As we head into the opening round of the Rugby Championship this weekend we preview each of the four competing nations. New Zealand have dominated the tournament winning five of the six incarnations since Argentina were added to the enlarged Tri-Nations in 2012, but can the Wallabies, Springboks or the Pumas break the All Blacks’ dominance this year?
The Wallabies have had many false dawns over the last four years. After their superb run at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, where they reached the final, many thought this was the start of a new golden era for Australian rugby. But sadly that was not the case as they struggled to just six wins the following year, losing nine along the way for a 40% win record. The Wallabies seem to have all the elements on paper but just can’t put it together consistently on the field – yet.
David Pocock took a year-long sabbatical from Australian rugby last year, studying in the UK and playing half a season with the Panasonic Wild Knights in Japan. But the 30-year-old flanker was right back to his best in the series against Ireland, dominating the first Test when he single-handedly took on the No2 pack in the world – and won. Ireland found a way to move the immoveable object in the second and third Test but if the Wallabies are to have any chance Pocock must dominate like he did in the opener against Ireland.
Much was spoken about the ‘Tongan Thor’ Taniela Tupou when he first burst on to the scene as a teenager via some impressive highlight reels on YouTube. His mobility and explosiveness were never in doubt but questions existed around his technique at scrum time. To his credit the now 22-year-old went away and worked hard at his Super Rugby side Queensland, first with Nick Stiles and then Brad Thorn, and has emerged a more mature and complete player ready to fight for a starting spot.
Viewed as individual pieces the Wallabies look a quality team – the flair of Kurtley Beale and Israel Folau out wide, Will Genia and Bernard Foley close to the scrum base and some quality back rowers in captain Michael Hooper and David Pocock. But they still have failed to gel as a unit and tend to go walkabout mentally at vital times in games, switching off in winning positions and lacking the “ruthlessness” that George Gregan for one has called for.
If the Men of Gold have an Achilles heel it is their tight five, which apart from world class lock Adam Coleman, still has lingering doubts about not being up to it when the heat is really on. Indeed the bench players Tolu Latu, Taniela Tupou and Allan Alaalatoa are on a par, if not better, than the starters. The Wallabies have the backline to destroy any team but the tight five need to lay the platform first. To date they have failed to do that.
The curious Mr Michael Cheika. The former Stade Francais, Waratahs and Leinster boss is a difficult man to read and predict. He keeps a comfortable distance between himself and the media though he seems to foster a very tight knit team spirit behind the scenes. Time is running out for the rugged 51-year-old whose guiding of Australia to the Rugby World Cup final in 2015 is still his only achievement of note. Cheika is well liked in rugby circles, at all levels, and people want him to bring the big one home – but will he?
WHAT THEY SAID
“Let’s look at game one first of all. Let’s not even think about the Rugby Championship.
“Just think about the first game and connect together, learn to trust each other more and be really aligned around what we believe so we can get our energy pointing in the right direction for game one.” – Michael Cheika, coach
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Experienced trio Michael Hooper (hamstring), Scott Sio (shoulder) and Dane Haylett-Petty (knee) have all passed fitness tests to be available for Saturday night’s clash against the world’s number one side, New Zealand.
Hooper’s Waratahs team-mate Curtis Rona was among those cut, seemingly leaving Reece Hodge likely to play in the up for grabs outside centre spot, while Scott Sio has recovered from a shoulder injury to be included.
The other players to be cut from what was originally a 36-man squad were Jordan Petaia, Billy Meakes, Folau Fainga’a, Jermaine Ainsley, Rory Arnold, Caleb Timu and Sefa Naivalu.
Tom Banks and Jack Maddocks are the only two uncapped players in the squad with the versatile duo both edging closer to a Test debut.
Cheika said: “We’ll have some extra players in there on Monday and Tuesday, so we can get our training done and then I just think that I want to have a bit more focus on the group that’s going to play the game.
“I want the guys that are not playing in that given week to go and play some footy, whether it be Club or NRC, depending on the time of year.
“I just think that little bit of extra focus on a smaller group of players in there can build our alignment and cohesion.
“Everyone’s focused on the one task, everyone knows what their role is,” Cheika said.
The squad has just completed an intensive week-long camp in Cessnock and ]regathered at a fan day at Grantham Reserve, Blacktown on Sunday.
Wallabies 28-man squad for opening Bledisloe Cup clash
(Test caps, Super Rugby side and age)
Allan Alaalatoa (23 Tests, Brumbies, 24)
Adam Coleman (23 Tests, Melbourne Rebels, 26)
Ned Hanigan (13 Tests, NSW Waratahs, 23)
Michael Hooper (c) (82 Tests, NSW Waratahs, 26)
Sekope Kepu (94 Tests, NSW Waratahs, 32)
Tolu Latu (7 Tests, NSW Waratahs, 25)
Brandon Paenga-Amosa (3 Tests, Queensland Reds, 22)
David Pocock (69 Tests, Brumbies, 30)
Tatafu Polota-Nau (82 Tests, Leicester, 33)
Tom Robertson (21 Tests, NSW Waratahs, 23)
Izack Rodda (7 Tests, Queensland Reds, 21)
Pete Samu (3 Tests, Brumbies, 26)
Rob Simmons (85 Tests, NSW Waratahs, 29)
Scott Sio (46 Tests, Brumbies, 26)
Lukhan Tui (7 Tests, Queensland Reds, 21)
Taniela Tupou (4 Tests, Queensland Reds, 22)
Tom Banks* (uncapped, Brumbies, 24)
Kurtley Beale (74 Tests, NSW Waratahs, 29)
Israel Folau (65 Tests, NSW Waratahs, 29)
Bernard Foley (58 Tests, NSW Waratahs, 28)
Will Genia (90 Tests, Melbourne Rebels, 30)
Dane Haylett-Petty (21 Tests, Melbourne Rebels, 29)
Reece Hodge (27 Tests, Melbourne Rebels, 23)
Marika Koroibete (11 Tests, Melbourne Rebels, 26)
Jack Maddocks* (uncapped, Melbourne Rebels, 21)
Nick Phipps (64 Tests, NSW Waratahs, 29)
Joe Powell (4 Tests, Brumbies, 24)
Matt Toomua (33 Tests, Leicester/Melbourne Rebels, 28)
With the opening round of the Rugby Championship looming this weekend, we are previewing each of the four competing nations. New Zealand have dominated the tournament, winning five of the six incarnations since Argentina were added to the enlarged Tri-Nations in 2012, but can the Wallabies, Springboks or the Pumas break the All Blacks’ dominance this year?
Can it get any worse? When the Pumas were admitted to the enlarged Tri-Nations it was hailed as a glorious new era for Argentine rugby. But instead it proved the most hollow of false dawns. Since entrance was granted Argentina have finished last every year except 2015, and won just three matches out of the 33 contested, including one draw. The Pumas desperately need to find a way to turn it around. Can they ride on the back of the Jaguares’ success in Super Rugby to a much-improved performance in 2018?
Experienced captain Agustin Creevy will carry the workload upfront but it is veteran fly-half Nicolas Sanchez who dictates what happens when the ball comes out the back. The 29-year-old playmaker enjoyed a celebrated run in French rugby with Bordeaux and Toulon before returning to join the Jaguares in their first season in 2016. He was instrumental to everything good the Jaguares did this year, finishing fifth of the top point scorers table with 161 points.
Utility back Emiliano Boffelli was one of the most exciting ball runners in Super Rugby this year with 10 tries (sixth overall), 28 clean breaks (also sixth) and 65 defenders beaten (seventh). The Rosario-born 23-year-old is a homegrown talent having played all his rugby in Argentina to date, either with his hometown club Duendes or the Jaguares. Has played 14 times for the Pumas already, scoring six tries.
Traditionally the Pumas’ strengths are the pack, and especially at scrum time with the much feared “bajada” (or eight-man shove). But over the last few years there has been less focus on the set-piece in favour of an open ball-in-hand game plan, which has been entertaining but not effective in terms of results. However, Pumas have developed many enthralling ball runners.
As new Pumas coach Mario Ledesma has openly admitted, the biggest problem with Argentina is their defence. A lack of application and organisation has seen them leak an average of 33 points per game in their last 12 matches. You simply cannot win Test matches regularly when you leak that many points. They need to tighten up this facet of their game.
After a superb season with the Jaguares in Super Rugby, where he took them to their first-ever playoff match, former Pumas hooker and Wallabies assistant coach Ledesma has been given the national reigns after the sudden departure of Daniel Hourcade after Argentina’s disastrous June series, where they lost heavily to an under-strength Wales (twice) and Scotland. Can he work the same magic in The Rugby Championship?
WHAT THEY SAID
“We need to get back to the fundamentals of our game.
The top teams have a very effective bench. That, for example, is the difference between the three great sides in the southern hemisphere and teams like France, Wales and England.”
– Mario Ledesma, coach
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RUGBY CHAMPIONSHIP RECORD