It's been just two weeks since the grand finale of the Super Rugby campaign, but already The Rugby Championship is here and the finest teams of the Southern Hemisphere are ready to sort out who's the best of the best.
The circumstances are a little different this summer, given that it's a world cup year and teams are still looking to find the right combinations that will see them lift the Webb Ellis Cup on November 2nd. This means we could see more on-the-bubble players getting game time and an opportunity to raise their hand for world cup duty.
Braydon Ennor, New Zealand | Debutant@crusadersrugby Braydon Ennor was prolific through the 2019 Super Rugby season scoring 9 tries, including this hat-trick against the Rebels. Will he shine with @AllBlacks against @lospumas?#RugbyChampionship #TRC2019 #ARGvNZL pic.twitter.com/Wun7zavoUP— Super Rugby/TRC (@SuperRugby) July 18, 2019
Nevertheless, each team will compete to win the four nations championship with the same passion as any other year. A team south of the equator has won seven of the eight world cups to date, so history suggests that the best of the Southern Hemisphere ought to be favored at the world cup.
However, it is worth noting that no team has ever won The Rugby Championship (and before that the Tri Nations) and the World Cup in the same year.
At the moment, the All Blacks hold down their customary 1st place spot atop the World Rugby rankings, while South Africa and Australia sit lower than usual at 5th and 6th respectively. Argentina enters the competition ranked 10th.
Let's take a look at each squad, and how they look two months out from World Cup 2019:
The All Blacks are gunning for their fourth consecutive Rugby Championship crown, and there's little to suggest they shouldn't be heavily favored once again. They will, though, have to play their first test in Argentina without the bulk of a Crusaders contingent that recently won its third straight Super Rugby title, and are being given the first round off for some much-needed rest and recovery.
But if there's any team in the world deep enough to cover the loss of nine key players, it's New Zealand. When your team's got players like Brodie Retallick, Sam Cane, Aaron Smith, Ben Smith, and of course Beauden Barrett, you'll always be first class.
World Cup And The Rugby Championship
|Year||TRC Winner||RWC Winner|
|2007||New Zealand||South Africa|
This year's championship could also be the moment for players like Ardie Savea, Richie Mo'unga, Jack Goodhue, and Anton Lienert-Brown to firmly entrench themselves as key members for this world cup run and beyond. Each of these guys has been sensational for their Super Rugby teams the past three to four years, yet have still had to bide their time behind some All Blacks legends for sole possession of that black shirt.
Like every world cup cycle, there will be a changing of the guard when old leaders move on and new ones emerge. This year's championship could be a preview of what's to come post-2019.
The Springboks have seen their fair share of ups and downs since their 3rd place finish at the 2015 World Cup. 2018 itself serves as a microcosm for this whole cycle.
The Boks started the year off on the wrong foot, dropping a contest to Wales in the United States. But they were able to quickly rebound, and defeated England in a three-game summer series that saw them pull off two double-digit comebacks.
In the 2018 Rugby Championship, South Africa continued to be up and down; they split games with all three of their opponents, which included a famous 36-34 away victory over the All Blacks and a heartbreaking 30-32 home loss to New Zealand.
The Autumn brought more equally inconsistent outings from the Springboks. They lost a nailbiter to England at Twickenham, then took down France in a barn burner in Paris and toppled Scotland in Edinburgh, before falling to Wales for the fourth time in a row.
2018 showed that South Africa can, when it peaks, be the very best team in the world. However, it also revealed that the Boks lack consistency and can be had by any team. Perhaps a reason for this is that a number of the key pieces in the South African squad play their club rugby overseas, and are not available for every game of the year. Besides their on-field impact as first-rate players, these players' absences would also hinder the continuity of the team week-in and week-out.
But with many of the overseas players joining the world cup camp and getting hit-outs together at the Rugby Championship this summer, don't be surprised to see the Springboks find their rhythm at just the right time. The core of Tendai Mtwarira, Malcolm Marx, Eben Etzebeth, and Pieter-Steph du Toit will continue to anchor the Boks' formidable forward pack throughout the championship, and Faf de Klerk, Handre Pollard, and Willie le Roux will be the classy playmakers in the backline that they are.
The past year has been rough from an Australian perspective. The Wallabies compiled a record of 4-9 in 2018, one of their poorest years of performance in memory.
Coupled with bad play has also been the recent dismissal of arguably Australia's best player; fullback Israel Folau's refusal to curb his erratic and hurtful social media behavior led the Australian Rugby Union to part ways with the superstar playmaker, leaving some big shoes to fill in the Wallaby backline.
Yet, despite the recent struggles of Australian rugby, 2019 is a fresh start and if there's ever a team to turn up in a world cup year it's the Wallabies. The two-time world champions have failed to make the semifinals just twice since the world cup began in 1987, and as recently as 2015 were finalists.
So as they move forward into the 2019 Rugby Championship, Australia can go in with the mindset that they are building for something greater and, with the right chemistry formed over the next four weeks, can peak at the right time before Japan.
The health of loose forward David Pocock will be important. Though ruled out of the first Rugby Championship test against the Springboks, the breakdown master could return from a four-month absence to feature in one of the final two championship tests. His presence is a game-changer for Australia, and seeing him in good form in the next four weeks would be a huge psychological boost for the Wallabies moving forward into the world cup.
As ever, Michael Hooper will captain his side through the championship, and he'll look to inspire some confidence into some of the younger players surrounding him before they ship off to Japan. Regardless of how they've performed of late, the Aussies are still one of the best sides in the world. Between Samu Kerevi and Tavita Kuridrani, they have one of the best center duos in test rugby, and the experience of players like Kurtley Beale, Benard Foley, and Will Genia will be invaluable for them moving forward.
Just two wins from twelve tests in 2018 has dropped the Pumas all the way to 10th place in the World Rugby rankings, but count the Argies out at your own peril.
Argentina is another side who seems to pull it together in world cup years, and they have a feeling that 2019 is no different. On the back of the Jaguares' run to the Grand Final in Super Rugby, the Pumas are feeling confident that they are catching their stride at the right time.
Head Coach Mario Ledesma has also recalled a handful of Argentinians playing club rugby in Europe to join his squad, and they will get a few games to gell with the rest of the team at the Rugby Championship. If there's a dark horse to win the Rugby Championship and/or the 2019 World Cup, it's Argentina. They are strong enough to beat anyone, yet still just enough under the radar to bring that "shock" factor to big tournaments.
While they've never had a shortage of top-notch talent, this year's Argentina side genuinely has a handful of elite players. Nico Sanchez and Augustin Creevy have both been world-class for years, but others are now stepping up to join them among the world's best. Emiliano Boffelli and Ramiro Moyano are two of the game's finest back three players, and flanker Marcos Kremer, at just 21, is developing into a future superstar.
However, it's been the emergence of Pablo Matera over the past year that has Argentina primed for big things in 2019. He has put his name on the shortlist for best flanker in the world, and one need only watch his performance against the Crusaders in the Super Rugby championship to understand why.
If the Pumas can sort out their structure and combinations in the upcoming Rugby Championship, there's a strong chance they enter the world cup and once again take down a few giants along the way.