Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Rugby: All Blacks exude class and ready to shape up against foes

The Rugby Championship kicks off next weekend. Wynne Gray assesses the sides.

New skipper Michael Hooper exudes vibrancy for the Wallabies. Photo / Getty Images
New skipper Michael Hooper exudes vibrancy for the Wallabies. Photo / Getty Images

New Zealand

It's no surprise the All Blacks have shaped a remarkable record since the Rugby Championship was expanded. Off the back of their World Cup victory in 2011, they have been unbeaten in the two seasons since they were joined by the Pumas, Wallabies and Springboks.

The All Blacks have won 10 titles since Southern Hemisphere internationals were tacked on to the Super Rugby series, with the Boks and Wallabies having won three championships each.

The All Blacks have another impressive squad this year, with Malakai Fekitoa, TJ Perenara and Patrick Tuipulotu beginning their tests careers in the June internationals.

Daniel Carter's comeback is on hold but there's glitter from captain Richie McCaw, who becomes the first player to 50 championship caps in Sydney next week and Kieran Read who is working back into the form which made him the standout player last season.

Quality flows through the squad, with most inspection likely to settle on a quartet of players.

Ben Smith has been more reliable than the postman with his shift from back-up centre last season to fullback or the wing. He was gold when he got his chance to start at fullback against England and is making a strong case to start ahead of Israel Dagg. Another wanting to ice his June work is Aaron Cruden, who is showing a sharpness to put pressure on Carter, with goalkicking the only quibble. Jerome Kaino landed back in New Zealand with a colossal thump from his time in Japan. His reunion with Read and McCaw is a loose-forward rhapsody.

Up front, Dane Coles will get plenty more education as his hooking experience goes to another stage in preparation for his World Cup work next season.

South Africa

Several players stand out in the Springbok's squad, which is rated second in the world and desperate to get one over the All Blacks.

They improved last season but were unable to stay with the All Blacks in a belting contest at Ellis Park after their earlier duel at Eden Park was spoiled by an overzealous decision to send off Bismarck du Plessis.

He's the rock in the pack and Jean de Villiers occupies the same status in the backline if his legs last. They need to produce pedigree performances with interim skipper Victor Matfield injured and Frans Steyn on self-imposed exile.

Similar hopes sit around fullback Willie le Roux and lock Eben Etzebeth. Both were magnificent last season.

Surgery on a damaged foot then a slow recovery has kept Etzebeth out of sight this season but he was supposed to turn out for his province this weekend as an entre to the championship.

When Heinrich Brussow, Siya Kolisi, Johan Goosen, Fourie du Preez, Jaque Fourie, JP Pietersen, Schalk Burger and Flip van der Merwe miss out through non-selection, injury or unavailability, coach Heyneke Meyer has some talent to work with.

Australia

There's a new rugby equation doing the rounds in Australia - does SRS = RCT? It (Super Rugby success = Rugby Championship triumph) is about to be assessed. Confidence has spiked after the Waratahs' strong campaign to take out the Super Rugby title and coach Ewen McKenzie is talking about his side continuing their seven-test winning surge at the expense of the All Blacks' world record target in Sydney.

Rugby on the Australian eastern seaboard needs a lift as it battles AFL, football and rugby league for television ratings and crowds but the 'Tahs triumph at Homebush last week drew a big crowd and expectations are for another healthy one at the same venue on Saturday.

Maintaining that support is a fickle problem. It may depend on whether McKenzie includes many Waratahs in his selection and what production he can ring out of the side with or without them.

New skipper Michael Hooper exudes a vibrant attitude to his loose-forward play and to the peripheral duties demanded of a skipper.

Injuries to original skipper Stephen Moore, fellow hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau and rising prop Scott Sio have chewed at a front-row area of Wallaby fallibility. However, McKenzie, as a former test prop, must think he's on the right track because he's left out veteran loosehead Benn Robinson.

Many believe he should also bypass Wycliff Palu, who never seems to fire against the All Blacks. However, his work in the Super Rugby final may be a reprieve in a combination with Hooper and workaholic Scott Fardy.

That amnesty will find favour in Waratahs-land but there will be outrage if Kurtley Beale doesn't get a start. The Wallabies represent Australia but often it seems state divisions run deeper.

ArgentinaThe Pumas bring a new coach and captain into this year's series. Daniel Hourcade is developing the side while hooker Agustin Creevy leads the team.

Each year, Argentina have started away against the Springboks and it's the same this season. They arrived in Pretoria midweek. History doesn't favour them starting in the Republic after a 27-6 defeat there in 2012 and a 73-13 belting last year. In 12 matches, Argentina's best result was a draw with the Springboks in 2012.

After that dreadful beginning last season, when they missed the muscular, athletic talents of No 8 Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, the Pumas regrouped in the middle section of the tournament, losing by just a point to the Wallabies before falling to pieces in their last home game against the same opposition.

They have retained a core of their best men, although lively wing Juan Imhoff will miss the first few games because of a fractured foot. Utility Juan Martin Hernandez returns to the side and is expected to bring some impetus.

The pack will be competitive but once again the heat will be on the backs to support them.

- Herald on Sunday

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