Four players to watch in the Rugby Championship

Colin Newboult

Akira Ioane of the All Blacks is tackled during the Tri Nations rugby match between the Argentina Pumas and New Zealand All Blacks at McDonald Jones Stadium in Newcastle, Saturday, November 28, 2020. (AAP Image/Darren Pateman) NO ARCHIVING, EDITORIAL USE ONLY ** STRICTLY EDITORIAL USE ONLY, NO COMMERCIAL USE, NO BOOKS **

Ahead of the start of the Rugby Championship, Planet Rugby delves into the players who are worth keeping a particular eye on during the competition.

We have selected one from each country, all with something to prove, as they look to nail down their spots looking towards the 2023 World Cup.

Rodrigo Bruni (Argentina)

The talented back-row has been in and around the squad for a while but he only really broke through last year. Bruni started three matches during the 2020 Rugby Championship, including in that famous win over New Zealand in Parramatta, before producing a couple of utterly magnificent displays against Wales in July this year.

Mario Ledesma’s men do not lack talent in the back five of the pack but the head coach seems to have stumbled upon a formula which works. With Marcos Kremer moving up to lock, a position many thought he was set to take long-term anyway, it has enabled Los Pumas to field a back-row of Pablo Matera, Facundo Isa and Bruni.

With the outstanding lock Guido Petti also in the pack, they were superb in the second Test against the Welsh and that five could also cause the southern hemisphere sides plenty of problems over the next two months.

The number eight is in that typical Argentine mould of being a brutal carrier, a nuisance around the breakdown and having a work ethic few other players can match. After finally finding his feet at international level, Bruni should be a crucial cog in this Pumas outfit.

Noah Lolesio (Australia)

James O’Connor’s injury has opened the door for the Brumbies fly-half and he started the season pretty well, producing three solid displays against France. However, he came in for criticism last weekend after a poor kicking effort against New Zealand in the 33-25 defeat at Eden Park.

Although it probably didn’t cost them a chance of victory – the hosts rather shut down in the final quarter after being so far ahead – it certainly prevented them from putting concerted pressure on the All Blacks. It summed up the pivot’s inconsistent start to his Test career after a dreadful debut against the same team in 2020.

Lolesio has matured but he hasn’t quite fired and lived up to his potential just yet. However, this tournament may just be the time the 21-year-old shows the form which made him such a threat at Super Rugby level. He takes the ball to the line well, has a good passing game and is generally a reliable kicker, but the youngster needs to put it together on a regular basis.

Akira Ioane (New Zealand)

A player talked about a lot over the years, can the exceptionally gifted back-rower finally cement his spot in the All Blacks side? Powerful and quick, Ioane is arguably the best athlete in the game and completely dominated at age-grade level as the U20s took the title back in 2015.

Despite that immense potential and the expectation that he would transfer seamlessly to the top level, it has been a struggle for Ioane. There have been questions about his fitness and attitude over the years, facets which have contributed to a less than adequate work rate in games. As a result, it has taken a while for the New Zealand hierarchy to fully trust the Blues flanker but at least he is now in the running.

It is a position the All Blacks have struggled to fill since the great Jerome Kaino retired from international rugby. Shannon Frizell has generally been the preferred option but the Highlanders man hasn’t nailed down that spot and the blindside was suspended for the Bledisloe Cup opener.

With Frizell and Hoskins Sotutu sent back to play in the NPC, it suggests Ioane is the person to take that slot over the coming weeks, which means it is a potentially career-defining competition for the 26-year-old.

Aphelele Fassi (South Africa)

Following their British and Irish Lions success – no doubt the team’s main focus in 2021 – it is perhaps a chance for the Springboks to experiment. They have already selected a much-changed team for the clash against Argentina and they may well rotate throughout the Rugby Championship.

It therefore wouldn’t be a surprise to see the talented Fassi feature in as many games as, say, the excellent Cheslin Kolbe. The Sharks flyer has been a shining light for the Durban-based outfit over the past two seasons and gets his opportunity to impress for the national team against Argentina this weekend.

He has all the qualities to be a top-class back three player and will hope that Jacques Nienaber will play a slightly more expansive style than they did against the Lions. It makes sense that South Africa will seek to improve their attack over the coming weeks and Fassi may well be one of the beneficiaries of that.


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