A shortened Rugby Championship – to accommodate the approaching Rugby World Cup tournament – begins on Saturday with teams from the Southern Hemisphere looking to refine their game plans ahead of the spectacle in France. How is each team doing so far?
Goat stars absent
South Africa, the current world champion, has a formidable team, but the South Africans split the team for the matches against the Wallabies and the All Blacks to try to limit flightiness.
Coach Jacques Nienaber decided to send 12 Springboks to New Zealand for the time being, but this weakens the team for the battle against Australia, which will be led by Duane Vermeulen.
Siya Kolisi is in the group that is sent forward, but a knee injury will probably keep him out of the tournament. Star flyhalf Handré Pollard is also on the sidelines.
Marco van Staden will be the no. Pulls on the 6 jersey and will serve as the openside flanker against the Wallabies with Kwagga Smith also already in New Zealand.
The absence of Pollard, a central figure in the 2019 victory over England in Japan, is a bad setback. Rising star Manie Libbok will replace Pollard.
Test for Jones
Wallabies coach Eddie Jones is preparing for his first Test – against South Africa – since replacing Dave Rennie, who was given the go-ahead earlier.
Jones is a tactical master and is known for his innovative thinking. He was given the task of lighting a fire under the struggling Aussies and giving them a chance to hold the World Cup anew.
He promised to cultivate a determined winning culture among the Wallabies by making them more aggressive in attack, while they must be like street brats on defense.
Adaptability is another Jones buzzword, with veterans Michael Hooper and James Slipper set to hold the captain’s reins together.
In Pretoria, unfortunately, history is not on Jones’ side and the Aussies have not emerged victorious at Loftus in seven games since 1963.
All Blacks dominance
The All Blacks have one of their saddest years yet behind them. They won eight out of 13 tests and made unenviable history by losing a home series against Ireland. Last year they also bit the bullet against Argentina – again on home soil.
Despite this, the Kiwis still won the Rugby Championship – for the eighth time out of ten tournaments. Nevertheless, the spotlight will be sharply on coach Ian Foster this weekend in Mendoza.
The World Cup in France will be his swansong and he demands that the Kiwis dominate from the outset – unlike their struggling start last year.
Questions about his leadership continue to swirl, but Sam Cane retains the captaincy.
Among a number of experienced players who are likely to see their last international season are Kiwi veterans such as Aaron Smith, Richie Mo’unga, Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick.
Big work awaits Pumas
Argentina have largely covered the rearguard in recent times, but the team has developed incredibly since former Wallabies coach Michael Cheika took over. However, it looks like Los Pumas will be floundering at the bottom of the standings again.
The fixture list isn’t exactly in their favour, with one home game against the All Blacks this weekend before they travel to Australia and South Africa.
They enter the clash with injury concerns and Cheika will once again rely on veterans such as Julian Montoya, Pablo Matera, Jeronimo de la Fuente and Emiliano Boffeli to take the lead.
They will have to cope without forward Marco Kremer, who will miss the entire tournament due to suspension after a Top 14 clash between Racing 92 and Stade Francais when he received a third red card for the season.
Although his star no longer shines as bright as before, the 34-year-old flyhalf Nicolas Sanchez still made it to Cheika’s team and he wants to go out and show in order to register in his fourth World Cup as well.