Planet Rugby

Preview: Rugby Championship

15th August 2013 09:23

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Richie McCaw

Is there more silverware on its way for Richie and the boys?

With the World Cup just two years away, all four teams contesting the Rugby Championship will be using this year's competition to continue moulding their charges for the showpiece event - they'll be doing so in very different ways though.

New Zealand

The challenge for Steve Hansen heading into his second year at the helm of the All Blacks will be to remain ahead of the rest, a task that doesn't seem too difficult when one considers the resources at his disposal. However, it won't be as easy as many think.

The All Blacks need to inject some youth into their squad while retaining the core that has served them so well in the past and for the most part they have plenty of depth. It's only in the midfield where real questions remain.

Ma'a Nonu performed well during the June Tests against France but his horrendous form in Super Rugby and the subsequent dearth of potential employers will surely have dented his confidence. Hansen seems determined that the Nonu-Conrad Smith combination remains the right one. Time will tell whether his confidence in Nonu is well placed.

While Richie McCaw, Dan Carter and Smith have been afforded the opportunity to take some time off from the game to ensure their longevity, one has to wonder if hard-hitters such as Tony Woodcock, Andrew Hore and Keven Mealamu have what it takes to make it to 2015, especially given the All Blacks fast-paced style of play.

While Dane Coles appears to have been deemed not quite ready to make the step up on a permanent basis, Wyatt Crockett's return from injury should see Woodcock confined to riding pine or replaced by the raw, but young, Joe Moody.

McCaw's match-readiness has taken up many column inches in recent weeks and it's likely to continue to be the biggest talking point until the flanker either silences his doubters in Sydney or adds fuel to the fires suggesting he's passed it.

Regardless of whether McCaw hits his straps from the outset or whether it's Dan Carter, Aaron Cruden or even Beauden Barrett who wears the number ten jersey for the All Blacks, they are well placed to take home the silverware once more.

Key man: Kieran Read led the All Blacks in McCaw's absence and once again he'll be a pivotal figure for the men in black even if he doesn't have the captain's armband. So often overlooked in favour of 'bigger names', Read's overall contribution is immense. His workload is incredible and he's often the man to link the forwards and backs.

Prediction: Winners


Australia

The Rugby Championship marks the start of a new era for Australian rugby, with Robbie Deans' tenure brought to rather predictable conclusion at the end of the recent series against the Lions. Enter Ewen McKenzie, a much more favoured candidate whose squad selection alone has brought him many more admirers.

While Deans' can be criticized for many of his choices, one of his team's failings that he surely can't shoulder is the Wallabies' once again lightweight showing at scrum time. But it's here that McKenzie may be handed an early advantage in his bid to get Australia back on track.

The new scrum laws may just solve the Wallabies' battle to set a stable platform up front. Wallabies scrum coach Andrew Blades has suggested that his troops have embraced the change and one can imagine a wily campaigner such as Ben Alexander will be rubbing their hands with glee at the thought of executing fresh strategies.

If reports are to be believed, McKenzie is planning to implement an expansive game plan, one that will need good front foot ball to be effective, making success at the set pieces even more imperative.

McKenzie has gone with much of the Brumbies side that performed so well during the Super Rugby season and it's a ploy that could be quite effective.

The decision to go with Matt Toomua rather than Quade Cooper for the opening Test may have come as a surprise to some, but the Genia-Toomua-Leali'ifano axis will be just as key as the front row and having a maverick like Cooper in at ten would, for all McKenzie's posturing, be too much of a risk at this stage.

In theory, it could all click for Australia. Putting the plans it into practice will be something all together different though.

Key man: When Will Genia misfires inevitably so do the Wallabies. The number nine is world class but has endured an indifferent year. The scrum-half needs to return to previous highs if Australia are going to make a realistic challenge.

Prediction: Second


South Africa

Heyneke Meyer's tenure as Springbok coach has thus far been relatively successful - even if the press he's received hasn't suggested as much. Inheriting a team that lost a number of key players after the 2011 World Cup, it was no surprise that the Springboks did not challenge with any real meaning in last year's Rugby Championship.

However, while the results could be swept under the carpet to some degree, the style of play was tougher to ignore. It almost seemed that Meyer's turn at the helm had come a cycle too late - would his Bulls-esque rugby ever be effective on the international stage?

A forward-dominated game with the boot of Morne Steyn to back it up will always herald some success, but crucially Meyer attempted to introduce both youth and flair into his team during the June internationals through the likes of Willie le Roux and Jan Serfontein, while Francois Louw's rebirth in Springbok colours continued.

With this in mind continuity in selection should perhaps be considered a positive. Yet looking at Meyer's selections for the opening Test against Argentina one can't help but feel he will be going back to his conservative Plan A; it might not be pretty but it may also work.

Against Argentina this is likely to be true, but the Springboks will need to show major signs of evolution if they are to trouble the All Blacks.

Key man: Few would have thought that Francois Louw would be making such an impact on the international stage after departing for Bath, but the flanker seems to be improving with every match. With Duane Vermeulen back at number eight for the Boks, they possess a powerful loose trio and Louw is the key to translating this into positive contributions on the field.

Prediction: Third


Argentina

There is one thing that should be very clear heading into this year's Rugby Championship - the Pumas are not a 'surprise package'. A draw with the Springboks, two close-run losses to the Wallabies and a win over Wales last year are the results of a team who deserve better than the constant 'surprise' they present.

However, while they may get added respect, Santiago Phelan's men are also going to get no favours; there will be no opponents lulled into a false sense of security. As such, getting the first Rugby Championship victory that they crave will be a tough task.

Phelan has selected a squad that mixes youth and experience as he tries to claim that elusive victory and his squad for the opening match against South Africa answers a number of questions that have been raised in the build-up.

The decision to play Juan Martin Hernandez at full-back, where he played for the majority of the season with Racing Metro, rather than fly-half where he turned out in last year's competition allows for the talented Nicolas Sanchez to wear the number ten jersey which appears a wise move. With 'The Wizard' attacking from the back and Sanchez pulling the strings, los Pumas have more solidity in their back-line, a point which is further emphasised by the selection of the experienced, yet aging, Felipe Contepomi at inside centre.

The Pumas pack always put in a good effort, but all too often fall short in the final quarter. If Phelan's men want to make an impact at the highest level, and they believe they can, they'll have to go the distance in every department in every game.

They showed against Wales last year that they can beat the top nations, but they'll struggle to notch up a similar performance away from home during this campaign, with visits from Australia and South Africa their only realistic chances of victory.

Key man: Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe leads from the front and is at the heart of the Pumas week in and week out. After a starring season for Toulon in the Top 14, the loose forward will be eager to make the same impact for his country. Fernandez Lobbe's absence will be strongly felt against the Springboks but expect him to be back in the headlines before long.

Prediction: Fourth

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