Justin Marshall 's Opinion

Justin Marshall is a former All Blacks halfback and current columnist for the New Zealand Herald

Justin Marshall: The key factors for the Rugby Championship

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The All Black coaches may want another look at Israel Dagg in the fullback role. Photo / Greg Bowker
The All Black coaches may want another look at Israel Dagg in the fullback role. Photo / Greg Bowker

Herald columnist and former All Black Justin Marshall looks at key issues in the Rugby Championship.

1. Back three configuration

This is creating a lot of debate at the moment but I suspect the All Blacks will start the Rugby Championship with Israel Dagg at fullback and Ben Smith back on the wing, despite his brilliant outing at fullback against England.

Before Dagg's injury that was the coaches' thinking and they're probably reluctant to change that without giving him another opportunity.

The other part of the equation is that if Smith plays fullback, who plays right wing? Obviously Cory Jane is an option, but I'm not sure the selectors are cut and dried on that.

It's an intriguing scenario: if you're in Steve Hansen's shoes, would you play the back three you suspect would start for you in the World Cup next year and stick with it to develop combinations, or do you keep experimenting?

With the Eden Park fortress looming in week two, this might be the one and only time he plays around with his preferred back three.

2. Wallaby tight five

Can the Australian pack finally front up to deliver the talented backline quality consistent ball? Does their scrum hold up against South Africa and New Zealand for once?

These are the fundamental questions that stand between an Australian revival and more Bledisloe Cup pain.

People will point to the Waratahs' Super Rugby triumph as a pointer to Wallaby success, but I'm not so sure. There was still a real vulnerability in their tight five and in many respects they got lucky that there were so few scrums in the final as it took away one of the Crusaders' key weapons.

I was talking to Daryl Gibson after the match and he was saying that if there had been another scrum or two, they would have had to introduce Will Skelton, just to get a bit more bulk into their scrum, that's how much trouble they were in.

With Stephen Moore and Tatafu Polota-Nau out of that squad, the All Blacks, Argentina and particularly South Africa are going to put some serious heat on that Wallaby pack at scrum time. We're also a long way removed from the days of Australian dominance at the lineout through the likes of John Eales and Justin Harrison. This is a potential area of weakness to exploit as well.

3. Lost Pumas

Argentina need to win a game. I can't put it any more simply or emphasise it enough. They've drawn once and should have won, but that's not going to wash any more.

Their continuing involvement in the tournament requires more than a hint of promise.

If anything, they were closer to being competitive in their first year. Without a quality domestic tournament, there are no easy answers to the Argentina conundrum, but the success of this tournament relies on bums on seats and ratings and if the Pumas don't quickly emerge as a competitive force, then they become a liability.

4. Springbok style

How are South Africa going to approach this? That epic test at Ellis Park last year - which the All Blacks won 38-27 - showed they were capable of moulding a team that could expose their opposition through attack, rather than through their traditional, attritional style of territory and kicking.

That sort of rugby requires more than an ability to run, though, it needs "want".

I'm not sure a team coached by Heyneke Meyer, with his Bulls pedigree, will actually want to take the sort of risks needed to make this approach work.

That Ellis Park test was almost an unreal situation because the Springboks needed a bonus point win to take the Championship.

I suspect we'll see the Boks return to a kicking and territory game based around the likes of Fourie du Preez and Morne Steyn.

That's a shame, because they have the talent to take on the All Blacks with an attacking approach.

5. Lord Bledisloe or Championship?

The fact that Australia haven't held the Bledisloe Cup for a decade doesn't sit well over the Tasman.

With two of three Bledisloe tests in Australia this campaign, I can see the Wallabies targeting this trophy at the expense of the Rugby Championship.

Sure, they'd take the championship if it came their way, but I suspect they would live with dropping a game to South Africa and sacrificing the championship if it meant winning in Sydney and in Brisbane against the All Blacks (let's face it, they're not going to win at Eden Park).

The Bledisloe Cup in the cabinet would represent a huge source of satisfaction in Australia, the realisation of a short-term goal and a certain sign of progress ahead of the battle for the Webb Ellis Cup next year.

6. Lineout drive

Yes, we beat England 3-0 in June and, after an early hiccup, were quite convincing in doing so. But their lineout drive was an impressive beast and one the All Blacks could and should learn from.

We can get quite closed-minded about our rugby here and tend to think the way we do everything is the best, but that is a naive way to approach anything.

I look at the personnel we have, I'm talking about the likes of Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick and Julian Savea here, and think if we had as effective a lineout drive as England, we could be near unstoppable from this set-piece close to the opposition line. I would love to see Hansen formulate a plan where the lineout drive becomes a genuine source of attacking options for the All Blacks.

7. Loose talk

It is hard not to get excited by the fact we are going to see the most formidable collection of loose forwards going toe-to-toe over the next couple of months.

Just look at the names: Richie McCaw, Kieran Read, the returning Juan Smith, Michael Hooper, Wycliff Palu, Francois Louw, Duane Vermeulen, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, Juan Manuel Leguizamon.

There's intrigue, too. Who's going to emerge out of Jerome Kaino and Liam Messam as the All Blacks' preferred No 6? And what exactly are Australia going to do about a No 6 (ha ha)?

- NZ Herald

Justin Marshall

Justin Marshall is a former All Blacks halfback and current columnist for the New Zealand Herald

Justin Marshall played 81 test matches for the All Blacks, including four as captain. The halfback made his debut in 1995 against France and ended his career 10 years later with a series sweep over the British and Irish Lions. He won five Super Rugby titles with the Crusaders, playing 105 games for the franchise. He commentates for Sky Television.

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