions for the selectors though. While the Pumas have been fine tuning their preparations in camp for almost two months and are fighting fit, their opponents are coming out of a gruelling Super Rugby season that has already claimed a number of high-profile victims. As our guest columnist Cobus Visagie pointed out this week, it's “completely ridiculous to expect a player to perform at his peak for nine months on the trot” and the SANZAR giants run the risk of running out of gas by the time the tournament reaches its climax.
Indeed, highlight this date in your diary: 6 October (actually the early hours of 7 October if you're east of GMT) when Australia visit Estadio Gigante de Arroyita in Rosario. If Los Pumas are going to bag a win, many pundits have picked this as the day it might happen. If Argentina can bully the Wallabies pack and the raucous home crowd find their voice (they always do), it'll be a tough day at the office for Robbie Deans's team. Former All Blacks prop Richard Loe says Australia will win only one game out of six because of forward weaknesses – that seems like a harsh assessment of the situation but it's an illustration of the level of competition expected.
The Super Rugby season has left the South Africans with more than a few scars, both physically and mentally. The Stormers' failure in the semi-finals underlined the limitations of a forwards-based gameplan in the modern era while Jean de Villiers's emotional outpouring in the post-match press conference – where he admitted he doubted his own captaincy – suggested that the Bok skipper and his team-mates might take a while to regain their confidence. The players from the Sharks will be brimming with self belief, but it remains to be seen how much the long season has taken out of their tanks.
Back to the beginning. The Pumas' visit to Newlands on the opening day represents a coming of age and, significantly, the visitors believe they can win. At Tuesday's press conference a local journalist started a question with “not many people are giving you much of a chance” but was quickly cut short by coach Santiago Phelan, who insisted his team are not out of their depth: “Listen, whenever we take the field, we play to win,” said Phelan, himself a two-time World Cup representative.
“We have done the groundwork, we have chosen the best squad, we are ready.”
A training camp in Pensacola, Florida, has left the tourists in great shape and June wins over France and Italy by their second-stringers proved they now have significant depth.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has no doubts about the ability of the South Americans to make an impression.
“People might not know that they have beaten France more times than France have beaten them. Their home record is particularly impressive – few sides go there and win,” noted the boss.
Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves though. For all their improvement, the Pumas have never tasted victory against South Africa or New Zealand in 27 attempts so it's unlikely they'll avoid the wooden spoon – at least for this year. The demands of six Tests within eight weeks will also take some getting used to.
The addition of a fourth team could balance out the travel factor for the Springboks, whose fans have long complained about disparity in the travelling schedules.
With 10 out of 16 Tri-Nations titles the All Blacks naturally start as favourites. Their ageing squad, the impending departure of Sonny Bill Williams and inconsistent form of the likes of Piri Weepu means we could well see the new generation use the next two months to hasten change.
Nothing suggests that Heyneke Meyer will change the style that worked for him at the Bulls and Leicester meaning that Bryan Habana will continue to have to 'look for work' and South Africa's success will pivot – literally- on Morne Steyn's kicking form.
Australia's 3-0 series win over Wales in June was characterised a sense of composure that has been lacking for years. They have arguably the best crop of playmakers, but much will depend on the ability of their tight five to compete.
While the action on the field is sure to set the global benchmark, some of the decisions off it have been marked by a chronic lack of imagination. A terrible tournament name and an awful logo have been joined by a trophy that looks like something put together in my uncle Brian's shed. No disrespect to Brian's welding skills, but we had hoped that the prize would match the elevated status implied by the competition's name. Alas, the 56cm, 5kg mix of gold and stainless steel is no masterpiece.
Of course, what the trophy looks like is far less important than what it represents, and the winners will rightly be allowed to call themselves the best team in the world.
By Ross Hastie