The Super Rugby Pacific, Japanese and European seasons are done – now it’s time for the main event.
The Rugby World Cup? Not quite, but sit tight, it’ll be along soon enough.
Before we get to Paris in early September, the southern hemisphere’s focus shifts to the Rugby Championship, which is shortened to accommodate the global showpiece. Each nation will play only three Tests, rather than the usual five, as they look to hone their game plans, settle combinations and chase the silverware that is on offer.
So how are Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa tracking ahead of the opening day of fixtures on July 8?
Coach: Michael Cheika
Captain: Julian Montoya
Forwards: Eduardo Bello, Ignacio Calles, Thomas Gallo, Francisco Gómez Kodela, Santiago Medrano, Joel Sclavi, Lucio Sordoni, Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, Mayco Vivas, Facundo Bosch, Agustín Creevy, Julián Montoya, Santiago Socino, Ignacio Ruiz, Matías Alemanno, Lucas Paulos, Guido Petti, Tomás Lavannini, Marcos Kremer, Pedro Rubiolo, Juan Martín González, Santiago Grondona, Facundo Isa, Pablo Matera, Joaquín Oviedo, Rodrigo Bruni.
Backs: Lautaro Bazán Vélez, Gonzalo Bertranou, Tomás Cubelli, Gonzalo García, Tomás Albornoz, Santiago Carreras, Nicolás Sánchez, Jerónimo de la Fuente, Santiago Chocobares, Lucio Cinti, Luciano González, Matías Moroni, Matías Orlando, Martín Bogado, Sebastián Cancelliere, Mateo Carreras, Santiago Cordero, Bautista Delguy, Juan José Imhoff, Rodrigo Isgró, Emiliano Boffelli, Juan Cruz Mallía.
It’s a largely familiar looking squad Michael Cheika has turned to for the Rugby Championship, with cornerstones Julian Montoya, Pablo Matera, Jeronimo de la Fuente and Emiliano Boffelli bringing vast experience at Test level. Buoyed by their breakthrough victory on New Zealand soil last year, and then another historic first against England at Twickenham, the Pumas will be looking to kick on from 2022, but they face the toughest schedule of all with trips to both Australia and South Africa, after first hosting the All Blacks in Mendoza. Keep an eye on the star of last year’s campaign, Juan Martin Gonzalez, with the blindside breakaway set to form a formidable loose forward trio alongside Pablo Matera and likely Facundo Isa; Marcos Kremer, meanwhile, will miss the entirety of the tournament after he was handed a five-week ban following his third red card of the northern season.
Eyes on: The halves
Cheika has named four scrum-halves and three fly-halves among his 44-man group, with varying levels of experience across the key playmaking positions. The four No. 9s have been selected to shore up a position that has been hit hard by injury this season, with Gonzalo Betranou and Gonzalo Garcia both having been out for months, while veteran Tomas Cubelli saw only sparing minutes with Biarritz in France’s ProD2. The picture is a touch clearer at fly-half, where Cheika can revert to established veteran Nicolas Sanchez, or persist with Santiago Carreras, who was his go-to man for much of last year’s Rugby Championship. Having Emiliano Boffelli’s thunderous right boot at the back means Cheika no longer must rely on Sanchez’s goal-kicking.
Predicted finish: Fourth [one point]
Eleven years after they made their debut, the Pumas are no longer merely making up the numbers in the annual southern hemisphere showpiece. With wins in each of South Africa, Australia and, as of last year, New Zealand, they have shown they are capable of beating anyone, anywhere, at any time. They’ll take the fight right up to the All Blacks at home, but perhaps their best chance of a win is in Sydney the following week, at the same CommBank Stadium where they first beat the All Blacks. Cheika also finally ended a long run of outs over Eddie Jones last year, ironically when the veteran coach was still in charge of England.
Coach: Eddie Jones
Captains: James Slipper, Michael Hooper
Forwards: Allan Alaalatoa, Richie Arnold, Matt Faessler, Nick Frost, Matt Gibbon, Jed Holloway, Michael Hooper, Tom Hooper, Rob Leota, Fraser McReight, Zane Nonggorr, David Porecki, Pete Samu, Will Skelton, James Slipper, Taniela Tupou, Jordan Uelese, Rob Valetini,
Backs: Quade Cooper, Lalakai Foketi, Carter Gordon, Reece Hodge, Len Ikitau, Marika Koroibete, Ryan Lonergan, Tate McDermott, Mark Nawaqanitawase, Izaia Perese, Suliasi Vunivalu, Nic White, Tom Wright
Utility players: Ben Donaldson, Josh Kemeny, Dylan Pietsch
[Rehab Group: Angus Bell, Langi Gleeson, Andrew Kellaway, Samu Kerevi, Jordan Petaia, Matt Philip]
With the shock of Eddie Jones’ return now well and truly subsided, the master coach has just five Tests to whip the Wallabies into shape for the World Cup. He has already stamped his mark on the Australian playing group, enlisting Michael Hooper and James Slipper as co-captains, while including eight uncapped players among a 34-man squad that features a further six men in a “rehab group”. But just as former coach Dave Rennie had indicated he would, Jones pushed for, and was granted, additional Giteau Law picks outside of the currently mandated three per tournament. That was enough to ensure he will get a sighter on Toulouse lock Richie Arnold, while the inclusion of Rebels fly-half Carter Gordon represents an unknown commodity for those who did not follow Super Rugby Pacific. In short, the man with the blonde mullet can play. It’s expected Will Skelton will meanwhile play a leading role in the pack, after previously being underutilised by Rennie.
Eyes on: Hooker and fullback
While Jones appears blessed with depth at lock, scrum-half and across the back-row, and genuine world-class wing and midfield options, both hooker and fullback remain huge areas of concern and positions he will seek solutions for during the Rugby Championship. Up front, there is no one hooker who ticks all the boxes, instead the various options all bring strengths and weaknesses to the position. From Dave Porecki, Jordan Uelese and the uncapped Matt Faessler, Jones will be hoping one man steps up and makes the position his own. Fullback is perhaps less dire, with Tom Wright coming off a fine Super Rugby Pacific, albeit one that had a handful of worrisome moments in the finals. With Andrew Kellaway and Jordan Petaia among the rehab group, Jones can also turn to Reece Hodge at the back; Ben Donaldson’s selection as a “utility player” raised eyebrows, meanwhile, following his lacklustre Super campaign.
Predicted finish: Third [eight points]
It’s a tough assignment first up for the Wallabies, who open their Rugby Championship campaign at a venue where they’ve never won: Pretoria’s Loftus Versfeld. While indications are they might meet an understrength Springboks line-up there – South Africa are likely to hold some first-choice players back for the date with the All Blacks a week later – it will take something truly special for the Wallabies to run up a win in Jones’ first game back in charge. The travel back to Australia will make the clash with Argentina a week later even tougher, before they get a fortnight to ponder how to snap a run of five straight defeats by the All Blacks. However, in each of the past three World Cup years [11, 15, 19], the Wallabies have beaten the All Blacks on Australian soil.
Coach: Ian Foster
Captain: Sam Cane
Forwards: Codie Taylor, Dane Coles, Samisoni Taukei’aho, Ethan de Groot, Fletcher Newell, Nepo Laulala, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Tamaiti Williams Tyrel Lomax, Brodie Retallick, Josh Lord, Samuel Whitelock, Scott Barrett, Tupou Vaa’i, Ardie Savea, Dalton Papali’i, Luke Jacobson, Sam Cane, Samipeni Finau, Shannon Frizell.
Backs: Aaron Smith, Finlay Christie, Cam Roigard, Beauden Barrett, Damian McKenzie, Richie Mo’unga, Anton Lienert-Brown, Jordie Barrett, Rieko Ioane, Braydon Ennor, Dallas McLeod, Caleb Clarke, Emoni Narawa, Leicester Fainga’anuku, Mark Telea, Will Jordan.
Ten months on from his narrow survival as All Blacks coach, Ian Foster sprung several surprises in a 36-man squad for the Rugby Championship, the biggest of which saw Crusaders utility Dallas McLeod win a spot among the backs. Tamaiti Williams, Emoni Narawa, Cam Roigard Samipeni Finau were all meanwhile rewarded with maiden call-ups following stellar Super Rugby seasons, while the original omission of Shaun Stevenson – he was later called up as injury cover – baffled, given the flyer’s own outstanding season with the Chiefs.
Eyes on: Back-row, midfield
While the “dump Cane, promote Papali’i” chatter seems to have cooled, there has been no less discussion around just what back-row the All Blacks should field. Former Test star Jeff Wilson earlier this week suggested Ardie Savea should make way at No. 8 for in-form Chiefs loosie Luke Jacobson, which would seem a drastic move given the Hurricanes’ skipper’s deeds in recent years. But Wilson’s radical solution highlights just how unnerved Kiwis are around their back-row composition, the nagging feeling that they just can’t seem to get the balance right. Meanwhile in the backs, it’s in the midfield where Foster must settle on his first-choice pairing. Anton Lienert-Brown’s three-game ban won’t make that any easier, but Jordie Barrett’s inclusion among the centre options, rather than the back three, suggests the coach at least knows where he wants the youngest of the Barrett trio. That might in turn finally result in Will Jordan playing fullback, while Richie Mo’unga has surely sewn up the No. 10 jersey.
Predicted finish: First [10 points]
New Zealand have some injury concerns ahead of their Rugby Championship opener in Mendoza, with Crusaders Sam Whitelock and Leicester Fainga’anuku both likely to miss the date with the Pumas. Having a fit Whitelock, who is struggling with an Achilles complaint that should have seen him miss the Super Rugby Pacific final, back for the Springboks the following week would certainly be an advantage. The hard fast deck of Mendoza should suit the All Blacks’ style, but the Springboks’ mix of high balls and set-piece strength will require a step up in Auckland a week later. That will set the stage for a fascinating conclusion against the Wallabies, in front of a potential 70,000+ crowd at the MCG.
Coach: Jacques Nienaber
Captain: Siya Kolisi, TBA
Forwards: Thomas du Toit, Steven Kitshoff, Vincent Koch, Frans Malherbe, Ox Nche, Trevor Nyakane, Joseph Dweba, Malcolm Marx, Bongi Mbonambi, Lood de Jager, Eben Etzebeth, Marvin Orie, RG Snyman, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Siya Kolisi, Evan Roos, Kwagga Smith, Marco van Staden, Duane Vermeulen, Jasper Wiese, Jean-Luc du Preez, Deon Fourie, Franco Mostert.
Backs: Faf de Klerk, Jaden Hendrikse, Herschel Jantjies, Cobus Reinach, Grant Williams, Manie Libbok, Handre Pollard, Damian Willemse, Lukhanyo Am, Damian de Allende, Andre Esterhuizen, Jesse Kriel, Kurt-Lee Arendse, Cheslin Kolbe, Willie le Roux, Makazole Mapimpi, Canan Moodie.
Does that squad look familiar? The cold hard fact is that 24 of those players listed above were involved when the Springboks lifted the Webb Ellis Trophy in Japan four years ago, which demonstrates the stability that Jacques Nienaber has to work with. That doesn’t mean there aren’t issues, headed by injuries to skipper Siya Kolisi and fly-half Handre Pollard, two huge cogs in the South African setup. There is also a maiden call-up for former Ireland lock Jean Kleyn, who has served his stand down period and switched allegiances to the country of his birth. Springboks fans will take delight in the return of Cheslin Kolbe, who has enjoyed precious little time in the green jersey since his superb performances in Japan four years ago, with the electric winger having battled an array of long-term injuries. The emergence of Kurt-Lee Arendse and Canan Moodie, however, mean Kolbe isn’t guaranteed his old wing spot back.
Eyes on: Fly-half
Pollard’s calf injury remains a “bit of a worry” for Nienaber, who has put him in the same timeframe for a return in the Springboks’ final World Cup warm-up matches with Argentina, Wales and the All Blacks. Damian Willemse, meanwhile, has also been battling injury, but the utility back has been given the green light to contest the Rugby Championship. Whether he starts in the No. 10 jersey or Nienaber looks to rising star Marnie Libbok, will be a pointer to his thinking towards France, particularly after Springboks director of rugby Rassie Erasmus indicated Pollard was also being considered as an option at No. 12. That would seem a big call, given the Boks have one of the world’s best in Damian de Allende; perhaps South Africa are looking for a second playmaker option?
Predicted finish: Second [nine points]
The Springboks get first crack at Eddie Jones’ Wallabies, hosting the Aussies on the high veldt in Pretoria. While that squad might not be as strong on paper as the one that faces the All Blacks the following week, they will still represent formidable opposition for the Wallabies, who have never won at Loftus Versfeld. A trip to Mt. Smart Stadium – the regular home of the NZ Warriors in the NRL – will hold few fears, too, with the memory of their rousing win over the All Blacks in Wellington in 2018, and a draw at the same venue the following year, still strong for many in this current group. With their final game at home, a sweep of their three Tests is entirely possible, but the All Blacks will certainly be desperate to land a mental blow ahead of a potential quarterfinal date in France.