The Rugby Championship
New-look southern hemisphere battle set to kick off
August 15, 2012
The Pumas will hope that Juan Martin Hernandez is at his very best for the Championship © Getty Images
This Saturday sees the inaugural Rugby Championship kick-off with Argentina set to vie with New Zealand, Australia and South Africa for the sport's newest trophy.
It will be the first time the Pumas have taken on their illustrious rivals in the battle for the southern hemisphere title and they start their campaign in Cape Town against the Springboks. Elsewhere, World Cup-holders New Zealand face Australia in the opening Bledisloe Cup clash in Sydney. Ahead of the tournament, ESPN assesses how each team will fare and also looks at who the key protagonists could be.
Coach: Santiago Phelan took charge of the Pumas back in 2008 replacing Marcelo Loffreda, the man who took Argentina to third place in the 2007 World Cup. The most notable showing we have seen from the Pumas since was in the 2011 World Cup where they fell at the quarter-final stage to the All Blacks.
Team: They still have a myriad of talent with El Magico Juan Martin Hernandez in their ranks alongside Toulon's Juan Fernandez Lobbe and most of the Montpellier team. Then there's the Aviva Premiership contingent with Gonzalo Camacho, Horacio Agulla and Marcos Ayerza all in the reckoning. This is topped off with veteran prop Rodrigo Roncero packing down for probably his top-level rugby swansong. It's an impressive line-up, but it'll need the whole XV to be firing at the same time if they are to halt the other three sides in the competition.
Key Player: It has to be that man Hernandez. On his day few can stop the fly-half with him possessing all manner of skills. He is a penchant for the drop-goal and for the sensational but the Pumas will need his game-controlling ability to be strong if they are to be competitive.
Form: The Pumas played three matches in the South American Championship back in May with a team void of their Top 14 Orange and Aviva Premiership players. But that did not seem to deter them as they dispatched Uruguay 40-5, Brazil 111-0 and then Chile 59-6. They then played Italy in San Juan and overcame the Azzurri 37-22. Their June Test line-up was completed by back-to-back matches with France where they won the first clash 23-20 but then lost the follow up 49-10.
They have finished their pre-Rugby Championship preparations with two matches against Stade Francais, losing the first game 25-21 and taking the second 31-17.
Odds: The bookies are holding out little hope for the Pumas with bet365 offering odds of 100/1 for them to win the Championship.
Coach: Robbie Deans is a man under pressure.They had a mixed June Test series and all this came after their third-placed finish at the 2011 World Cup which did little to raise the morale back in Australia. Deans is facing some criticism from various quarters but with a new-look coaching set-up - with Munster's Tony McGahan among those now onboard - there are no excuses available to the Wallabies.
David Pocock will be key to Australia's aspirations © Getty Images
Team: The key decision Deans faces is whether to play Quade Cooper or Berrick Barnes at fly-half. Since the end of the World Cup Barnes has been consistently better at both Super Rugby and international level, with Cooper forced to spend a lengthy time on the sidelines through injury and recuperation. For the opener, he has gone for Barnes but this may change throughout the tournament. Around the duo, the team has a familiar feel with Kurtley Beale, David Pocock and Adam Ashley-Cooper all lining up. It will be Nathan Sharpe's swansong and it is unlikely that we will see 36-year-old Radike Samo pulling on the green and gold for much longer.
Key Player: Skipper and talisman David Pocock will be the Wallabies' key player. The debate over who should start at fly-half will probably rage throughout the whole tournament but you can bet on Pocock going about his openside business with the usual ruthless efficiency.
Form: The Wallabies started their June schedule in the worst possible way - a home defeat to Scotland. The result 9-6 paints the correct picture - it was a match dominated by forwards and the boot in what were horrendous conditions, but excuses aside, it was a poor way for Deans' side to start their Test series.
They went on to win all three games against Wales but they were perhaps lucky to come away with the clean-sweep of victories. The first Test saw them down Wales 27-19 with Barnes shining at fly-half. The follow up game a week later had Wales clinching defeat from the jaws of victory with Mike Harris nailing a last-gasp penalty to give them a 25-23 win. Going into the third Test, Wales were playing for pride and again it was agonizingly close with Australia edging it by a solitary point, 20-19.
Odds: The Tri-Nations champions are second favourites to take the title with odds of 4/1 on offer.
Coach: It will be Steve Hansen's first competition as All Blacks boss and he will not be granted a honeymoon period like other coaches may be given on the international scene. He has already led the All Blacks to a three-Test win over Ireland but with the Tri-Nations trophy lying on the wrong side of the Tasman, from a Kiwi point of view at least, his remit will be to bring the Rugby Championship gong back to New Zealand.
Ma'a Nonu is in the All Blacks mix © Getty Images
Team: The All Blacks have opted to go for a similar squad to the one that appeared against Ireland back in June with only one new cap - Charlie Faumuina - in the party. Other than that, it's a bunch of familiar faces for those who are aficionados of the southern hemisphere game. Flyers such as Cory Jane, Julian Savea, Ben Smith, Hosea Gear and Israel Dagg will provide the pace in the back three with Dan Carter pulling the strings like the master puppeteer he is at half-back. Kieran Read will hope to bury any doubts over his fitness at the back of the scrum with Richie McCaw skippering the team at openside.
And then there's that man Sonny Bill Williams. The soon-to-be Japan bound centre was integral to the Chiefs' 2012 Super Rugby win and will be available for the first two matches of the tournament for the All Blacks. He will be a massive loss to them once he journeys to Japan and then back to rugby league so Hansen et al will hope that Ma'a Nonu is back to his rampaging best in the centres.
Key Player: Kieran Read has endured some injury-ravaged months but, on his day, is still the best No.8 in world rugby. The All Blacks will hope that he is back to his World Cup best when they travel to Australia for the start of the tournament.
Form: It was 3 and 0 for the All Blacks against Ireland in June. They eased past Ireland in the first Test but had to rely on Dan Carter's late drop-goal to down a spirited Irish side in the second match. Come game three, it was far too easy for the All Blacks as they breezed past Declan Kidney's side with a 60-0 win.
Odds: New Zealand are clear favourites to win the tournament with bet365 offering odds of 8/15 on them to triumph.
Coach: The Boks have turned to Heyneke Meyer to spearhead what they hope will be a return to the same dominance they experienced back in 2007 and Meyer has started his term in charge of the national side with a pair of wins over England. Unlike Hansen, Meyer seems to have been granted more breathing space by the South African Rugby Union, but if his side fall off the pace or, perish the thought, lose against the Pumas, then the pressure will be on Meyer to turn around their fortunes sooner rather than later.
Francois Hougaard looks set to start at half-back for the Boks © Getty Images
Team: Meyer has opted to stick with under-fire fly-half Morne Steyn despite his horror show against England a couple of months ago. They continue to ignore their Japan-based contingent so Francois Hougaard is expected to continue at scrum-half in place of Fourie du Preez while Jean de Villiers looks likely to partner Francois Steyn in their midfield with Jaque Fourie still chasing the yen. Their front-row looks settled with Eben Etzebeth, Andries Bekker and Juandre Kruger providing the grunt behind them in the second-row.
But it is the back-row which might cause Meyer some headaches. Pierre Spies, Schalk Burger and Juan Smith will miss the tournament while Duane Vermeulen will sit out the opening couple of clashes. That means we may see a starting back-row of Marcell Coetzee, Willem Alberts and Jaques Potgieter against the Pumas with Keegan Daniel and Siya Kolisi also in the mix. And with JP Pietersen sidelined, Meyer will have to re-jig their back three but they have some solid players in that department - no one more so than former IRB Player of the Year Bryan Habana.
Key Player: This tournament should be Bismarck du Plessis' official unveiling and long overdue confirmation as the best hooker in the world. He has previously played second-fiddle to John Smit, but with the ex-Boks captain out of the picture at Saracens, Du Plessis will get the nod in the front-row so expect fireworks from the Sharks hooker.
Form: They came out of the Test series against England with a 2-0 win and while in the first two matches they were at times irresistible, notably in the second Test when they stormed into an early 22-3 lead, Meyer will have been worried at his team's inability to complete the whitewash in the third game. England could, and perhaps should, have won the third Test and the 14-14 draw would have done little for either side. With Argentina lying in wait for the Boks' first match, Meyer will be keen to put down a marker against the tournament new boys.
Odds: They are third favourites to take the title with bet365 offering odds of 10/3 on them to triumph.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.