The best rugby teams the northern hemisphere has to offer were dispatched in the June Tests and the focus now turns to the revamped Rugby Championship, featuring the Wallabies, All Blacks, Springboks and new entrants the Pumas, of Argentina.
The All Blacks, now world champions who smashed Ireland 60-0 in their last outing, may appear favourites, but the Championship is arguably the sport’s toughest international competition, the level of rugby and the amount of travel involved meaning there is never a soft game.
Former All Black captain Sean Fitzpatrick, who played 92 Tests for his country, says South Africa, despite a recent 21-21 draw with England, will not lie down, and Australia, the competition’s current champions, are a wily side with something to prove.
And, he says, don’t underestimate Argentina, who have been given a helping hand by former New Zealand World Cup-winning coach Graham Henry.
“The Pumas are a very good side – if they can get their top players on the field,” Fitzpatrick says. “The structures Henry will put in place will benefit them in years to come. The things he implemented with Wales all those years ago, we’re starting to see them bear fruit now. Still, right now, the Pumas can compete with the best.”
Of the All Blacks, Fitzpatrick says new faces on the periphery, guys such as Crusaders centre Robbie Fruean and Chiefs halfback Tawera Kerr-Barlow, make it an exciting time to be an NZ fan. The depth in almost every position is comforting, too.
“[New coach] Steve Hansen wants to create his own identity, and he’s going about that. There was a lot of talk after the World Cup of a hangover and I think they made it very clear against the Irish that they’d moved on from that,” he says. “This is a new team and the World Cup has nothing to do with it any more, which is great.”
However, the midfield is the one worry. Centre Conrad Smith, who Fitzpatrick says has been in “the form of his life”, will not figure early in the competition, due to an eye injury, his leadership both on and off the field leaving a large gap. And then there’s the loss of Sonny Bill Williams, who was fantastic all season as part of the Chiefs Super 15-winning squad, but will soon leave to take up big-money contracts in Japanese rugby and then Australia’s NRL. If he’s not released to play against Australia, Hansen will have a puzzle.
“Maybe Hansen could play Aaron Cruden at number 10, Dan Carter at 12 and Ma’a Nonu at 13,” Fitzpatrick suggests. “But he would be reluctant to move the best number 10 in world rugby to number 12. However, you never know. Whether Nonu has enough pace at 13 is another question …”
Despite a rosy outlook on the depth the All Blacks hold, Fitzpatrick is still loath to name them as favourites, and like all Kiwis, still worries what will happen should the side’s lynchpins, Carter and captain Richie McCaw, suffer injury.
“Australia is always a tough side with their best XV on the field and South Africa has shown they were more than up to it against England,” he says. ”It’s going to be an exciting series.”
Former Springbok Thinus Delport, who joins Fitzpatrick on Sky Sports’ punditry panel, would love to only be concerned about his country’s midfield stocks. South Africa’s locking ranks are so depleted, there’s talk of recalling veteran Bakkies Botha, who now plies his trade with Toulon. Add injuries to wing JP Pietersen and loose forward Shalk Burger, and Delport could be forgiven for being a little pessimistic.
“If we’re missing a couple of first choices, and Morne Steyn’s kicking is not up to his usual very high standards, we’ll find it tough to compete,” Delport says. “We do have great frontline players – like midfielder Frans Steyn, hooker Bismarck du Plessis and lock Willem Alberts – who can win the series for us if they can stay largely injury free. The big challenge for the coaching staff this year with the extended series is the management of those key players.”
The 18-test veteran says the Boks’ strength lies in a physical, mobile pack with big ball-carrying runners. “Behind the pack, Frans Steyn will also add a lot of bulk and momentum in the mid-field,” he says. “However, we lack an alternative if the big runners get stopped on or behind the gainline. Depth is still a concern, but my blood is green – the Boks can win it.”
Delport also has confidence in new coach Heyneke Meyer, who has already copped heavy criticism from South African fans for his selections, and says the Springboks will be able to build on the foundations he has implemented so far.
“He’s is a very well-organised coach who is very confident in the structures he has put in place,” Delport says. ”He is also a very good motivator and expects high standards. Although Meyer is a little bit conservative in his playing approach, the players will know exactly what to execute.”
And by now, the members of the other three teams will know exactly what to execute, too. Attacking plans are in place, defensive strategies have been sussed. All that’s left to do is take the field and perform with the right combination of strength and skill. Granted, it’s far easier said than done, but the side that achieves it best (and suffers the least injuries) will truly be able to claim southern supremacy.
Prepare for war.
Sky Sports will show The Rugby Championship live and in HD beginning on Saturday 18 August.