The Rugby Championship has an odd feel to it this year with so many unfamiliar faces in the squads.
This year’s tournament is one of the hardest to predict but here are some potential pointers that could help shed light on the sides as we approach the start of the tournament.
Fans from this side of the globe have a pretty good idea of what sort of form the All Blacks are in. The first Test against the Lions showed that the All Blacks are still the best team on the planet at generating quick ball.
Steve Hansen highlighted how teams try and always fail to bully their tight five, which has ridiculously been perceived as a weakness by coaches in the past. Players like Joe Moody and Sam Whitelock don’t get the respect they deserve.
Without their work speeding up ball retention and clearing out rucks, the Kiwis can’t thrive.
Typically teams like Argentina and South Africa have tried to take the All Blacks on up front, but I fear they lack the fire power nowadays and it would be wise for them to steer clear of this plan.
No other team has the courage to listen to their rugby instinct in the same way Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett did against the Lions.
Quick taps, cross field kicks and offloads are never off the cards. As players they trust in their ability with ball in hand and their error count is normally very low.
Ultimately, they are so good because they have the superstars who can light a game on fire and they balance that out with grafters like Jerome Kaino who often go unnoticed.
Still the team to beat.
Steve Hansen’s main worry will be his strength in depth. This has typically been a major asset for the Kiwis, but since the exodus of ‘B’ quality players leaving for the money of France, there has been a slight talent vacuum.
Charlie Faumunia leaving for Toulouse and Owen Franks struggling with an Achilles injury mean the four-times capped Nepo Laulala could start.
Dane Coles’ head injury is a huge worry and they will not be able to call on the hugely reliable Aaron Cruden off the bench anymore.
Lastly, Ben Smith will miss four games on sabbatical and Jordie Barrett is out for the season which means either Israel Dagg will have to revert back to full back or Damian McKenzie will have a baptism of fire in the Rugby Championship.
In the past, their match day squad has been solid all the way through. For the first time in years, Hansen will be worried about the lack of experience on the bench, it could cost them in tense moments at the death.
Key Player: Brodie Retallick
Breakout star: Damian McKenzie
Predicted to finish: first
The Springboks seem to be enjoying a resurgence lately. The Lions and Stormers reaching the final stages shows that they have some of best players in Super Rugby.
Although the squad selected by Alistair Coetzee is young, players like Jaco Kriel, Malcom Marx and Eben Etzebeth were in blistering form over the year.
The lock quartet of Etzebeth, Lood de Jager, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Franco Mostert is second only to England in terms of quality in depth and they will provide the Boks with plenty of physicality as they play the archetypical bruising enforcer role that Bakkies Botha made famous.
Out wide South Africa have proven finishers in Courtnall Skosan and Dillyn Leyds who scored nine tries apiece and looked untouchable at times.
Above all though, the 3-0 whitewash of a powerful French side will give them hope. It showed that their direct brand of rugby can flourish against attacking sides.
They targeted the fringes with a high volume of carries and earned the right to spread the ball after building momentum through the phases.
The fans can feel excited going into the tournament and hope that troubles of the past are behind them.
Only Eben Etzebeth and an ageing Tendai Mtawarira have over 50 caps in the Boks squad. This is a major worry.
To add to their woes, captain Warren Whiteley is out for at least five weeks.
Who is going to make the big calls in the heat of the moment? Will their inexperienced players have the courage to make important decisions with so much on the line?
Can they show maturity as a side that has only played three times together? These are all questions that they need to answer going forward.
Elsewhere, much will rely on Elton Jantjies who has a habit of choking on the big stage.
If he can’t perform, they may have to rely on an incredibly rusty Handré Pollard or the 20-year-old Curwin Bosch.
Sometimes youthful exuberance can improve a team, I just worry their enthusiasm and passion may outweigh calm decision making in crucial moments.
Key Player: Elton Jantjies
Breakout star: Courtnall Skosan
Predicted to finish: second
No other side can say that their whole squad has played together all year.
On paper, this Argentina squad should know each other inside out. Although Los Jaguares only won seven from 15, their performances toward the tail end of the season against the Rebels and the Waratahs were proof that when they click, they can blow away sides.
They can still rely on one of the best rolling mauls in the game with the inspirational captain Augustin Creevy directing from the back.
The Pumas scrum was also a deadly weapon against England in the summer, which against Australia especially could be the difference.
However, as they have progressed it has become clear that they are not a one-trick pony.
When they are confident and start flinging the ball wide in front of their home crowd they really can threaten from anywhere. Watch out for Pablo Matera who was named in most pundits’ Super Rugby Team of the Year.
He proved too much for Michael Hooper in their win over the Waratahs with his manic aggression in the tackle area he could be their key to getting a few wins at this year’s tournament.
Discipline is a massive issue for both the Pumas and the Jaguares.
Especially in the pack, fiery characters like Thomas Lavanini and Ramiro Herrera have a tendency of losing their heads at key stages.
On too many occasions over the season have they had to finish a game with 14 men. What they would do for some cool heads like Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, Juan Imhoff and Marcelo Bosch!
Equally, subbing Agustin Creevy off after 55 minutes regardless of the situation is almost always followed by a dip in performance.
A leader like him with a good engine should play for as long as possible.
While the scrum and maul are good weapons, the Pumas cannot rely on them to win them games.
The other packs are too strong (bar maybe the Aussies) too be dominated and the refereeing at scrum time is too inconsistent nowadays.
It is evident that at times the Pumas run out of ideas. That is to say, when they are chasing a game or need to score tries they struggle to build phases and keep the score board ticking over.
Some composure and strategy is badly needed if they are going to avoid coming last this year.
Key Player: Pablo Matera
Breakout star: Manuel Montero
Predicted to finish: third
The Wallabies can still rely on star quality throughout the squad. Israel Folau is still one of the most dangerous attacking rugby players on the planet.
Kurtley Beale has been ripping his way through Premiership defences and gliding like his former self.
Michael Hooper is an absolute terrier who will give his body to the cause as captain and Bernard Foley has proven that he can be a game changer.
Their slick handling and set piece moves are still hard to defend against. Beale’s presence will confuse oppositions defences, as he, Tevita Kuridrani and Folau are all excellent strike runners off Foley.
The pack may look a little thin on the ground, but their backline on looks to be the most dangerous in the tournament.
The jokers in the pack, Marika Koroibete and Curtis Rona are still unknown entities and could prove to be world class, we just haven’t seen enough of them yet.
They could be a massive surprise factor in the tournament if they play anything like they did in rugby league.
This pack does not fill me with confidence. Tatafu Polota-Nau and Stephen Moore have been great servants of Australian rugby but don’t have the influence on games that Marx and Creevy have.
In the back row, something is missing. That something is David Pocock.
Ned Hannigan and Jack Dempsey could be the finds of the tournament, but are completely untried and untested at this level. Lopeti Timani is the only fit number 8 and although he carries hard, he can be a little one dimensional.
All front rowers selected have had scrum problems this year.
Sekope Kepu in particular had problems with the Jaguares front row and Tom Robertson and Alan Alaalatoa look a couple seasons off international quality.
This pack seriously lacks ball carries and Will Skelton will be a huge loss.
The Australian super rugby outfits have been all over the place this year, culminating in the Western Force being axed.
Making up the bottom four of the conference table is embarrassing for an extremely proud rugby nation and the players have become accustomed to a losing mentality.
Combine this with a loss to Italy and you have an Australian side that is extremely low on confidence.
Will the fans be able to get behind them with so much internal conflict?
It will take a big effort to forget their club form and escape finishing last this year.
Key Player: Bernard Foley
Breakout star: Marika Koroibete
Predicted to finish: fourth
Max Hamid, Pundit Arena
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