Here is Take The Three’s look ahead to the second Rugby Championship and [gulp] predictions on eventual standings…
Somewhat ironically Dan Carter, after announcing that he will take an extended break in 2014 so as to be injury-free for the 2015 Rugby World Cup, will miss the start of the 2nd Rugby Championship (RC) through injury. The world-leading international points scorer has been ruled out for 3-4 weeks with a calf strain, meaning he’ll miss up to a month of rugby.
This will keep the fly-half out of Saturday’s Bledisloe Cup clash in Sydney, the return fixture when New Zealand host Australia in Wellington the following weekend and, in all likelihood, the All Blacks’ game against Argentina on 7th September.
Not that the ABs have a dearth of talent in the position. In fact veteran centre Conrad Smith has talked of the strength in the depth of the squad: “We like to think we have a squad of 30 players that are the best in the world, not just our starting XV.” The team’s ethos is that no player is irreplaceable and certainly the 2011 RWC, when fourth choice fly-half Stephen Donald kicked the winning points in the final, goes a long way to proving Smith’s point.
The emergence of Chiefs playmaker Aaron Cruden, who steered his side to a consecutive Super Rugby title against the Brumbies in August, and Hurricanes no.10 Beauden Barrett means the All Blacks don’t have too much to fret about. Cruden already has 22 Tests to his name and Barrett, who has recently signed an extension to his contract with the Wellington side, is not far behind.
New Zealand can also take solace from the return of captain Richie McCaw from a similar sabbatical. The openside flanker has looked refreshed since coming back to rugby with the Crusaders but has only played one full game of club rugby and made a couple of bench appearances this season in the Super Rugby play-offs.
McCaw will become the first person to play against Australia 30 times this weekend and Head Coach Steve Hansen has said he’s confident the talismanic skipper will quickly readjust to the rigours of Test match rugby. He will dust of eight and half months worth of international cobwebs when he reclaims the captaincy, his last international experience being the drubbing his side suffered against England at Twickenham in December last year.
While relinquishing the captaincy role to the 116 Test veteran McCaw, Keiran Read, who lead the side to a convincing 3-0 summer series whitewash over the French, will still have his part to play. Arguably the best no.8 in the world, he has been on imperious form for the Crusaders this season, consistently delivering an incomparable amount of work around the field in both ball-carrying prowess and resilient defence. Add in the experience of centre combination Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith, the grunt of Owen Franks and Tony Woodcock and the clinical finishing of Julian Savea and Israel Dagg and the other teams face a mountainous challenge in preventing New Zealand replicating their unbeaten campaign last year – 1st.
While they came out on the wrong side of the final Test of the British and Irish Lions tour, an injury-ravaged Australia competed commendably for two and a half games of the series. That’s not intended to be condescending as, let’s face it, the Lions scraped the first Test against a flanker playing in the centres and, had captain David Pocock been fit, he’d have given any of the northern hemisphere flankers a torrid time. Other victims of the Lions tour include Pat McCabe, Kurtley Beale, Wycliff Palu, and Digby Ioane so a fresh crop of 10 uncapped players have been named in the RC squad.
Certain aspects of the Wallaby play will definitely feed their confidence ahead of their campaign, their ability to compete in the scrum an example, having been a concern since Andrew Sheridan single-handedly demolished their front row in the 2007 RWC quarter-final. The emergence of rugby league and Aussie rules convert Israel Folau over the summer (when George North wasn’t very kindly giving him a piggy-back down the pitch) was a scintillating affair, scrum-half Will Genia showed he is still world-class and lock James Horwill, amid stamping [ahem] allegations, came through as an industrious workhorse and hugely passionate leader.
Robbie Deans bore the brunt of the Lions defeat and resigned after the series but the appointment of his successor Ewen McKenzie could be a blessing in disguise. James O’Connor looked awkwardly out of sorts in the first receiver position against the Lions, whilst filling in for the controversial Quade Cooper, having to rely largely on the experience of centre Adam Ashley-Cooper to guide the side’s attack.
Instrumental in the Reds’ run into the Super Rugby playoffs and now reinstated in the Wallaby squad under McKenzie, Cooper could be the catalyst that sparks an exciting backline especially if he receives the quick ball that Genia is famous for delivering.
Australia undoubtedly came up against the sternest opposition over the summer in the form of the Lions and the displays of individuals likes Christian Lealiifano (who would probably have won the series for Australia if he hadn’t been KO’d in the first minute of the first Test), Folau and Michael Hooper will give their southern hemisphere rivals cause for concern. Hooper could hold the key to keeping a ‘refreshed’ Richie McCaw at bay, though if the Lions series showed one thing it was a lack of consistency. This could be the difference between them and the All Blacks – 2nd.
South Africa were barely challenged over the summer, convincingly thumping both Italy and Scotland in the SARU’s quadrangular tournament in June (though Scotland put up a brave display in Nelspruit) before convincingly thumping Samoa in the ‘final’. JJ Engelbrecht and Bryan Habana ran in three tries a piece across the tournament while Morné Steyn and deputy kicker Pat Lambie systematically knocked over conversions and penalties.
The RC will be a wholly different kettle of fish and the Springboks will do well to avoid a repeat of last year when they were beaten by Australia in Perth and by New Zealand in Johannesburg. Coming away from Mendoza with only a draw would also have cut deep.
A few of Heyneke Meyer’s side made their debuts during the summer tournament so the squad will have developed at least some cohesion but the inevitable game plan of beating their opponents into submission through physicality will not be enough. There is no doubting the strength of the All Blacks pack but even the Wallaby front row, which had previously been such a concern, fought heroically against the likes of Alex Corbisiero and Adam Jones. That said, the power of Sharks flanker Willem Alberts, his Super Rugby team mate Tendai ‘The Beast’ Mtawarira and Western Province no.8 Duane Vermeulen are a number of imposing names in the squad. Vermeulen returns from a long injury lay-off to replace Pierre Spies, who misses the remainder of the season with a torn bicep muscle.
Elsewhere in the back row Francois Louw is a maestro at the breakdown begging the question: ‘Why is the northern hemisphere so short of top quality openside flankers?’ Louw, who last week signed an extension to his contract with Bath, will go up against his club team mate Argentinean hooker Eusebio Guinazu in Johannesburg this afternoon.
The Springboks also boast IRB Young Player of the Year Eben Etzebeth amongst their ranks. Still just 21, the young lock has filled the enforcer role left open by Bakkies Botha and is an immense presence as a ball-carrier and defender, whilst also being a nimble line-out jumper. Anyone that can put Bismarck du Plessis on his arse has to be worth a mention: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZCHFsHlKpoo
While South Africa’s home opener against Argentina could be seen as an easy warm up, three consecutive away games, the return fixture against the Pumas followed by tough trips to the Suncorp Stadium and then Eden Park, will take their toll. Should they fare better in that trip to Argentina (last year they escaped with a draw) they will set themselves up nicely but that schedule could prove too much – 3rd.
Argentina put in an admirable display in their first RC campaign last year against the three best sides in the world. A draw to South Africa and two narrow defeats to Australia proved that, even without a domestic professional league, the national side is able to compete at the highest level.
However, the Pumas have since experienced a horrendous dip in form, suffering through two Tests against England, who were missing their Lions stars and a number of rested senior players (Robshaw, Ashton, Flood, etc), during which they conceded ten tries. Even the Argentinean scrum, so long renowned as their most potent weapon, struggled.
Despite the naming of veteran internationals Juan Martin Hernandez and Felipe Contepomi in the squad, Argentina will struggle. They simply won’t be able to compete with the might and experience of their southern hemisphere counterparts. Even the presence of talismanic captain Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe won’t be enough – 4th.