Rugby Championship: Five storylines to follow ahead of the next two rounds in closest tournament for years

Colin Newboult

Ahead of Rounds Three and Four of the Rugby Championship, we dissect what has gone on before and also delve into the next few games.

All to play for in the race for silverware

It feels like this is the closest matched the countries have ever been in the Rugby Championship, and not just because one point separates all four teams. In the past, even if they had succumbed to one defeat, the All Blacks would have run away with it but, considering their issues, that isn’t guaranteed this time around. They will be clear favourites against Argentina but the Pumas have shown an improvement under new head coach Michael Cheika. Their series victory over Scotland was an important stepping stone and they maintained that progress by absolutely thrashing Australia.

They could quite conceivably challenge New Zealand, even away from home, while the Wallabies v Springboks Tests may also be very competitive affairs, despite the hosts’ injury problems. Jacques Nienaber’s men will, like the All Blacks, be expected to win both matches but they had issues in Australia last season and their loss at Ellis Park last weekend has once again exposed a few frailties within their team. There is unlikely to be a scenario where all four teams, akin to the culmination of Round Two, has the same amount of wins and losses, but it is certainly a difficult competition to call. Which makes a huge difference from previous years where the Kiwis have dominated.

Eyes still on Ian Foster

The All Blacks head coach has got a stay of execution, surprisingly right through until the end of his contract, but every game will continue to be scrutinised. Victories over Argentina are a must if Foster is to remain out of the public and media firing line, but they will also need more than that. The performances also matter and even a close win will see the supporters on his and the team’s back once again.

By overcoming the Springboks with their best display since the Steve Hansen era, they had an identity to their play, something which has been missing during Foster’s tenure, and they obviously need to build on that. The Crusaders’ outstanding forwards coach Jason Ryan seems to have made an immediate impression in the All Black set-up, with their pack holding up incredibly well against the much-vaunted South African eight, and that helped lay a platform for their talented backline. New Zealand were much more direct, physical and technically accurate up front and Argentina will struggle to live with them if they can reproduce that abrasiveness. But, needless to say, the three-time world champions will have to prove their effort in Johannesburg was not a flash in the pan.

Boks aiming for revenge in Australia

If the Springboks want to win the Rugby Championship for the first time since 2019, they will have to emerge triumphant in all their remaining matches in the competition, with two of those fixtures set to take place in Australia over the next few weeks. However, the challenge of facing the Wallabies in their backyard has proven to be a difficult one for the current world champions in recent years as they haven’t beaten them on Australian soil since 2013, with the Wallabies winning six out of the seven matches played Down Under since then, while there has been one draw between the teams – in Perth in 2017.

Most of those matches were while Cheika was Australia’s coach but the Springboks will have extra motivation to beat the Wallabies as two of those games were the most recent ones between the teams, on the Gold Coast and in Brisbane last year. Under the guidance of their current mentor, Dave Rennie, the Wallabies have proven to be a banana skin for Bok coach Nienaber and his charges and they will be desperate to end their nine-year drought on Australia soil or they can kiss their chances of winning the Rugby Championship goodbye for this year.

Argentina’s best chance for a high finish

Some pointed to the injuries Australia have sustained as the reason for Los Pumas’ large win in the second round of the Rugby Championship, but that does a disservice to Cheika’s impressive side. There have been evident improvements in the team since the ex-Wallabies boss took charge, with the set-piece a particular positive for Cheika. Loosehead prop Thomas Gallo came into the XV and dominated opposition tighthead Taniela Tupou, while adding plenty with ball in hand. They also have a good lineout, with hooker Julian Montoya a genuinely world-class player and Matias Alemanno, Tomas Lavanini and Marcos Kremer all excellent aerial options.

With the spine of the pack now incredibly strong, it has given them a superb platform from which to build from behind the scrum. Emiliano Boffelli aside, there isn’t quite the same stardust in the backline in comparison to the other teams in the tournament, but they still have a very good set of players. Argentina are perhaps weakest at half-back, especially at pivot where usual full-back or wing Santiago Carreras is still learning the position, but there is more than enough threat there for them to cause both New Zealand and South Africa significant problems

Dave Rennie under pressure after Pumas defeat

On the back of a record loss to Argentina, it is not just Foster under pressure as Rennie must turn things around for the Wallabies in their next game, against the Springboks in Adelaide. While Australia’s squad has been decimated by injuries – in amongst losing their captain Michael Hooper – there is no hiding place from that hammering they took at the hands of the Pumas in San Juan. Therefore, next week’s preparations for taking on South Africa are vital in bouncing back and getting their Rugby Championship campaign on track.

The Wallabies’ home form against the Boks is well known so if they can get bodies back on the field and that recent history of results against their rivals holds any sway, head coach Rennie will be able to breathe a huge sigh of relief before facing the same opposition again in Sydney. He has, however, made a bold call dropping James O’Connor in the absence of Quade Cooper (injured) and despite Bernard Foley’s call-up, one expects Noah Lolesio to be backed at 10 after patiently waiting in the wings thus far. South Africa, though, will be hunting for a response of their own after their loss to New Zealand and with scores to settle after last year’s two defeats Down Under, they are a very real threat in both games. Rennie has his work cut out.

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