When coaches start deflecting attention away from their own team and needling their opposite numbers, you know that competitive rugby can’t be far away
By Alex Shaw
The Rugby Championship kicks off this weekend, with Australia hosting New Zealand and Argentina travelling to South Africa, and the phoney wars that are part and parcel of modern rugby have well and truly begun.
After Wallabies head coach Michael Cheika suggested that the All Blacks had some difficult decisions to make in regards to selection, Steve Hansen fired back, somewhat disproportionately, by stating that Australia have “enough problems of their own” to deal with, rather than worrying about New Zealand’s selection quandaries.
Whether you love or loathe these media missiles launched by rugby coaches, full of faux sentiments, backhanded compliments and mind games, they do build the anticipation for the tournament. Soon, however, these back-and-forth barrages will conclude and the rugby will get underway, leaving us all with just one question worth asking.
Can anyone stop the All Blacks over the next two months?
History suggests it’s unlikely, with New Zealand winning 10 of the 16 championships, whilst current form suggests it’s even less likely, with none of their southern hemisphere rivals managing to hit top form following last year’s Rugby World Cup.
The All Blacks looked at ease dispatching Wales across their three-game series this summer. Even in the 46-6 thumping of Warren Gatland’s men in the third and final test, it felt as if New Zealand were playing within themselves and they still had higher gears to utilise if they had been required. Conversely, the Springboks stuttered to an unconvincing 2-1 victory over Ireland and the Pumas split a two-match series with a less-than-impressive French side. As for Australia, they were whitewashed 3-0 by England just months after having dumped the northern hemisphere side out of their own RWC.
Super Rugby form has also been hard to find for New Zealand’s rivals, with the Lions the only side that could go toe-to-toe with the best Kiwi sides in the competition. The Australian franchises struggled save for a few brief moments of success for the Brumbies and Waratahs, whilst Argentina’s fortunes were even worse, with the Jaguares’ debut campaign disappointing to say the least. The Stormers had their moments and managed to book a home game in the playoffs – having avoided playing Kiwi opposition in the regular season – but the gulf in quality became clear when the Stormers (and Sharks) met their Kiwi counterparts in knockout rugby.
That said, New Zealand are not without chinks in their armour. They offered Wales opportunities in attack, some of which the side from the northern hemisphere were able to take, but plenty more that they were unable to capitalise on. Despite the travails of the Springboks, Wallabies and Pumas this season, they have the players capable of taking those opportunities at a more clinical rate.
With Matt Toomua and Matt Giteau back in the Wallaby squad after the former started just one test and the latter having missed out on the whole series against England, Cheika’s midfield should bear more resemblance to the effective Australian units of old, with a designated playmaker and second kicking option outside of their fly-half. It’s far from a guarantee of success, but with the All Blacks still trying to lockdown their best midfield combination in the post Nonu/Smith era, it offers Australia hope.
Similarly, Argentina will be determined to eek out an advantage over New Zealand at the set-piece, particularly the scrum, where the All Blacks are not quite the dominant force that they are in so many other areas. Ramiro Herrera has been performing at a high level all season and has been up there with Dan Cole and WP Nel as the form tightheads in world rugby, whilst Agustín Creevy has been every bit as reliable in the scrum and lineout as he has been an inspirational leader for the Jaguares.
The Springboks, meanwhile, are in an odd place under new head coach Allister Coetzee. There have been calls to adopt a more expansive style and that is certainly a possibility with Elton Jantjies at fly-half but it’s not a transition that can be achieved overnight. Coupled with their dearth of top quality tightheads, something which has been brewing in South Africa for a few years now, they do not have the dominant scrum that they have been able to rely on for so many years. Tendai Mtawarira helps keep the unit very competitive, but it’s not a given that they’ll be able to trouble New Zealand in that area.
All three sides should have their chances against New Zealand, particularly at home, but it is case of largely clutching at straws to make a compelling case for any one of them having the consistency and/or quality to challenge the All Blacks for The Rugby Championship.
The tournament will undoubtedly deliver, as it always inevitably seems to do, and there are plenty of players ready to take the rugby world by storm, including Argentina’s Marcos Kremer and South Africa’s Malcolm Marx.
Even if it’s hard to look beyond the All Blacks for the title, the next two months should give us a fascinating look into rugby’s new world order at the beginning of this latest RWC cycle.
Australia v New Zealand
ANZ Stadium KO 8.05pm (11.05am GMT)
Australia: Scott Sio, Stephen Moore, Sekope Kepu, Kane Douglas, Rob Simmons, Ben McCalman, Michael Hooper, David Pocock, Will Genia, Bernard Foley, Dane Haylett-Petty, Matt Giteau, Tevita Kuridrani, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Israel Folau
Reps: Tatafu Polota-Nau, James Slipper, Allan Alaalatoa*, Dean Mumm, Scott Fardy, Nick Phipps, Matt Toomua, Rob Horne
New Zealand: Wyatt Crockett, Nathan Harris, Owen Franks, Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Jerome Kaino, Sam Cane, Kieran Read, Aaron Smith, Beauden Barrett, Waisake Naholo, Ryan Crotty, Malakai Fekitoa, Ben Smith, Israel Dagg
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