By: Jacques Nortier
In a World Cup year every tournament is important but no more so than tournaments that involve the players that will attempt to bring the Webb Ellis Trophy back to their fans.
The start of the Castle Rugby Championship will start the preparations for the three power houses in the Southern Hemisphere as they attempt to get their mix right to challenge for the World Cup in England.
The Rugby Championship has been dominated by New Zealand for most of its existence. That they will go in the tournament as favourites are the understatement of the decade with the dominance they showed in this year’s Super Rugby.
Australia and South Africa will have some advantage this year with the fact that they do not have to play in New Zealand this year due to the sort schedule of the tournament in a World Cup year.
New Zealand will only play Argentina in the first weekend in New Zealand and will have to travel first to the Republic to play the Springboks at Emirates Airline Park and then travel to Australia to play them at ANZ Stadium.
Australia are in the same boat as the Springboks playing both New Zealand and South Africa in Australia and only have to travel to Argentina to face the Pumas.
The Pumas will have to play New Zealand and South Africa away and only have Australia visiting their shores.
That it will be the toughest for the All Blacks and the Pumas is no joke but as we have seen in years gone by that New Zealand are one team that can win away from home.
Let’s have a look at the teams…..
The Webb Ellis Trophy remains the biggest prize in the game and the build-up to the global showpiece is set to overshadow the southern hemisphere’s annual competition as all four coaches use the competition as preparation for the showdown in England later this year.
Australia were crowned Tri-Nations champions in 2011 as Quade Cooper and Will Genia took their hot form for then Super Rugby champions the Reds to the international scene, but the Wallabies fell short in the semi-finals of the World Cup a few months later.
Likewise, New Zealand took the southern hemisphere title in 2007 before being knocked out in the quarter-finals of the World Cup
As usual, Argentina’s squad will be the freshest as their mostly northern hemisphere-based group will have benefited from nearly two months of conditioning work as opposed to their rivals, who are still healing up from a gruelling Super Rugby season.
Los Pumas used their second-string team in a series with the French Barbarians – which ended 1-all – before they kicked off an extended training camp.
They’ve been in Sydney since the end of June in preparation for the opening game against the All Blacks.
For South Africa the rematch of last year’s epic battle with the All Blacks at Ellis Park will be probably the biggest landmark in the World Cup build-up as the top two ranked teams face off. They are seeded to meet in the semi-finals and if the Boks can repeat their victory of 2014 in Johannesburg, they’ll head to England truly believing they can go all the way.
While Fourie du Preez’s injury-enforced absence must be considered a serious setback, the emergence of Damian de Allende as an attacking force bodes well for the Boks’ ambition of having more bows in their quiver than their countrymen in 2007.
As ever, New Zealand start as favourites, despite having to travel to Sydney and Jo’burg. The reigning champs have the most balanced, settled squad and have quality back-ups in every position, with the exception of the hooker berth, where Hika Elliot and Cody Taylor have yet to prove themselves on the international stage.
Steve Hansen must strike a balance between fielding proven performers and developing his squad and the future of the team. He must also make tough choices in terms of risking Richie McCaw and Dan Carter or providing them with the game time they probably need.
The only real concern, for lack of a better word, is the form of Kieran Read, who has been way off his best this year.
The historic test against Samoa would have provided more clarity in who isn’t up to scratch. Andy Ellis probably makes that list.
A handful of All Black veterans are playing for their places in the World Cup squad. The likes of Israel Dagg, Keven Mealamu and Tony Woodcock have had a poor season so far and cannot count on their experience to earn automatic seats on the plane to England.
One thing is for sure….this will be one hell of an exciting Castle Rugby Championship this year!!