The run-in to the Rugby World Cup clicks into high gear for the Southern Hemisphere’s elite when the Rugby Championship gets underway on Saturday, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
The Springboks kick off their 2023 season against Australia in Pretoria, while the All Blacks are in Mendoza to take on Argentina.
Perennial winners and defending champions New Zealand are the favourites to win the truncated edition of the tournament at 1.71 outright.
Given that they only have one home game, next weekend’s blockbuster against South Africa, and the Springboks have two, the men in green and gold are good value at 2.85 while Australia (7.00) and Argentina (26.00) are expected to prop up the table.
Something to consider: winning the Rugby Championship (formerly Tri-Nations) and the World Cup in the same year is a feat that’s only been achieved once, by the Springboks in 2019.
South Africa v Australia
Saturday, 8 July – 17:05
The tournament opener is loaded with extra intrigue. On one hand, the Springboks have opted to employ a split-squad system, like they did when they won their last Southern Hemisphere title four years ago. And, on the other, it’s Eddie Jones’ first Test back in charge of the Wallabies, setting the stage for a highly compelling clash.
Jones, who loves playing mind games almost as much as winning, has kept his cards close to his chest in terms of the style of rugby Australia will be playing in his second term at the helm. He has included some huge, heavy hitters in his squad in the hopes of adding muscle and physicality to the mix, areas the Wallabies have traditionally lacked in, none more so than 145kg La Rochelle leviathan Will Skelton.
However, fighting fire with fire against the Springboks up front would be unwise. While the world champions have a clear first and second-choice backline, the packs they can put out are world-class, boasting a balance between size, strength, brutality and dynamism.
Thus, Jones will have to have a few tricks up his sleeve if he wants to mastermind a first-ever Wallabies win over the Springboks at Loftus Versfeld. How much they value territory will be a key factor. We know the Springboks will put boot to ball, but will the visitors have the patience to kick for field position, or, will they – in their attempt to speed up the game – grow restless and try to run from deep?
With the backline the Springboks have gone with, there will be cracks that the Wallabies can exploit, but the power and physicality of the forwards should be too much for them to handle. The big boys will lay the groundwork and the backs will have their moments to shine as the men in green and gold get off to a winning start.
Argentina v New Zealand
Saturday, 8 July – 21:10
Since the demise of Super Rugby proper, the Pumas have been in a precarious position again. With the Jaguares no longer around, Argentinian players are scattered around the world once more, while the bulk of the New Zealand, Australian and South African squads play together in domestic competitions.
Still, Michael Cheika did wonders with the team last year, guiding them to a first-ever win over the All Blacks on New Zealand soil, victories over Australia and England and a series win over Scotland, and the Australian-born coach is dreaming big, instilling in his side that they can win the World Cup.
The reality is that the chances of them ambushing the All Blacks on Saturday are slim. After a challenging 2022 season, New Zealand will be out to send a message.
The Crusaders and Chiefs’ Super Rugby Pacific dominance give them a good starting point and with this clash being all about laying down a marker, bank on them to be fully focused, fired up and ruthless.