Rugby Championship preview: All Blacks to clinch another title ahead of the Rugby World Cup

Jared Wright
All Blacks forward Ardie Savea, head coach Ian Foster and back Jordie Barrett - New Zealand Rugby championship

All Blacks forward Ardie Savea, head coach Ian Foster and back Jordie Barrett

Last up in our set of previews ahead of the Rugby Championship, we examine the prospects of last year’s champions, Ian Foster’s New Zealand.

The All Blacks have dominated both the Tri Nations and Rugby Championship since its inception in 1996, winning the tournament 19 times over the two formats.

However, there is a recent trend of New Zealand not winning the title in Rugby World Cup years, which was the case in the 2011, 2015 and 2019 Rugby Championships.

Peaking in World Cup years is generally the goal for most Test teams, but only South Africa have managed to win the Rugby Championship and gone on to lift the World Cup later in the year, in 2019.

The same applies to the Six Nations, England in 2003, and unlike years gone by, this All Blacks team could do with a good run of results in the build-up to the tournament.

As per usual, the All Blacks do have an incredible pool of talent to draw from but unlike the 2011 and 2015 eras, they aren’t as dominant with the rest of the world catching up.

The big challenge for Foster in 2023 will be getting the right players in the squad heading in the right direction, collectively, as they go hunting for a fourth World Cup title.

Last year

2022 was a rollercoaster year for the All Blacks, who headed into the Rugby Championship off the back of a first home series defeat to Ireland, and with coaching staff under enormous pressure, things didn’t get off to a great start.

They were beaten 26-10 by rivals South Africa in the opening round but backed that up with a 35-23 win in Johannesburg, which eased the pressure temporarily.

A loss to Argentina back at home saw the pressure intensify again, but as the All Blacks usually do, they bounced back to defeat Argentina and claim back-to-back wins over Australia to clinch the title and retain the Bledisloe Cup again.

The title race did go right down to the final round of action, with South Africa failing to claim the bonus point and rack up a big enough scoreline against Argentina to beat Foster’s charges to the trophy.

New Zealand would finish the year far stronger than they started it with wins over Japan – albeit a messy one – Wales, Scotland and a draw against England to complete 2022 on a seven-game unbeaten run.

This year

Ending the year unbeaten has bought Foster a bit more credit with the public, but there is still doubt about whether he can get the side back to their usual highs. He will be out to make a statement, though, in his final year in charge of the side, with Scott Robertson taking over the reins after the World Cup.

However, they still have the task of the Rugby Championship ahead of them first. The All Blacks have a tough start to the competition as they head to Mendoza for their opener against Argentina before a seven-day turnaround ahead of clashing with the Springboks in Auckland.

Like South Africa, Foster could well save a group of frontline players for the second Test to limit their travel, with arguably their two more important fixtures against the Springboks and Australia at the tail end of the tournament.

The All Blacks will fancy their chances in this year’s Championship, particularly if they can get the job done in round one. South Africa don’t have a great record in Auckland, although they have yet to play at Mount Smart Stadium and will have two weeks to prepare for the Wallabies.

Key players

A recent debate is raging over whether Ardie Savea should start for the All Blacks or provide an impact from the bench. There is certainly merit to the discussion, but one thing is for sure, Savea is a crucial player for the side. He has an incredibly vast skill-set and is one of the most explosive players with and without the ball in the game. The 29-year-old could play all three back-row positions for Foster’s charges and has a knack for producing in the big games, in the key moments, and that’s something they can rely on. Quite simply, he is world-class.

Staying in the pack and Sam Whitelock will be out to finish off his final year as an All Black in style. The 34-year-old showed in the Super Rugby Pacific final that he is still one of the best locks in the business. Few, if any, can run a lineout as well as him or even decode the opposition’s set-piece as he can. The lineout is still a crucial source for tries at international level, but that is not the only era of the game he thrives with his work rate on both sides of the ball of the highest order.

There are three hot contenders for the All Blacks starting first five-eighth role, and Richie Mo’unga looks to be the frontrunner for the role despite the excellent form of Damian McKenzie. When he is able to dictate and control the match, Mo’unga is near on unplayable, and if he can achieve that in the black jersey – New Zealand will be a real force to be reckoned with again.

It’s a welcome return to the black jersey for the mercurial talent that is Will Jordan. The 25-year-old missed a chunk of this year and last through injury, but there is no doubt that Foster’s side is better off with him than without him. Whether he is starting on the wing or full-back, Jordan is able to influence the game with his masterful rugby IQ, which is beyond his years. His support lines and ability to snuff out an attacking opportunity will be invaluable for his team.

Players to watch

We have already spoken about the fly-halves in the squad, but after an outstanding return to Super Rugby, Damian McKenzie is a player you can’t help but keep an eye on. His accuracy off the tee is a bonus, as is his ability to play at full-back. His rapid pace and ever-improving game management makes him a serious contender in two positions for Foster and his coaching staff.

Staying with the backs and much like McKenzie, Jordie Barrett‘s utility is a massive asset for the side as he can play across the backline, besides scrum-half. The youngest Barrett looks to be finding a permanent home in the centres under Foster, and he will be out to nail down the role with some big performances in the Rugby Championship.

Samisoni Taukei’aho’s rise has been nothing short of sensational in the black jersey, and while he was easily the All Blacks’ best hooker last year, he will have a bit more competition in 2023. Codie Taylor returned to his usual high standards during the knockout stages of Super Rugby, while Dane Coles will look to make the most of his swansong Test season.

Tamaiti Williams is on track to become the heaviest All Blacks player in the modern era, but the ‘swing prop’ adds far more than just weight to pack. The 22-year-old thoroughly deserves his call-up after a brilliant season with the Crusaders, with his ability to play both sides of the scrum an added bonus. After Ethan de Groot, Fletcher Newell, and Tyrel Lomax reinstated the All Blacks’ competitiveness up front late last year, Williams could take them to another level.

With Jordan missing the opener against Argentina, the door has been opened for Shaun Stevenson to make his Test debut, and after a remarkable Super Rugby Pacific season, the Chiefs’ hot-stepper will be eager to take his chance.

Prospects

In many ways, this feels like a clean slate for Foster and his charges and a year that the All Blacks boss can change his perception of him. He seems to have the support of the players, and with not the worst schedule of the four teams, they are likely the favourites to hoist the title again. One thing that does count against them is that they do have a target on their backs. The Springboks are saving players to be fresh for their visit, while Eddie Jones is eager to snatch the Bledisloe from their grasps. Los Pumas will probably be keen to back up their win over the All Blacks from last year. They should get the job done against Argentina away, and their record against South Africa at home suggests they should win that too, setting on track to lift the title again.

Fixtures

Saturday, July 8 v Argentina (Estadio Malvinas Argentinas, Mendoza)
Saturday, July 15 v South Africa (Mount Smart Stadium, Auckland)
Saturday, July 29 v Australia (Melbourne Cricket Ground, Melbourne)

READ MORE: Rugby Championship preview: Springboks set to challenge for honours again