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Game Of Thrones: The Rugby Championship Sub Plots

The excitement is building and the anticipation is palpable.

The Rugby World Cup kicks off in just over 2 months and preparations are well under way across the globe. The Northern Hemisphere contenders are safely ensconced in their training camps, working diligently ahead of their warm up fixtures in August. For now however, the gap in the fixture list will be filled with a truncated version of the Rugby Championship, as New Zealand, Australia, Argentina and South Africa get to strut their stuff ahead of international rugby’s showpiece event.

The Rugby Championship has been reduced to facilitate the World Cup and each team will face each other just once over the coming weeks. While no team will want to give away many secrets ahead of the World Cup, there is no denying the competitive nature of the Rugby Championship will stand to the Southern Hemisphere giants as they will get to test their players in an intense and heated environment.

We will not get to enjoy a full Rugby Championship fixture list, but it should still prove just lengthy enough to really whet the appetite to get us in the mood for the festival of rugby that awaits in the autumn.

Here are some things to look out for in the weeks ahead that may give us some clues as to how the World Cup may pan out for these sides.

New Zealand:

The undeniable kings of World Rugby, it’s quite possible the only team capable of preventing the All Blacks becoming the first team to retain the Rugby World Cup, are the All Blacks themselves.

New Zealand have shown time and again their ability to dispose of all challengers with ease during World Cup cycles, yet when it gets to the main event they visibly tense up and play within themselves. They have never won a World Cup that they haven’t hosted, and even in 2011 they fell over the line in the end as opposed to claiming the title with any real conviction.

The Kiwis have a deeper talent pool than any other nation in the world, yet coming into this tournament there will be question marks over some of the central figures of the team.

Richie McCaw (34), Tony Woodcock (34), Dan Carter (33), Conrad Smith (33), Ma’a Nonu (33) and Keven Mealamu (36) are vital cogs in the All Black system, but have huge mileage on the clock with a combined total of 655 caps. While Smith and Nonu are coming off excellent personal Super Rugby campaigns, the feeling persists that McCaw is on the wane, and Carter was well short of his imperious best.

Indeed, the most well rounded and talented out half of his generation spent large parts of the season playing inside centre for the Crusaders as opposed to in his favoured number 10 shirt.

The Kiwis often start their international seasons slowly and the disjointed outing against Samoa last week proved this theory, as they were sloppy in execution all over the park. The longer they are in camp together, the better they get. They have the most difficult fixture list of all the teams though this time around, opening with a home game against Argentina before having to face trips to South Africa and Australia.

They will want to balance giving their front line players enough game time to burn off the dirty petrol as well as giving the understudies enough time on the field in pressure situations should they be required when the main event rolls around.

Argentina:

It’s one thing being a wedding crasher and another thing entirely being a groomsman. Having spent years pulling off upsets by beating higher ranked and sufficiently better supported teams, Argentina can no longer hide behind the tag of the underdog. However, managing expectations is a two way street and with added competiveness of regular Rugby Championship action the game is expected to grow in the football mad country.

Having joined an expanded Tri Nations in 2012, the Pumas have struggled to cope with the leaders of the world game, winning just a solitary fixture from their 18 outings.

It’s a shame for some of Argentina’s greatest stalwarts such as Roderigo Roncero and Mario Ledesma, that inclusion in a regular championship has come after their impressive careers came to an end. Yet, following an incredible 3rd place finish at the 2007 World Cup, and a quarter final outing in 2011, Argentina finally earned the right to compete with the best on a regular basis. The Pumas don’t have the luxury of selecting players from centrally contracted franchises, so it can be difficult to get combinations firing from the off.

However, they will now have a long lead in time to the World Cup together which should stand to them.

While they don’t have the depth or range of talent of the other three sides they will be competing against, in Marcos Ayerza and Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe they have two of the best players in their positions in world rugby. In addition, Nicolas Sanchez, Juan Imhoff and Augustin Creevy are talented internationals, who will be looking to further their reputations. These next few weeks will be about working on conditioning and building up match fitness ahead of bigger things, they have never had as intensive a preparation period ahead of a World Cup campaign.

They won’t be fancied to win the Rugby Championship but they are expected to qualify from their World Cup Pool with relative ease. The two sides of expectation.

Australia:

Another new dawn, and another new era for Australian rugby.

Stability hasn’t been a recurring theme for the Aussies, either in terms of playing staff or coaching staff, since they last ruled the World in 1999. Ex Leinster supremo Michael Cheika is their sixth head coach in 15 years. Australia have a habit of ignoring the form guide though, and on their day are capable of beating anyone. Having been pitched in the most challenging of World Cup Pools, the intensity of the Rugby Championship may stand to the Wallabies more than any of the other teams competing in this year’s edition.

They need to hit the ground running when they land in England in a couple of months.

The additions of Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell following and adjustment to Austraila’s selection policy regarding overseas players will add serious depth to a back line that already looked difficult to select. While the return to form and fitness of David Pocock and Michael Hooper’s continued excellence in this season’s Super Rugby campaign will pose huge back row threat to everyone they face.

The Achilles heel will, as ever, be the front row where the Wallabies will need to gain parity in order to bring their talented array of backs into the equation.

This is where the competition within the Rugby Championship will be massively beneficial. If they can find a front row to hold their own against the Boks, Pumas and All Blacks they will be confident of handing the English and Welsh in September.

Cheika is a proven winner having won trophies with Leinster and the Waratahs during his time in charge of those sides, now fully focused on the national job, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if he landed a piece of silverware over the coming months. Home games against New Zealand and South Africa give them a great chance of claiming a first Rugby Championship crown, and a first title since 2011 Tri Nations.

South Africa:

A noted nation when it comes to producing stellar forwards, and a style of rugby that grinds opponents into submission, there could be a seismic shift in South African rugby over the coming years.

The quality of young, adventurous backs now coming through on the Super Rugby scene, means the Springboks can no longer ignore the double digits in an attacking sense. A side who once deployed Bryan Habana as their only potent attacking weapon, are now spoiled for choice with emerging talent. Jesse Kriel, Damian de Allende, Willie Le Roux and Handre Pollard are all vying for selection in a revamped South African side.

Led by Victor Matfield, South Africa can still call on a number of winners form the 2007 World Cup, and 2009 Tri Nations, and this experience will be key in guiding the young guns through a challenging period of fixtures.

The loss of Duane Vermeulen for the Rugby Championship is a blow, but will present Warren Whiteley with the chance to stake a claim for the No.8 jersey should Vermeulen not be available come the World Cup. Whiteley has been outstanding in recent campaigns for the Lions and thoroughly deserves the chance to test himself against the best.

The carefree approach often undertaken by younger players, often unscarred by defeats to rivals, should bring a welcome freshness to the Springbok set up. Their opening clash with Australia should be a supremely entertaining fixture as both sides will be looking to set their talented backlines free. South Africa know how to play a ten man game, and the presence of big booted Morne Steyn and Pat Lambie in the squad means Heyneke Meyer won’t be turning his back on the ten man game entirely. The Boks know that works and will fall back to that approach if necessary.

This Rugby Championship allows the new wave of backs to prove their worth, and prove this is the approach the South Africans should take going forward.

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Author: The PA Team

This article was written by a member of The PA Team.