Can anyone stop New Zealand? It’s the question that this year’s Rugby Championship – like the two other renewals, and most of the Tri Nations before that – revolved around and Steve Hansen’s side once again look to be the outstanding candidates for glory in the Southern Hemisphere’s premier championship.
This tournament has been running for two years straight and in both those seasons Hansen’s men have gone through the tournament with a clean sweep and this time around they look just as strong.
Super Rugby form is often taken as a precursor to this tournament and seven Crusaders came within just a point of beating the Waratahs on home soil in the final and it’s hard to think of a side able to match the All Blacks man for man. With the World Cup just a year away the time is coming for choices to be made and with Dan Carter’s fitness now a worry the outhalf mantle is in the safe hands of either Aaaron Cruden or Beauden Barrett, both of whom have made deep impressions on the international stage. Aaron Smith has a fine knowledge of both of those pairings and between them the two give the most powerful backline in the game excellent supply.
Ben Smith, who scored 8 tries last year, has reclaimed the fullback position for himself following a prolonged battle with Israel Dagg while Cory Jane and Julian Savea are arguably the sharpest finishers in world rugby; Inside of them is the evergreen Ma Nonu while either Malakai Fekitoa or Ryan Crotty, both of whom are more than capable of playing the 13 role.
Kieran Read is arguably the lynchpin upon which this side can be taken down but the Crusaders run to the Super Rugby final arguably coincided with a return to the amazing form that he showed last year and Richie McCaw brings the most experience of any test player on the planet; Jerome Kaino has now sealed his place in the side at 6 and the mobile lock pairing of Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick looks set to stay and the front row of Franks, Coles and Crockett brings mobility and power in equal measure for the best balanced XV in the competition.
South Africa – who combined with the All Blacks or the best test match of the year by a good distance – and Australia look to be improving in time for 2015, but no side got within 11 points of them last year, they are unbeaten in 17 test matches ahead of their opener with Australia tomorrow and they are unbeaten in 33 games at home, leaving the result of a grand slam down to 2 matches; The 10/3 on them completing a third consecutive grand slam easily makes the most appeal of the outrights here.
Australia and South Africa should present stiff tests for this wager, however. South Africa took advantage of Australia’s wretched dysfunction under Robbie Deans to finish a clear second last year and look on the up and up with Henkye Meyer – once much malinged but certain to lead them to the 2015 World Cup at the helm.
Last year they gave New Zealand the stiffest tests of their 17 match unbeaten run apart from Ireland’s close shave in November, going down fighting in Auckland despite playing nearly half the game without Bismarck du Plessis and then playing their part in an epic encounter to end the Championship.
This summer they have looked in good form, winning all three of their tests, although their close shave against Wales was one of very few tests in the last year and a half that should have gone against them. With a mind to next year it’ll be fascinating to see how Handre Pollard and Damian de Allende slot into a backline that has the power of Cornal Hendricks and Willie Le Roux’s speed and control; With this in mind the absence of Fourie De Preez is a giant blow given how well he’d done since re-joining the side.
In the forwards’ it’s business as usual, with the same pack that was so impressive last season all present and that is likely to provide a huge test for all.
Australia’s weakness has been the pack in recent years but since Ewen McKenzie took the position the Wallabies have found the balance missing from top to bottom. In that respect, the injuries to Stephen Moore and Tatafu Polota-Nau at hooker are the last thing they needed but the backline depth – apart from the wings, where Rob Horne and Pat McCabe start against the All Blacks – is a match for even the All Blacks with Israel Folau, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Kurtley Beale, and Matt Toomua all in scorching form while the Waraths continent come off a home super rugby final win over a side that had seven of tomorrow’s All Black lineup inside.
That race looks too close to call, and while it’s dismissive to Argentina to give them such a short space in this preview the Albiceste seem to be regressing and one win would be a huge achievement although it’s not one that looks to be forthcoming.
In the top tryscorer market, Ben Smith, playing at his rightful position of fullback, makes the most appeal although Cornal Hendricks is an interesting each/way contender here.
3 pts New Zealand to win every game (10/3 general)
1 pt Ben Smith top tryscorer (11/2 Paddy Power)