The Rugby Championship takes a well-earned rest this weekend, and with two weeks to go, the tournament is by no means over. With that in mind, we thought we’d take a look at how each team has played so far, highlighting what each team can expect over the next few weeks. Times are tough for Australia, whilst New Zealand and South Africa are on cloud nine.
The All Blacks are still the strongest team in the world, and after getting the monkey off their backs following their World Cup in 2011; they seem to have been able to play with an even greater degree of confidence. They’ve won all their games so far, and have chalked up two bonus points, giving them a four-point lead at the top of the table.
The world champions opened their defence of the Rugby Championship with a fantastic win away in Brisbane against Australia and followed that win up at home to clinch the Bledisloe Cup once again. After a week’s break, the All Blacks hosted Argentina in Waikato, again cruising to a comfortable victory – despite the best efforts of the blue and white stripes. A win against South Africa the following week cemented their position at the top of the tree, and barring a disaster; the side will fully expect to retain the championship once again.
What is perhaps most significant about New Zealand’s continued dominance of the competition is that they have played a good proportion of it without chief playmaker Dan Carter. Carter was ruled out of the start of the competition, with Aaron Cruden and Tom Taylor playing at 10 in his stead. Carter did return for the victory over Argentina, but was injured in the following game against South Africa and will now miss the rest of the tournament.
The All Blacks now face Argentina away next weekend before travelling to face the Springboks again in the final match of the round. Despite being at the top of the table, the Kiwis need a good win against Argentina to ensure their position remains intact.
The South African rugby team seems to work in cycles, and following the relative disappointment of the World Cup, the Springboks set to work building a new team, and that team is just beginning to bear fruit for coach Heyneke Meyer.
South Africa opened the tournament with a clinical thrashing of Argentina in Pretoria; the men in green scoring 9 tries as they ripped Argentina apart. The return fixture was a far closer affair, with the Springboks eventually emerging victorious from a scrappy game to win 17-22. Their following game was perhaps the most impressive as they tore Australia apart in Brisbane scoring four tries, with the boot of Christian Lealiifano the only respite for the Wallabies. Sadly for the Springboks, the following week gave them their first banana skin as they were soundly beaten by New Zealand at Eden Park.
Despite their loss to the All Blacks, South Africa are still very much in the hunt for the championship, and a bonus point win at home to Australia next weekend would set up a mouthwatering contest for the following week when they face New Zealand in their final fixture of the tournament. A good win against Australia could well see a ‘winner takes all’ situation in that final fixture, and the Springboks will no doubt feel far more confident about tackling the All Blacks on South African turf.
Just what has happened to Australia? The Wallabies lost their first three fixtures in the tournament offering little resistance as they limply surrendered the fight for the Bledisloe Cup before being humbled at home to South Africa. The men in yellow even struggled to beat Argentina in Perth and the Wallabies could well be heading for one of their most embarrassing tournaments to date.
This of course follows on from the loss to the Lions, when the Wallabies were blown away in the final test by Warren Gatland’s powerful side, and this continued poor form begs the question: why are they struggling so much?
Ex-Reds coach Ewen Mckenzie has replaced Robbie Deans as head coach, with most welcoming this move following Deans’ dismal efforts over the last year or so. However, Mckenzie doesn’t seem to have improved the side’s performance much, begging the question of whether their poor form is as a result of a coaching issue or whether there is a deeper problem in Australian rugby union.
Things are as bad off the field as they are on for the Wallabies, with off-the-field incidents continuing to dog the Qantas sponsored side. The latest of these off-the-field incidents has seen utility back James O’Connor suspended indefinitely by McKenzie after an incident at Perth airport that saw the player – who is currently without a domestic club – refused entry onto a flight on the grounds that he was intoxicated.
This catastrophic run of form could hardly have come at a worse time for the Wallabies with their Autumn tour of Europe coming up; and it seems likely that a number of the Northern Hemisphere sides may fancy a scalp when they host Australia in the coming months.
Argentina are on something of a hiding to nothing as they continue their second year in the competition, but there are certainly signs that the South American side are improving. The increased level of competition – whilst somewhat difficult for Argentina to deal with – will only improve the country’s rugby in the long run as they seek to become a big player on the world stage.
The competition obviously didn’t get off to the best start for Argentina following their humbling in South Africa, but they gave a much better account of themselves the following week and eventually only lost by five points against a very strong South Africa side. It was always going to be a big ask for the Argentine troops in New Zealand, but again they did as well as could be expected with a gallant loss in Waikato, before nearly shocking the Wallabies on their own turf the following week.
For Argentina to continue beyond the glass ceiling they are currently hitting it’s crucial for them to have some teams in the premier Southern Hemisphere rugby tournament; a sentiment echoed by World-Cup winning New Zealander Graham Henry in recent weeks. However, the Felipe Contemponi inspired outfit have every right to be proud of the way they’ve performed in this year’s tournament, and with a home match against Australia still to come, the side have every chance of improving on last year’s performance.