The Rugby Championship, the annual tournament for southern hemisphere rugby supremacy, kicks off this Saturday in Sydney when the Wallabies take on the All Blacks.
Here we look at the big questions facing each team…
Can they attain magic two wins?
Daniel Hourcade’s side are in danger of plateauing after taking a single win in each of his first three seasons in charge and have yet to reap the expected dividend of having most of the squad also playing for the Jaguares in Super Rugby.
It is now 10 years since Argentina’s breakthrough third place at the 2007 Rugby World Cup in France and with the future of southern hemisphere up in the air, the Pumas could benefit from making a statement.
They have plenty of talent all around the park – from hooker and captain Agustin Creevy, to bad boy locks Matias Alemanno and Tomas Lavanini, to skillful midfielder Juan-Martin Hernandez. They just need to put it together on a week-to-week basis.
Will their set-piece return?
Teams feared facing the famed Argentina “badja” or eight-man shove. Whatever you did, you know you would have to deal with that and overcome the Pumas elsewhere on the park.
But that fear has dissipated and Argentina have fallen back to the pack at scrum time. Indeed if you had to pick the strongest pack in the Rugby Championship it would be New Zealand. Argentina have improved their all- round game but to be a real threat their ferocious scrum needs to make a comeback.
Can they keep it simple?
Ever since Michael Cheika was appointed as coach back in late 2014, he has spoken a lot about identity, “playing the Wallabies way”. “We want our fans to know who we are when we step on to the field.”
Three years later and Wallabies fans, and the rest of the rugby world, is still waiting.
It’s all well and good to be ambitious but you also have to know your limitations – and to be frank the Wallabies at this point simply don’t have the cattle to execute an attractive game plan.
It’s like watching a confused infant trying to paint a masterpiece – there is effort there (sporadically) but nowhere near the skill levels or precision needed to execute at anywhere near the level required.
The Wallabies need to go back to basics and stop trying to be the All Blacks – they simply are not good enough to play 15-man Rugby.
Will Kurtley Beale hit the ground running?
When Cheika won Super Rugby in 2014 with the Waratahs a crucial part of the puzzle was the creative playmaker. But ‘KB’ is rushing to be fit in time for the opener against the All Blacks in Sydney.
Beale injured his hamstring playing for Wasps in May before he returned to Australia but, such is his importance to the Wallabies cause, that he was still named in the squad. If fit, the 28-year-old is likely to rekindle his former Waratahs combination with fly half Bernard Foley against the world champions, giving Cheika a dual playmaking option.
How good can the ABs get?
For Test nations across the globe, the British and Irish Lions sharing the series with the All Blacks was a disaster. As thrilling as the series was and as magical to see both teams gathered together for a group photo at the end of the third Test, it was the worse possible result for upcoming opponents.
This was a series New Zealand was desperate to win and you could see in the end the pain etched into coach Steve Hansen’s face.
After winning a Rugby World Cup, numerous Bledisloe Cups and Rugby Championships, this was a career achievement he wanted to tick off on his CV – he was bitterly disappointed that he was not able to do that. As was his squad.
What it means is that any hint of complacency the All Blacks may have carried into this year’s Rugby Championship will have been banished.
The All Blacks feel their crown has been dented and they will want to send a strong statement that they are still No1 and the failure to win the Lions series was just a blip.
Will Beauden get his aim right?
When you are tinkering with perfection the margins are small. But one area where the All Blacks can improve is goal kicking. If, and it is a big if, the All Blacks do get into a shootout then Beauden Barrett’s occasionally wayward goal kicking could be an issue.
He missed some crucial kicks in the Lions series – three in the second Test and two in the decider – that would have given New Zealand the series. In Super Rugby he was even replaced as goal-kicker by his kid-brother Jordie.
But Chiefs sharp shooter Damian McKenzie will most likely be on the bench so if BB’s radar does go awry, help is close at hand.
Have the Boks banished 2016?
Last year was a nightmare for the Springboks, one of the worst on record for the proud rugby nation. They lost eight of their 12 Tests, including the last four on the trot.
The horror run included first ever losses to Ireland in South Africa, Argentina in Argentina and Italy anywhere – and their biggest ever at home, 57-15 to New Zealand in Durban.
The knives were out for Allister Coetzee in just his first season but after a protracted review and the coach’s repeated mea culpas he was given another chance, albeit with a greatly-revised management team.
This season Coetzee, a former Stormers coach in Super Rugby, has finally got the message and his squad has adopted the up-tempo, ball in hand style that has been so successful in Super Rugby for the last two seasons. He has jettisoned many of his previously favoured Stormers players and brought in a host of Lions including full-back Andries Coetzee, hooker Malcolm Marx, lock Franco Mostert, scrum-half Ross Cronje and (injured) captain Warren Whiteley.
The new approach worked well enough in June with three comfortable victories over France but the resolve will now be fully tested in the Rugby Championship.
Will the Boks tackle count benefit from the Venter effect?
Former Springbok, the ‘Mad Doctor’, Brendan Venter clearly has made a significant impact since joining the squad in May as defence coach. Organisation has improved dramatically as they were far more determined against France to play to the best of their abilities in the green and gold.
This was seen in the manner in which they defended across the series, even in the final game where nothing was at stake. But can they do the same when the All Blacks are throwing repeated phases against them.
New Zealand hooker Dane Coles has been ruled out of Saturday’s Test against Australia, with coach Steve Hansen confirming he is again suffering a possible head injury.
Soon after arriving in Sydney on Sunday afternoon, the All Blacks tweeted that Coles would not be considered for the Test, the first in the Rugby Championship.
Hansen said Coles left the field “as a precaution” during last Friday’s game against Counties Manukau and Taranaki in New Zealand, and would be assessed by the All Blacks medical staff while in Sydney this week.
Coles, with 49 Tests under his belt, is New Zealand’s first-choice hooker. But he missed most of the Super Rugby season and the three Tests against the British and Irish Lions because of concussion symptoms following a head knock in March.
His Wellington Hurricanes team-mate Ricky Riccitelli has been summoned to Sydney as a replacement.
Culture is the buzz word in Australian sport at the moment. This team wins because they have a good culture. This team loses because they have a problem with culture. And one team who clearly has an ongoing culture problem is the NSW Blues.
After yet another unsuccessful State of Origin campaign, this one lost from an almost unloseable position, the magnifying glass has once more been brought out to try and discover why one horse has lost an apparently even two-horse race 11 out of the last 12 races. It’s almost enough to call in the stewards.
Stories have begun emerging about bad behaviour in the Blues camp in the lead up to Origin 2 and 3, all supposedly hinting at a rotten culture in the NSW camp.
So concerned was the NSWRL about these rumours that they took the extraordinary step of issuing a statement refuting the claims. The lady doth protest too much we think.
Firstly, perennial bad boys Josh Dugan and Blake Ferguson were allegedly inebriated before Game 3, spending most of the Friday before the match at a local watering hole, the Lennox Point Hotel, near where the Blues were in camp.
Allegedly, the duo were “acting like clowns” but the NSWRL statement strongly refutes this saying the players “were not affected” and they trained “strongly” the next morning.
The statement makes no comment though about Dugan and Ferguson, who have a history of bad behaviour, spending up to eight hours in that type of activity five days out from one of the most important games of their career. It is hardly great preparation for an elite athlete – a fact the NSWRL neglects to mention.
For the record Ferguson had a quiet match in Game 3 while Dugan was among NSW’s best and almost hauled the Blues back into the match with a stunning piece of skill to score early in the second half.
The second allegation is extraordinary. Allegedly (again) NSW prop Andrew Fifita was told by Blues coach Laurie Daley that he would not be starting in Game 3 with David Klemmer being preferred and Fifita coming off the bench.
Supposedly Fifita reacted so badly to this news that Daley was forced to back down and allowed the big Sharks prop to start. The NSWRL denies this outright.
“It is entirely false to suggest that on the morning of the game (or at any other time during the camp) Laurie had a conversation with Andrew in which he advised Andrew that he was starting on the bench” reads the statement.
Once more the statement is not dealing with the core issue – a player forcing the coach to change his selection decision.
The third allegation is that a car, hired by a journalist to cover the NSW camp, was vandalised. The inference was made that the vandalising was carried out by Blue players. Again the NSWRL refutes this and calls on “anyone in possession of information which supports an allegation of criminal conduct against one or more of our players” should “immediately report the information to the NSW Police”.
No matter how many of the allegations are proven to be true or false, the fact that the NSWRL has been forced to issue the statement shows that there are deep issues within the Blues camp and the culture is anything but healthy.
The situation is so toxic that Blues legend Peter Sterling is thinking of quitting his advisory role with the squad, a position he only took up this year.
Responding to the deluge of criticism, Sterling said: “It has a way of maybe beating a little bit of passion out of you unfortunately.
“When you lose you put yourself in that situation and that’s the nature of the beast. Whether I want to be a part of that beast again I’m not quite sure.
“If you lose you open yourself up to the slings and the arrows. I’ve just been disappointed with some of the slings and some of the arrows.”
The problem with NSW is many of the wounds are self-inflicted.