Southern teams on show, and trial, in Rugby Championship
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Southern Hemisphere rugby will be put on show and possibly on trial in the Rugby Championship which begins Saturday with a match between the World Cup-winning Springboks and defending champions New Zealand.
Argentina, coached by Michael Cheika, begins the tournament at home to an Australia lineup guided by Dave Rennie, Cheika’s successor as Wallabies head coach.
South Africa and Argentina were the only Southern Hemisphere nations to win a mid-year test series against a Northern Hemisphere opponent last month. The Springboks beat Wales 2-1 and Argentina edged Scotland 2-1 in a dramatic, late finish. New Zealand lost to Ireland and Australia lost to England, each after winning the first tests of their series.
Those results have altered world rankings and shaken up rugby’s traditional hierarchy a year out from the 10th Rugby World Cup in France.
Southern Hemisphere nations have won eight of the previous nine world titles but the balance of power now seems to have tipped in favor of Northern Hemisphere teams which occupy three of the top five ranking spots.
South Africa is the standard bearer for the Southern Hemisphere in third place on world rankings. New Zealand dropped to its lowest-ever ranking, No. 4, after its series loss to Ireland; Australia is sixth and Argentina is ninth.
The Rugby Championship is an important milestone in the four Southern Hemisphere teams’ preparations for the World Cup, one of a receding number of major events before the quadrennial tournament begins in September, 2023.
All have to improve on their performances in the July test series, even South Africa which would have swept its three-test series against Wales if it wasn’t over-adventurous with selection in the second test.
Back-to-back matches against New Zealand in Mbombela (formerly Nelspruit) on Saturday and Johannesburg a week later might provide a better benchmark for the world champions
The Springboks are working to strengthen their already formidable set piece in time for the All Blacks, whose lineout, already shaky, will be made more so by the loss of veteran lock Brodie Retallick to a facial injury.
“We want to improve in the execution of our set pieces and we know that there are not many opportunities to score points at test level so we have to make sure we use our chances well,” Springboks assistant coach Deon Davids said.
“We know what we have to work on as we look forward to the bigger picture. We have two tests against New Zealand at the start of this competition and we are aware of the challenge ahead.”
The Pumas struggled at times against Scotland, and needed a very late try to clinch their mid-year series, but there are clear signs of Cheika’s influence on the Argentina squad. While the Pumas game is still based around its forward pack, the team looked sharper on counter-attack and kicked less frequently than usual against Scotland.
Rennie has a number of Wallabies injuries to contend with, notably the loss of star center Samu Kerevi to a serious right knee injury sustained in the sevens tournament at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, England.
“We will miss him big-time and not just as a player but his experience and the influence he has on others,” Rennie said. “And it’s disappointing for him obviously. It cut short his Commonwealth Games and the international window and it is a reasonably long recovery.”
Rennie is likely to start Quade Cooper at flyhalf in a mild rebuke to Cheika, who cut the mercurial playmaker from his Wallabies squad.
No team is under more pressure in this year’s Championship than the All Blacks. Their loss to Ireland — their first series loss at home for almost 30 years — has shaken the confidence of fans in head coach Ian Foster and captain Sam Cane.
New Zealand Rugby so far has supported Foster but conditionally, only through the two tests in South Africa. Foster has two weeks to prove he can turn around the All Blacks’ form, knowing he might be replaced.
Though he has the lowest win rate of any All Blacks coach in the professional era, Foster remains confident he also has the support of the players.
“I believe I’ve got the group and now I’ve got to deliver the plan and so part of the changes I’ve made (to his coaching staff) is about making sure I’m not taking for granted their belief in the direction that I’m heading,” Foster said. “But I’m also listening to them and making the changes that we all feel we need for this team.”
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