Rugby Championship: Five storylines to follow including Ian Foster’s precarious position and Boks dominance

Colin Newboult

Ahead of the upcoming Rugby Championship, Planet Rugby takes a look at some of the main storylines to watch out for as the competition unfolds.

Job on the line for Ian Foster

The All Blacks’ head coach managed to escape the axe following their series defeat to Ireland but you feel a poor Rugby Championship will spell the end of his tenure. New Zealand Rugby (NZR) are no doubt hesitant to make a change so close to the World Cup but there is always a point where a position becomes untenable.

John Plumtree and Brad Mooar were the fall guys for their poor recent results, which stretches back to the end of November, but if anything that has only increased the pressure on Foster. NZR have, to an extent, backed their man, so they simply have to perform now otherwise the governing body may have no other choice than to sack the 57-year-old.

The concern is not just the number of defeats but also the performances and sheer lack of imagination on the field. One of the All Blacks’ strengths down the years has been their ability to adapt – both players and coaches – but the current set-up have struggled to find the answers to the problems in front of them. That, to a large degree, is on the boss and Foster knows that they can’t afford to slip up too many times over the next two months.

Australia desperate to end Bledisloe nightmare

New Zealand’s struggles may be to the Wallabies’ benefit as they seek to end two decades worth of disappointing results against their old rivals. Not since 2002 have Australia won the Bledisloe Cup but the All Blacks are vulnerable and the Aussies have a backline full of threat. They may still need to make significant improvements, especially around discipline, breakdown and set-piece, but we feel the Australians are making strides under Dave Rennie.

Fascinatingly, Rennie replaced Foster as the Chiefs’ head coach and duly guided them to successive Super Rugby titles in 2012 and 2013. The former Glasgow Warriors boss is a smart operator and he will feel he can engineer a plan to take his fellow countryman down in the upcoming tournament.

The decision has been taken to reduce the number of games in the series from three to two, which means the Wallabies have to win both. That gets even harder when you consider the away encounter is being hosted at Eden Park, a place New Zealand haven’t lost at since 1994. However, if they can gain a confidence boost by winning the opener in Melbourne then the trip to Auckland will hold no fear for the Australians.

Springboks to assume southern hemisphere dominance

For so long New Zealand have had complete control over the Rugby Championship but they go into this competition low on confidence, which provides an opportunity for South Africa. If the All Blacks fail to recover and a team are to take over their mantle, it will be the Springboks, who do the fundamentals of forward play better than anyone else in world rugby.

Yes, the Boks need significant improvements behind the scrum and they struggled against a Wales side that faltered in the Six Nations, but there is stability and quality in their team. The two front-row units are utterly fearsome, the lock duo of Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager is probably the best in the world, and they have a plethora of quality options in the back-row.

Jacques Nienaber’s men also have the luxury of playing their two matches against the All Blacks at home so, if they can win both of those, it sets them up perfectly for the rest of the Rugby Championship.

Michael Cheika’s Argentina impact

They are the traditional whipping boys of the competition, save for a few impressive results and performances, and it is difficult to see them coming anywhere other than bottom in 2022. If Los Pumas are to avoid that fate, they need a fast start against Australia – a team they will fancy themselves against most.

With Cheika’s intimate knowledge of Australian rugby, they could have the upper hand before the first Test even starts, while the passionate home support can make it an intimidating place to to visit.

Argentina got off to a good start in the new head coach’s first series in charge, overcoming Scotland 2-1 in the recent mid-year internationals, but they will need to be much better than that in the Rugby Championship.

There was a development in set-piece, surprisingly a real issue under former hooker Mario Ledesma, and decision-making, with an actual discernible game plan no doubt helping that, but they have to take it up a notch when the competition starts.

Mini-tours providing competition imbalance

With the Rugby Championship fixtures stretched across the globe, it put a lot of strain on players, coaches and organisers, so they have opted for a mini-tour approach. While very sensible in terms of welfare and travel, especially in this Covid age, it makes for a lopsided draw and will undoubtedly favour certain teams.

This year, South Africa are very much the beneficiaries, facing New Zealand twice at home, while Argentina will also be pleased to have two matches with Australia on home soil. Equally, the Wallabies will be content to have the so-called ‘easiest’ matches away from home, allowing them a shot at the Springboks in Adelaide and Sydney over successive weeks.

Those advantages will switch each year, potentially playing a part in the outcome of the championship, but there is no doubt that the Boks and Aussies will be the happiest over the fixture list in 2022.

READ MORE: Springboks coach Mzwandile Stick expects a big challenge in the Rugby Championship