Rugby Championship of 2017 will be exciting read all about it

THE Rugby Championship of 2017 promises to be one of the more intriguing showdowns between the four SANZAAR countries for many a year given that three of the countries are in a state of flux while perennial champions New Zealanders have had their invincibility questioned earlier this year by the British and Irish Lions.

The one thing that we have learned over the years of Tri-Nations and the Rugby Championship is that Super Rugby form is not always a guarantor of how a country will perform, although it can often be a pointer. Regional teams can battle in Super Rugby only for a national composite team to come good under a national coach.

This year’s Championship is shaping up to be a cracker and could be one of the closer events for some time.

New Zealand

The back-to back World Cup holders had won 47 consecutive matches on home soil before the British and Irish Lions beat them in the second Test of their June series and then the tourists had the effrontery to draw the “decider” at hallowed Eden Park. Unquestionably the drawn series was interpreted by New Zealanders as a “loss” and a “victory” by the Lions.

Inevitably, the Kiwis will take that series result as a clarion call to raise their game to a higher level, to banish any possible vestiges of complacency and re-impose themselves on world rugby.

How dare the Lions question their supremacy …?

Unfortunately for South Africa, Australia and Argentina, a visibly shaken All Blacks side is going to going to rebound with a vengeance and with respect to the other three countries, this Championship could end up being about who comes second to New Zealand, unless the Boks, Wallabies and Pumas can raise their games to new levels having seen that the All Blacks can be beaten.

Player to watch

Sonny Bill Williams

The heavyweight boxer, former Rugby League star and All Blacks centre is one of sport’s larger-than-life figures. His sending off in the second Test against the Lions was regarded as game-changing and the Master of the Offload is going to be in hungry mood to redress the damage he will feel he inflicted on his country by his moment of shoulder-charging madness.

South Africa

Questions have been asked about the strength of the French team that toured in June, especially in the first Test when they were short of a number of first-choice players, but the Springboks played even better in the second and third Tests and there can be no denying that a clean sweep of France signals that the Boks have turned the corner after the horrors of 2016.

Coach Allister Coetzee has learned the hard way and this year the spine of the Bok team from the very first Test was comprised of in-form Lions players from South Africa’s in-form Super Rugby team.

The Boks this year are playing with a distinctive game plan (after the muddled performances of 2016), they have confidence, smiles on their faces and they have momentum.

They also have a more experienced and composed backroom staff, notably including Brendan Venter (defence) and Rassie Erasmus (Director of Rugby).

Key Player

Jan Serfontein

The 2012 World Junior Player of the Year has yet to reach his potential but in June against France there were signs that he is not far off. In 2016 he was sidelined by a wrist injury and probably only got his chance against France because of injuries to in-form 12s such as Rohan Janse van Rensburg, but boy did he grab the opportunity to show what he can do to defences.

Argentina

The Jaguares were much improved in their second season of Super Rugby which is a good sign for the Pumas, who are pretty much the Jaguares in sky blue and white disguise. But this is also slightly misleading because there is no doubt that Agustin Creevy’s men grow an inch or two when they pull on their national colours and national coach Danial Hourcade seems to be able to get more out of his players on the international stage than his counterpart at Super Rugby level. The Latin temperament and the deeply rooted patriotism of the Argentineans contributes significantly to this.

The Pumas came fourth in the 2015 Rugby World Cup playing a new style of attacking rugby (encouraged by consultant former All Blacks coach Graham Henry) and they continue to grow in a style of rugby that suits their disposition. They will continue to play positive rugby and will target the Springboks in Salta, where they have had success against the Boks, and the Wallabies in Mendoza.

Key Player

Martin Landajo

The 29-year-old scrumhalf has proved a worthy heir to the legendary Puma Agustin Pichot and is a 70-cap veteran for his country. He is the catalyst for the attacking rugby the Pumas are intent on playing. He is exceptional at reading the game and probing defences to target where best to attack.

Australia

Rugby sentiment is at an all-time low in Australia after their Super Rugby sides were swept aside, notably by the Kiwi teams that won every single game against Australian teams.

In June, the Wallabies struggled against touring Scotland and lost one of the Tests to the tourists. There is unhappiness in Australia over the axing of the Western Force and even talk of players striking as a result. The heartening news for Wallabies fans is that coach Michael Cheika is a supreme motivator and he will believe that he only needs the best 15 players, plus substitutes, from the ravaged Super Rugby franchises to build a strong national side. In 1998, South Africa had one of their worst ever Super 12 years but Nick Mallett built a Bok team that won the Tri-Nations.

Cheika, a fierce competitor, will have had the Wallabies for a month before their first game, against the All Blacks in Sydney, and he will whipping his underdogs into a frenzy.

Key Player

Michael Hooper

The new Wallabies captain was a often a lone figure in the front line of the desperately disappointing New South Wales side this year. He tackled himself to a standstill and won many a turnover. The Waratahs just did not have the quality of player or the belief in their coaching staff to raise their game as a unit. Hooper is the kind of lead-from-the-front player that will get more out of better company.

PREDICTION

1. New Zealand

2. South Africa

3. Australia

4. Argentina

FIXTURES

August 19: Australia v New Zealand, Sydney; South Africa v Argentina, Port Elizabeth

August 26: New Zealand v Australia, Dunedin; Argentina v South Africa, Salta

September 9: New Zealand v Argentina, New Plymouth; Australia v South Africa, Perth

September 16: New Zealand v South Africa, Albany; Australia v Argentina, Canberra

September 30: Argentina v New Zealand, Buenos Aries; South Africa v Australia, Bloemfontein

October 7: Argentina v Australia, Mendoza; South Africa v New Zealand, Cape Town

by Mike Greenaway

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All Blacks bite back to secure Bledisloe glory 51 -20

Retribution indeed.

Moral of the story? Don’t make the All Blacks’ forwards angry. They will bite back.

Seven days is a long time in sport – an even longer time to stew on a poor performance. Very rarely do you see the All Blacks miss their lofty standards by such a margin as they did in the dour Sydney draw last week. Yes, the conditions were difficult. Yes, the referee had a shocker. In the end, they are excuses.

Tonight, instead, was an explosion of pent-up frustration, particularly from the bigger boys in black. They deserve the credit for locking away the treasured Bledisloe Cup for a 12th straight year. The backs sure couldn’t have recorded this 51-20 recoding breaking victory – the most points at home against the Wallabies – without them.

The big difference between Sydney and Auckland was the physical aggression of Steve Hansen’s forward pack. This week they did the dirty work.

They cleaned out rucks with vigour; they flew off the line and whacked those in green and gold jerseys with tag-team tackling. Dane Coles was a force with ball in hand; Brodie Retallick thundered into everything and Kieran Read was back to his usual prominence.

Collectively, as an eight-man unit, they rattled the Australians to lay an exemplary platform. They were ruthless.

By the 50th minute, when Read crashed over, the visitors were stuffed – the All Blacks’ brutal mix of fast-paced counter attack and crunching defence had grinded them into the turf. After that, it just seemed cruel. Almost like bullying at the school playground.

Not even Richie McCaw’s fair yellow card for cynically playing the ball on the ground could stop his men. The same could not be said for the Wallabies pack – sent backpedalling in the first scrum after Sam Carter was binned for infringing at the maul. Carter’s card proved much more costly, his side conceding (14 points) two tries – one a penalty try from a five metre scrum shunt – while he was off the park.

If it wasn’t already a proven fact, we can also now confirm there’s something undeniably special about Eden Park. The venue continues its fortress status – 20 years and 33 tests since the All Blacks last lost there. It’s going to take a damn good team to break that record.

Down 23-6 at half time, the Wallabies’ decision to stay on the field, rather than retreat to the changing rooms, in a bid to diminish the ground’s mystique looked laughable. Clearly changing hotels didn’t work either.

The 50,000 sell-out crowd were treated as the All Blacks ran in six tries. Many of those were orchestrated by Aaron Cruden.

After a sub-par performance in Sydney, Cruden’s game management was superb. On the back of a supremely dominant forward display he thrived with the time, space and freedom all playmakers desire. The short kicking options, delayed passing and running game – Cruden’s full range of skills were on display.

With Ben Smith chiming in frequently from the back, the All Blacks’ left-side attack was lethal, allowing Julian Savea to run rampant down his flank. Conrad Smith’s return to the backline – after missing last week with the birth of his first son – can also not be glossed over. There were some notably telling touches from the classy centre.

Filling Ma’a Nonu’s considerable shoes, Ryan Crotty can be pleased with his contribution before succumbing to a cheek bone injury at half time.

This was a crushing reality check for Ewen McKenzie’s men. They thought they had turned the corner. After arriving with the knowledge they blew a gift chance last week, they leave with their eight match unbeaten run well and truly quashed. They’ve got some work to do yet before their forward pack is not seen as having a soft underbelly.

McCaw and co. hold higher standards than the average team and they won’t be happy about letting in two soft tries to Israel Folau and Michael Hooper late in the second half. They can’t afford such slip ups against South Africa in the coming weeks.

But, for now, they will savour sipping from the Bledisloe.

SCOREBOARD

All Blacks 51 penalty try, Julian Savea, Kieran Read, Richie McCaw 2, Steven Luatua, Aaron Cruden pen 3, con 5, Aaron Smith con Wallabies 20 Israel Folau, Michael Hooper tries, Kurtley Beale pen 2, con 2 HT: 23-6.

– Stuff

 

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