The Rugby Championship began last weekend, and in case there was any doubt, it cemented New Zealand’s position at the top of rugby’s international pantheon
By Alex Shaw
The All Blacks’ 42-8 demolition of the Wallabies in Sydney was exquisite, only further expanding the gulf in quality – both technically and mentally – between themselves and Australia, whilst the scrappy, albeit compelling, clash between South Africa and Argentina didn’t lend itself to either team looking as if they are able to maintain a sustained and serious challenge to New Zealand.
It’s hard to remember a Rugby World Cup cycle beginning with such a stark differential in quality between the All Blacks and their southern hemisphere counterparts, particularly Australia and South Africa, and even three years out from the next RWC, it will be of great concern to New Zealand’s rivals.
Here’s a look at a couple of potential players for the Springboks, Wallabies and Pumas who can help their teams begin to bridge the seemingly growing gap with the All Blacks over the next year or two.
Malcolm Marx, hooker, South Africa
Marx will have to oust Adriaan Strauss, the Springbok captain, in order to start, but there can be little doubt that he has been the form hooker in South Africa this season. Consistent at the set-piece and a nightmare for defences to try and contain in the loose, Marx has kicked on in 2016 and begun to realise the enormous potential which once made him one of the most highly-touted players at U20 level.
There are shades of a young Bismarck du Plessis about Marx and it will take the bold call from Allister Coetzee of changing his captain to see Marx move up the pecking order, but it could be the making of this new-look Springbok side.
Sergeal Petersen, wing, South Africa
The Boks have found the answer on one of their wings with Ruan Combrinck taking his stellar Super Rugby form into the test arena but his partner on the other wing is yet to be found. JP Pietersen has moved to England and hasn’t been included in South Africa’s TRC squad, whilst Bryan Habana will be 36 at the next RWC, creating plenty of uncertainty at the position.
A veteran option like Lwazi Mvovo could do a job but in Petersen the Springboks could find all the pace that Habana gave them during his glory years, as well as a physical presence who is not afraid to put his body on the line in defence. Keeping veterans like Pietersen and Habana around as they blood Combrinck makes a lot of sense but once he is attuned to test rugby, turning to a talent like Petersen could see the Springboks take a large step forward.
Allan Alaalatoa, prop, Australia
Alaalatoa may be the best scrummaging prospect to come out of Australia in the last few years, something which is made all the more impressive by his ability to cover both loosehead and tighthead. It’s a nice security blanket for the Wallabies to have but if they are to get the best out of him and ensure they remain competitive with the best scrummaging nations in the world, they will need to nail down his position sooner rather than later.
He has spent more time at loosehead but given that Australia already have Scott Sio and James Slipper at that position, their goal could well be to see him mature into their starting tighthead. Greg Holmes has left Australia for England, leaving Sekope Kepu as their only established player at the position.
Reece Hodge, full-back, Australia
Israel Folau continues to push for more playing time at 13 and this potentially opens a door for Hodge at full-back, where the 21-year-old has excelled for the Melbourne Rebels this year.
As with Alaalatoa, Hodge’s versatility makes him a valuable asset for the Wallabies and he is capable of also covering both wings and the outside centre berth, whilst his cannon-like boot would give Australia more range in goal-kicking situations, as well as a good tactical kicker for exiting their own 22. Hodge brings the same level of versatility that the Wallabies so relished in players like Adam Ashley-Cooper and Matt Giteau, and represents the future of Australian rugby, something which may need to be embraced swiftly.
Facundo Isa, No. 8, Argentina
Isa has been on the verge of cementing the Argentinean number eight jersey for a while now but the experience of Leonardo Senatore has prevented him from claiming it full-time. Now, with Senatore continuing to have discipline issues on the field and Isa rapidly developing into one of the world’s most exciting talents at the position, the time is ripe for him to make the position his own.
Along with Santiago Cordero and Nicolás Sánchez, Isa can spearhead a young and exciting Pumas team which is capable of catching the All Blacks by the 2019 RWC and the experience he garners now, particularly in adversity, will make him all the better of a player further down the road.
Marcos Kremer, lock, Argentina
The mountainous Kremer caught the eye at this year’s World Rugby U20 Championship, displaying all the athletic traits which the world’s top second rows have at their disposal. He followed that up by making his Super Rugby debut at the age of 18 and is now set to make the leap to test rugby.
He has yet to debut for the Pumas but with Guido Petti being linked with a move to Toulon, something which would make him unavailable for international selection, Kremer could be the long-term partner to Tomás Lavanini in the Argentinean engine room. He has been fast-tracked into the Pumas’ TRC squad and it would not be surprising to see him make his test bow before the tournament concludes.