By: Scott McGlynn
July 17th sees the Rugby Championship kick off with New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Argentina battling it out to be crowned the kings of the southern hemisphere rugby world. With the Rugby World Cup in September looming large, this year’s Rugby Championship will be a reduced format with each team playing the other teams only once, rather than the normal home and away format. Despite the reduced format, all four teams will be looking to be as competitive as they can as they look to build towards September.
New Zealand are the defending champions having won the Rugby Championship for the last three seasons, they go into this year’s renewal as the favourites to make it four titles in a row. Steve Hansen and his players will have to be at their best however, with only the one home game, against Argentina, before difficult trips to Johannesburg to face South Africa and then Sydney to take on old rivals Australia. Hansen will be hoping for strong performances in their three games as they look to defend their World Cup title in September.
South African rugby is in transition at the moment as they look to increase the number of black players playing the game with the introduction of the quota system at domestic level. Internationally, South Africa coach Heyneke Meyer has been hindered with injury issues to a number of key players. The news this week that captain Jean de Villiers is fit to resume playing after suffering a career threatening knee injury was overshadowed by the news that number eight, Duane Vermeulen,may now miss the World Cup with a neck injury. This epitomises the problems that South Africa have faced this season, one influential player returning but another suffering a severe injury. Meyer will be hoping that he can use the three Rugby Championship games to blood new players in time for the challenge of aiming to win their third World Cup in September.
Australia have not won the Rugby Championship since 2011 when it was still the Tri-Nations Series. Coach Michael Cheika has this week named a 40-man squad as he keeps his options open for both the Rugby Championship and the World Cup. Included in the squad are French based players Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell, a result of the relaxation of selecting foreign based players by the Australian Rugby Union. A disappointing Autumn tour of Europe saw Australia lose all three test matches and Cheika will be hoping for improved performances in Australia’s next three games to hopefully take confidence into the World Cup.
Argentina won their first ever Rugby Championship game last year with a 21-17 victory over Australia in Mendoza. Their only home game of this year’s tournament is again against Australia in Mendoza and they will be focussing fully on that game as they look to put down a marker going into the World Cup. Since joining the Rugby Championship, Argentina’s performances have improved every year and they again will be looking to see improvement from this year’s tournament.
New Zealand are the 1.91 (10/11) favourites to win their fourth consecutive Rugby Championship. South Africa are 3.25 (9/4), Australia 6 (5/1) and Argentina 101 (100/1).