Rugby Championship likely to be another All Blacks procession
South Africa and Australia look well off pace while Argentina yet to make breakthrough
New Zealand’s Dane Coles is tackled during a Rugby Championship match against Australia in Wellington last year. Photograph: Martin Hunter/Getty Images
Sam Whitelock, Kieran Read and Steve Hansen of the All Blacks pose for the official team photograph ahead of the Rugby Championship. Photograph: Phil Walter/Getty Images
The All Blacks juggernaut hit a road bump in the British and Irish Lions series but it should be business as usual for the world champions when they take on South Africa, Australia and Argentina in the Rugby Championship.
New Zealand reduced their rivals to roadkill when they took the title last year, winning all six matches with try-scoring bonus points and bookending their campaign with crushing wins in Australia (42-8) and South Africa (57-15).
The sustained pressure the Lions were able to put the All Blacks under in their drawn series in June and July would normally offer hope to the Wallabies and Springboks were not both proud rugby nations at such a low ebb.
Argentina look even less likely to beat the All Blacks for the first time and it is against the other two nations they will be targeting the two wins they want in their sixth crack at the southern hemisphere championship.
The Pumas take their quest initially to Port Elizabeth to face South Africa on Saturday after New Zealand and Australia have opened the tournament in Sydney, the first of three Bledisloe Cup Tests this season.
The Wallabies once again have the unenviable task of taking on the All Blacks in back-to-back Tests at the start of their campaign and only the most optimistic of Australians are expecting a first win in six matches against their neighbours.
A wretched Super Rugby campaign in which none of the five Australian teams managed a single victory over New Zealand opposition in 26 attempts sandwiched a disappointing June Test window when the Wallabies were humbled at home by Scotland.
Michael Cheika remains confident the rebuilding process he embarked upon after reaching the final of the 2015 World Cup is on course and that his team have a genuine chance of taking possession of the Bledisloe Cup for the first time since 2003.
Australia have won just eight of their 18 Tests since the World Cup final, however, and coach Cheika was not exactly spoiled for choice when he named flanker Michael Hooper his new captain last month. Hooker Stephen Moore is retiring from international rugby at the end of the year.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has, by contrast, been able to maintain New Zealand’s extraordinary winning rate despite rebuilding his team in the wake of the departure of a handful of greats after the successful defence of the Webb Ellis Cup.
Beauden Barrett will lead the line from outhalf, Kieran Read captains the side from the back of the scrum and a third World Rugby Player of the Year, lock Brodie Retallick, completes an impressive spine.
Dane Coles has the talent to join that trio in claiming rugby’s highest individual prize and the hooker should play some part in the championship but he will miss the opener because of a head knock.
Restored some pride
South Africa restored some pride to the Springboks shirt in June with a 3-0 series victory over France in the summer and some of their players have at least enjoyed some success at provincial level after the Lions reached a second consecutive Super Rugby final.
The exciting Lions outfit now provides the spine of Allister Coetzee’s national team even if the inspirational captain of both sides, Warren Whiteley, will miss the Rugby Championship because of a groin injury. Eben Etzebeth will take over in his absence.
Coetzee still has to convince many that he is the right man to lead South Africa to the next World Cup and will be looking to harness the spirit Johan Ackermann built with the Lions in Johannesburg.
While South Africa are languishing fifth in the world rankings, Argentina are a lowly ninth after two home defeats to a second string England side in June.
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 playing for the Jaguares in Super Rugby.
It is now 10 years since Argentina’s breakthrough third place at the World Cup and, with the future alignment of southern hemisphere rugby by no means certain, the Pumas could do with making a statement or two in this Rugby Championship.
World ranking: 1
Coach: Steve Hansen
Captain: Kieran Read
Titles: 14 (1996, 1997, 1999, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2016)
Forwards: Kieran Read, Liam Squire, Jerome Kaino, Sam Cane, Ardie Savea, Vaea Fifita, Luke Romano, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Scott Barrett, Owen Franks, Nepo Laulala, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Wyatt Crockett, Joe Moody, Dane Coles, Codie Taylor, Nathan Harris.
Backs: Ben Smith, David Havili, Israel Dagg, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Waisake Naholo, Rieko Ioane, Ryan Crotty, Anton Lienert-Brown, Sonny Bill Williams, Ngani Laumape, Beauden Barrett, Lima Sopoaga, Damian McKenzie, Aaron Smith, TJ Perenara, Tawera Kerr-Barlow.
World ranking: 4
Coach: Michael Cheika
Captain: Michael Hooper
Titles: Four (2000, 2001, 2011, 2015)
Forwards: Allan Alaalatoa, Rory Arnold, Adam Coleman, Jack Dempsey, Kane Douglas, Tetera Faulkner, Ned Hanigan, Michael Hooper, Sekope Kepu, Adam Korczyk, Sean McMahon, Stephen Moore, Tatafu Polota-Nau, Tom Robertson, Izack Rodda, Rob Simmons, Scott Sio, Lopeti Timani, Jordan Uelese.
Backs: Kurtley Beale, Israel Folau, Bernard Foley, Will Genia, Dane Haylett-Petty, Reece Hodge, Samu Kerevi, Marika Koroibete, Tevita Kuridrani, Billy Meakes, Izaia Perese, Nick Phipps, Joe Powell, Curtis Rona, Henry Speight.
World ranking: 5
Coach: Allister Coetzee
Captain: Eben Etzebeth
Titles: Three (1998, 2004, 2009)
Forwards: Dan du Preez, Uzair Cassiem, Jean-Luc du Preez, Siya Kolisi, Jaco Kriel, Oupa Mohoje, Lood de Jager, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Eben Etzebeth, Franco Mostert, Lizo Gqoboka, Steven Kitshoff, Frans Malherbe, Tendai Mtawarira, Trevor Nyakane, Coenie Oosthuizen, Malcolm Marx, Bongi Mbonambi, Chiliboy Ralepelle.
Backs: Andries Coetzee, Warrick Gelant, Dillyn Leyds, Raymond Rhule, Courtnall Skosan, Jan Serfontein, Damian de Allende, Jesse Kriel, Francois Venter, Curwin Bosch, Elton Jantjies, Handre Pollard, Ross Cronje, Francois Hougaard, Rudy Paige.
World ranking: 9
Coach: Daniel Hourcade
Captain: Agustin Creevy
Forwards: Agustin Creevy, Julian Montoya, Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, Santiago Garcia Botta, Lucas Noguera Paz, Ramiro Herrera, Enrique Pieretto, Matias Alemanno, Guido Petti, Tomas Lavanini, Marcos Kremer, Pablo Matera, Javier Ortega Desio, Tomas Lezana, Juan Manuel Leguizamon, Benjamin Macome, Rodrigo Baez, Leonardo Senatore.
Backs: Martin Landajo, Tomas Cubelli, Gonzalo Bertranou, Nicolas Sanchez, Santiago Gonzalez Iglesias, Bautista Ezcurra, Juan Martin Hernandez, Jeronimo de la Fuente, Matias Moroni, Matias Orlando, Manuel Montero, Ramiro Moyano, Santiago Cordero, Joaquin Tuculet, Emiliano Boffelli.
Aug 19th: Australia v New Zealand, Sydney (11am); South Africa v Argentina, Port Elizabeth (4.05pm)
Aug 26th: New Zealand v Australia, Dunedin (8.35am); Argentina v South Africa, Salta (6.30pm)
Sept 9th: New Zealand v Argentina, New Plymouth (8.35am); Australia v South Africa, Perth (11am)
Sept 16th: New Zealand v South Africa, Auckland (8.35am); Australia v Argentina, Canberra (11am)
Oct 1st: South Africa v Australia, Bloemfontein (4.05pm); Argentina v New Zealand, Buenos Aires (11.30pm)
Oct 8th: South Africa v New Zealand, Cape Town (4.05pm); Argentina v Australia, Mendoza (11.30pm).
* Titles include Tri-Nations, which ran from 1996-2011 before the addition of Argentina.