The Rugby Championship
Five predictions for the Rugby Championship
August 16, 2013
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The stage is set for the start of this year's Rugby Championship glory with Australia, Argentina, New Zealand and South Africa all primed for action but what can we expect over what is set to be an intense couple of months?
Pumas to punch above their weight
Argentina made their long-overdue debut in the battle for southern hemisphere supremacy last year and did not take long to find their feet. The Pumas' best return was a draw with South Africa in Mendoza - that could so easily have been a home victory with the Boks pulling level late in the game - but there were plenty of other positives. Australia were arguably lucky to escape with two narrow victories while even the all-conquering All Blacks were shackled on their own patch before eventually grinding out a victory.
That regular exposure to the best in the world inspired further success later in the year with a notable victory over Wales in Cardiff and as a result it is no surprise they are dreaming of a first Championship win this year? A series defeat for a largely experimental Pumas side against England earlier this year will have done little to dent their confidence and back to full strength and back they will be out to raise the bar once again. Australia and South Africa have reason to worry.
It'll be like he's never been away
All Blacks captain Richie McCaw often saves his best for this time of year having already pushed his body - and the Crusaders - to the limit during the Super Rugby season. This year, McCaw arrives on the Rugby Championship stage relatively fresh having enjoyed an eight-month sabbatical during which time he has clocked up a few air miles and an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman.
He's eased himself back in with a couple of cameos at the end of the Super Rugby season and a run out in the All Blacks' recent warm-up against a Canterbury XV but don't expect him to be off the pace when he captains the defending champions in their clash against Australia on Saturday. A re-charged McCaw will no doubt lead by example and deliver a string of inspiring performances that will be equally frustrating for opponents. This is the start of McCaw's build-up to the All Blacks' World Cup defence.
Getting to grips with scrums
The Rugby Championship will offer the first high-profile trial of the new 'crouch, bind, set' scrum engagement sequence designed to improve player welfare. It is also hoped it will also improve the set-piece as a spectacle after a plague of re-sets in recent years - but don't hold your breath.
"There could be some teething problems early on," commented All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen recently and if the best practitioners in the game are experiencing then it doesn't look like we're out of the mire just yet. Wallabies hooker Stephen Moore offered more reason for caution: "I'm not sure it's going to be perfect." So while props may be getting a grip on each other, the sport may be scrabbling for a little while yet.
The southern hemisphere has traditionally not suffered as badly as their northern counterparts when it comes to collapses and the worst fear is that this prompts a step in the wrong direction. To succeed, it needs the coaches' and the players' support - time will tell if they are prepared to play ball.
C'mon Aussie, c'mon
Australia's mauling at the hands of the British & Irish Lions last month will go a long way to defining that series but it is worth remembering the Wallabies narrowly missed out in the first Test before claiming the second clash. They may not be equipped to follow the lead of their '01 predecessors, New Zealand (2005) and South Africa (2009) and claim the southern hemisphere title that same year as they faced the Lions, but the bruising nature of the series and the intensity of the tour as a whole should mean they are battle-hardened.
They have, of course, parted ways with their coach Robbie Deans since then but the appointment of Ewen McKenzie and a strong desire to impress a new coaching team offers further reason for hope of a reversal in fortune. Add in the Australian cricket side's shortcomings and doping scandal drama elsewhere Down Under and it is clear the Wallabies have a great chance to build on the exposure provided by the Lions tour and give the sporting public something to cheer.
More pain for Pollock?
Kiwi referee Chris Pollock has been through the wringer in the last year. Sidelined with a hip injury, he battled back to fitness and earned a recall to the elite panel only to be lambasted by British & Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland for his handling of the tourists' first Test victory over Australia.
He recovered some form to earn an appointment for South Africa's clash with Argentina this weekend but a week later he was axed for the Super Rugby play-offs in the wake of his controversial sending off of Blues flanker Kane Barrett. "The best thing for Chris is to get over the last month," commented SANZAR referees boss Lyndon Bray. That time is now up and Pollock will return to centre stage this weekend with the small matter of a high-profile debut of a new scrum engagement sequence for him to oversee while ensuring we have straight feeds - and a flowing and entertaining game, please.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.