With the Rugby Championship starting this weekend, the RR takes a quick look in his crystal ball and comes up with some prognostications about how the tournament will unfold. Although the RR believes that New Zealand’s predominance will eventually wane in the next couple of years, this year’s tournament is probably too soon to see another side win it all. But miracles do happen and both Australia and South Africa realistically have an outside hope while Argentina should be more concerned with achieving their first victory in the competition. While New Zealand has a predominately mature and experienced side (with a sprinkling of youthful exuberance), the other three all have some emerging youngsters ready to make a big impact in this tournament. All in all, it should be another fascinating tournament showcasing the best of Southern Hemisphere rugby.
New Zealand Prediction: 1st
Key injuries: Daniel Carter, Liam Messam
Why they will win: This team is strong and settled on paper and has a long pedigree of winning – add in the fact that the Chiefs and Crusaders were arguably the two best sides in Super Rugby this year too. New Zealand went through undefeated last year and were clearly a class above anyone else in the Southern Hemisphere. However, one has to be realistic with this team because it is inevitable that at some point ‘hegemonic decline’ will kick in. They simply cannot keep beating the likes of Australia and South Africa as easily as they have over the last few years. Undoubtedly the rest will catch the All Blacks at some point, yet you would be a brave person to expect it to happen this year.
Youngster to watch out for: Charles Piutau. Piutau is nowhere near the finished article yet and he may well get slightly exposed at international rugby, particularly his defence and unrefined kicking game. What is not in doubt is Piutau’s attacking instincts, running power and ability to make things happen, which are as good as any player in the tournament. Hansen will want to slowly introduce him to test rugby but it only takes one injury before his services will be needed – a baptism of fire which could make or break the future superstar.
Australia Prediction: 2nd
Key injuries: David Pockock, Kurtley Beale and Tatafu Polota-Nau
Why they will finish second: The immediate lift to a side when a new coach comes in after a poor run of results is empirically proven across a number of sports. Thus, Australia should be expected to start the Championship with added fire and momentum. However, New Zealand home and away to start the tournament is a brutal first up assignment which could derail Australia’s title hopes (as weak as they may be). McKenzie should bring invigoration and new ideas to what was a stifled and often submissive Wallabies under Deans. Add in the fact that they have, in recent years, been quite successful against South Africa. Australia should be able to just do enough to finish second, although they probably remain the most likely candidate to lose to Argentina at the same time.
Youngster to watch out for: Scott Sio. Scott Sio. It has been an incredible couple of months for Sio who put in strong performances for the Brumbies against the Lions in Canberra, the Bulls in Pretoria and in the Super Rugby final against the Chiefs in Hamilton. Make no mistake, Sio is ready for international football and should quickly stamp his authority on the Australian number one jersey. He has proved himself to be an adept scrummager and is also decent around the track. Sio has the potential to be a real star for Australia over the next decade.
South Africa Prediction: 3rd
Key injuries: Pieter-Steph du Toit, Arno Botha, Pierre Spies, Francois Hougaard, Johan Goosen and François Steyn
Why they will finish third: South Africa have yet to really make any sort of statement during Heyneke Meyer’s reign, an awful performance against Scotland in the quadrangular tournament in June further highlighting a worrying trend. This team should be good enough to register home wins against Australia and Argentina and possibly New Zealand (remember the Boks outplayed New Zealand in Dunedin last year). However, on the road they could conceivably lose all three matches which would continue their winless streak from last year. Their massive injury list does not help matters either. Predicting how the Boks will go is tough as a number of scenarios are plausible given their enigmatic performances so far under Meyer – but another third place finish wouldn’t surprise.
Youngster to watch out for: Jan Serfontein. Serfontein came through his first full Super Rugby season well , although at times he showed he is still very much wet behind the ears – not unexpected given he is only 20 years of age. His real asset is his strength; he is an indomitable power runner and can lay the wood in defence – there is nothing subtle about this kid! He starts the tournament as a bench option for the Boks but should get a decent run as Meyer seems to have a lot of faith in his abilities.
Argentina Prediction: 4th
Key injuries: Marcos Ayerza
Why they will finish last: Argentina showed last year that they belong in a competition alongside the traditional heavyweights of Southern Hemisphere rugby. They should improve for that experience and could worry any of the big three at home. However, it would take some consistent performances, something which has been lacking from Argentina since the 2007 World Cup, for them to finish higher than last on the table, a feat which seems just beyond them this year.
Youngster to watch out for: Pablo Matera. Matera has been a standout for the Pumitas at the last two Junior World Championships and has long been thought of as a future star for the Pumas. An athletically gifted flanker Matera has shone as a ball carrier and has given the Pumas real impetus going forward. Included in the starting line-up against the Springboks Matera could surprise the other teams with his multi-talented attacking game.