With the 2016 Rugby Championship almost upon us, the rugby world turns their attentions to the highly anticipated strive for Southern Hemisphere glory.
It was a mixed bag of results and performances for the “Big Four” following recent Northern Hemisphere tours to the South. New Zealand continued their show of strength against a wilted Wales team; Australia shocked us all by inadvertently losing a home series in supreme fashion against a rejuvenated England side; South Africa fought back from a 1-0 deficit to overcome a resilient and courageous Ireland and Argentina levelled their two match series against France, on the back of a one-off Test win against Italy.
So this week it’s only fitting we look at how New Zealand will be the dominant force in this year’s Rugby Championship.
Super Rugby Dominance
Four of the five franchises from the New Zealand conference contributed to the play offs. Only the South African based Lions could keep up and handle the onslaught and pressure of the teams from New Zealand. Then the semi-finals consisted of three of the qualifying four New Zealand sides. If it hadn’t been for the excellence of the Lions, an all-New Zealand final wouldn’t have been surprising. Could the form of the Super Rugby teams be an indicator of performances in the Rugby Championship? I think so. Perhaps this, along with the recent series whitewash loss, is why Michael Cheika has recalled his European based Wallabies in Will Genia, Matt Giteau and Adam Ashley-Cooper. Going on Super Rugby form, you’d have to favour a New Zealand win with South Africa, Australia and Argentina finishing second, third and fourth respectively.
Barrett has had an immense season with his Super Rugby title winning Hurricanes this year. He’s in arguably the form of his life. He outplayed his Lions counterpart Elton Jantjies in the final and deservedly earns his place ahead of Aaron Cruden in the All Black starting fifteen against the Wallabies in Sydney. His all round game is faultless and the rest of the field will struggle to cope with his pace, kicking and particularly his off the ball decision making. Off the ball, he’s constantly looking at space, opponents’ defensive lines as well as having the presence of mind to know where his team mates are to find that killer pass or kick through that typically earns the five pointer. Barrett has the capabilities to light up the competition and I for one would be quick to assure his place as top point scorer come the 8th October.
If you’re going to compete with the best rugby coach in the world in Steve Hansen at mind games, you at least have to be able to back it up with winning performances. Michael Cheika’s mind games already started in the build up to the competition, claiming ‘the All Black’s don’t give the Wallabies any chance of winning.’ Likewise, prior to the England series, with Eddie Jones, a rampant England side were quick to diminish the psychological blows with their on-field heroics. Perhaps Cheika should focus more fully on his players and the performance rather than what the other teams are thinking about Australian chances. The Wallabies need that trust and confidence again to compete in having any chance of retaining their Rugby Championship title.
The All Blacks’ form going into the Rugby Championship would put them undoubtedly as firm favourites going into the competition. They’re unbeaten in their previous eleven games in all competitions, suffering their last loss at the hands of Australia in Sydney last year. Perhaps Australia will use that to put the pressure on New Zealand early on. But more specifically, their form in the Rugby Championship equates to only two losses since their back to back defeats to South Africa and Australia in 2011. Unheard of in the All Black ranks. They have that winning mentality and being able to grind out wins in the most hostile of environments – Ellis Park and Sydney to name but a few. New Zealand have never lost to Argentina and judging by the quality on show in the Black jersey, as well as in the fringe players breaking through, that record should stand tall following the conclusion of the tournament. Don’t get me wrong, Argentina are a formidable side and continue to impress every game, but at present there just seems to be no stopping the might of All Blacks.
The Rugby Championship is a competition that never ceases to amaze and entertain. The above aside, there’s no doubt we’re all in for a treat! It seems all four teams have the intent to impress. There’s certainly potential for Argentina to make in-roads and make a claim for at least a third place finish. But, essentially, at the opposite end of the table, it’ll be a case of by how far out front the All Blacks will finish.