The Rugby Championship is here with the Southern Hemisphere giants going at it for three action packed rounds. In all honesty, it is hard to know what to make of the Rugby Championship 2015, given that the focus for all teams is the Rugby World Cup. This means that we should expect to see some testing of new combinations and fresh faces included in teams to see if they sink or swim, while there will be a fine line between blooding players and resting them.
Australia and South Africa both host two games each, while Argentina and New Zealand host one game only. New Zealand hosts Argentina this weekend. All is not lost for teams that got a bad draw, when you consider that the only time the All Blacks didn’t win a Rugby Championship in Rugby World Cup year, they won the Rugby World Cup instead.
Interestingly, most fans and teams know not to read too much into this condensed version of the Rugby Championship, but there are such high expectations on the All Blacks for example, that they will have to be careful to tread that fine line between winning and experimenting. This competition will be fast paced with only three matches for each team, so one defeat could be all it takes to eliminate a team from winning the championship. No team has ever won both The Rugby Championship and Rugby World Cup in the same calendar year.
There are some interesting selections across the teams for Round 1. Some of these selections include the selection of the exciting Waisake Naholo for the All Blacks, outside SBW and Ma’a Nonu. It will be hard to tell how he will go without his Highlanders team mates like Ben Smith, Malakai Fekitoa and Aaron Smith to help him. The Wallabies, are looking back to the future with Matt Giteau starting in the midfield outside Will Genia and Quade Cooper. These guys bring plenty of experience to this team.
The Springboks will start Schalk Burger at Number Eight, while they have gone with Handre Pollard to start against Australia.
Argentina has named an experienced line up, with a couple of young new players who will get a chance to impress against the All Blacks.
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Pool name: Super Rugby Tips
Pool code: esaualas
The Rugby Championship Round 1
New Zealand vs Argentina in Christchurch
The makeshift ground in Christchurch will host the All Blacks vs Argentina in a rare Friday night test match. Watch for cold and slippery conditions to make this game a difficult one. This means that while the All Blacks have never lost to Argentina, they may struggle to put a large score on the improving Argentinian side.
The All Blacks were far from convincing against Manu Samoa last week and players like Israel Dagg, Keven Mealamu and Tony Woodcock will have to improve to keep their spots in the All Blacks squad. Interestingly, the All Blacks can still boast an impressive team, yet they are still missing their stars like Aaron Smith, Ben Smith, Conrad Smith, Dane Coles and Julian Savea.
Dan Carter seems to suddenly be the first choice Number 10, but it will be interesting to see how he goes with TJ Perenara in the halves. Waisake Naholo is the only Highlanders player in the team, and so it will be interesting to see how this excitement machine goes without his buddies like Ben Smith, Malakai Fekitoa and Aaron Smith around him. His partnership with Aaron Smith was brilliant in the Super Rugby playoffs.
Codie Taylor from the Crusaders should make his debut off the bench for the All Blacks who with the exception of the rested Sam Whitelock, boast their strongest forward pack.
Argentina has plenty of experience with Marcos Ayerza, Agustin Creevy and Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe
The Pumas are resting some key players like Juan Martin Hernandez and Tomas Lavanini, and have given three youngsters their first Rugby Championship starts in Facundo Isa, Guido Petti and Santiago Cordero.
These two teams have played 11 times in New Zealand and the All Blacks have won with an average score of 48-11, although since the 2011 Rugby World Cup the margins have been closer. In saying this, the closest winning margin between these teams in New Zealand has been 15 points. Argentina struggle to score tries against the All Blacks, with two tries in 2001 their best effort.
The teams have played each other 20 times, with the All Blacks winning 19 and drawing once in 1986. The average score between these teams is 41-13 to the All Blacks.
Argentina has improved recently, registering their first Rugby Championship win in their last game, last season and two away wins in their November Internationals over Italy and France. They tend to play better with more time together, hence they won the last game of the Rugby Championship last year and their last two games on the November tour, so maybe this game isn’t going to be very easy for them.
Given the cold and damp conditions, don’t expect a massive win for the All Blacks, but hopefully they reduce their mistakes from the Samoa game. The forward battle will be exciting, but the All Blacks pose too much of a threat out-wide even without Ben Smith and Julian Savea. Argentina need to improve their attack if they are to threaten the All Blacks, or at least find a way of stopping the All Blacks from scoring.
My pick: All Blacks by 16 points
Australia vs South Africa
This is the match of the round, when you consider that these two teams have in or two games over the past season threatened the All Blacks, but just struggled to consistently match it with the best team in the world. Australia has a proud record at home and will be tough to beat. This game will be an excellent opportunity to see how well these two teams are progressing, heading into the Rugby World Cup.
There have been plenty of selections to talk about. This is all about seeing who sinks or swims with an eye towards the Rugby World Cup.
The battle of the first five eighths will be worth the price of admission alone, with Quade Cooper and Handre Pollard good ball players. There will be plenty of interest in how this new look Wallabies backline goes, with more of an emphasis on experience seeing Matt Giteau and Will Genia returning to start. They should be a calming influence on Cooper and for Australia’s sake will be looking to help halt the Wallabies recent bad run of results.
There will be plenty of interest in the performance of Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel in the Springboks midfield. The selection of Schalk Burger at Number Eight is also another talking point, while the Springboks backline looks strong with Bryan Habana and Willie Le Roux. It will be interesting to see if the forwards from the disappointing Sharks can step up on the international stage after a disappointing Super Rugby campaign.
The Springboks looked good in dispatching the World XV in preparation, while the Wallabies have had a limited build up to this test match. It is hard to know how much to read into this.
Can the experienced Quade Cooper and Will Genia guide their team to a win on their home ground of Suncorp Stadium?
The Wallabies have a good home record against the Springboks, winning 22 from 35 games. They won the last game between these teams last year, although the last time these teams played on this ground, in 2013, the Springboks won convincingly. The Wallabies have won five of the last six games in Australia between these two teams. Overall, the Springboks have a healthy lead, including winning four of the last five games between these teams, even if most of these were in South Africa.
It is difficult to know how the experimental chopping and changing will go, with both midfields unproven. We think the Wallabies will be underdone, without a decent game before this test match. We saw how some Super Rugby players were underdone for the All Blacks vs Samoa and we think that Wallabies lack of a test before this match might put them on the back foot.
The Springboks looked good against the World XV and won comfortably, scoring some good tries.
This goes against the bookies odds in this match which is hard to pick.
Our pick: Springboks by 6 points
Who are you picking to win the Rugby Championship Round 1 games?