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ABs, Boks, Wallabies or Pumas: Who wins the 2021 Rugby Championship?

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Marcelo Endelli/Getty Images)

For the first time since 2019, all four SANZAAR nations will come together and compete for the Rugby Championship, which kicks-off in full this weekend.


The advent of Covid-19 has overshadowed the lead-up to the tournament, which was initially supposed to be co-hosted by New Zealand and Australia – with the exception of the two tests between the Springboks and Los Pumas – but now looks set to be staged entirely in Australia.

Nevertheless, plenty of intrigue surrounds the competition as it returns to its full complement of teams following South Africa’s withdrawal from last year’s event.

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Wallabies captain Michael Hooper speaks to media
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Wallabies captain Michael Hooper speaks to media

The Springboks return to the competition as a battle-hardened outfit after they dispatched the British and Irish Lions in a 2-1 series victory last weekend following a two-year absence from international rugby.

Elsewhere, the All Blacks and Wallabies are already one test deep into their Bledisloe Cup series, with the Kiwis holding a one-match advantage heading into this weekend’s second clash, while Los Pumas remain serious contenders after losing just once during last year’s edition of the competition.

With all that in mind, what are the differences that make some teams serious title contenders and others tournament pretenders?

All Blacks

Head coach: Ian Foster
Captain: Sam Whitelock
2020 Tri-Nations finish: 1st
Draw: Wallabies (Auckland), Wallabies (Perth), Los Pumas (TBA, Australia), Los Pumas (TBA, Australia), Springboks (TBA), Springboks (TBA)

Squad: Asafo Aumua, Dane Coles, Samisoni Taukei’aho, Codie Taylor, George Bower, Nepo Laulala, Tyrel Lomax, Joe Moody, Angus Ta’avao, Karl Tu’inukuafe, Ofa Tuungafasi, Scott Barrett, Brodie Retallick, Patrick Tuipulotu, Tupou Vaa’i, Sam Whitelock, Ethan Blackadder, Shannon Frizell, Akira Ioane, Luke Jacobson, Dalton Papalii, Ardie Savea, Hoskins Sotutu, TJ Perenara, Aaron Smith, Brad Weber, Beauden Barrett, Richie Mo’unga, Braydon Ennor, David Havili, Rieko Ioane, Anton Lienert-Brown, Quinn Tupaea, George Bridge, Will Jordan, Sevu Reece, Jordie Barrett, Damian McKenzie.


Predicted finish: 1st

Fresh off tests against Tonga, Fiji and Australia, the All Blacks head into the Rugby Championship as title favourites, as is normally the case.

However, there remain doubts over New Zealand’s ability after the Flying Fijians and Wallabies exposed frailties in the Kiwis’ game at various stages over the past month.

In Dunedin, Fiji’s physicality and tenacity at the breakdown and on defence halted Ian Foster’s side in its tracks as it took a quartet of tries off the bench from Dane Coles to secure a 57-23 victory at Forsyth Barr Stadium.


Then, just last weekend, ill-discipline forced a clunky start and sloppy ending to their Bledisloe Cup-opening win over the Wallabies at Eden Park.

After trailing 33-8 with 11 minutes to play, the Wallabies ran in three tries in the final 11 minutes, and that lack of ruthlessness has been a focal point of media attention of the course of the past week.

But, while that shows the All Blacks are far from the polished product they want to be, their performances between those tests can’t be overlooked.

A 102-0 thrashing of Tonga at the beginning of July was coupled with a vastly improved 60-13 victory over Fiji in their re-match in Hamilton a week after their encounter in Dunedin.

In those matches, the All Blacks showed how capable they are on attack when firing on all cylinders, and much of the same will be expected of them in their follow-up clash with the Wallabies at Eden Park on Saturday.

Win that clash, and they will lock the Bledisloe Cup away for a 19th straight year and force the Wallabies to wait at least another year to break their 35-year losing streak against the New Zealanders at Eden Park.

That should provide the All Blacks with a solid platform to challenge for yet another Rugby Championship title, but the real test will come against the Springboks, whose forward pack and breakdown dominance remains the best in the world.

Last year’s first-ever defeat to Los Pumas won’t have been forgotten either, so there remains plenty of work for the All Blacks to do if they are to come away as champions by the beginning of October.

In saying that, the quality of their squad is evident and it is difficult to go past them as title favourites, although the task of becoming SANZAAR’s best side will be tough as they face the prospect of playing their last home test of the year this weekend.


Head coach: Jaques Neinaber
Captain: Siya Kolisi
2020 Tri-Nations finish: N/A (1st in 2019 Rugby Championship)
Draw: Los Pumas (Port Elizabeth), Los Pumas (Port Elizabeth), Wallabies (TBA, Australia), Wallabies (TBA, Australia), All Blacks (TBA), All Blacks (TBA)

Squad: Joseph Dweba, Johan Grobbelaar, Malcolm Marx, Bongi Mbonambi, Thomas du Toit, Steven Kitshoff, Vincent Koch, Wilco Louw, Frans Malherbe, Ox Nche, Trevor Nyakane, Lood de Jager, Rynhardt Elstadt, Eben Etzebeth, Nico Janse van Rensburg, Franco Mostert, Marvin Orie, RG Snyman, Dan du Preez, Siya Kolisi, Kwagga Smith, Marco van Staden, Duane Vermeulen, Jasper Wiese, Faf de Klerk, Jaden Hendrikse, Herschel Jantjies, Cobus Reinach, Elton Jantjies, Handre Pollard, Morne Steyn, Lukhanyo Am, Damian de Allende, Jesse Kriel, Francois Steyn, Cheslin Kolbe, Makazole Mapimpi, Sbu Nkosi, Rosko Specman, Aphelele Fassi, Willie le Roux, Damian Willemse.

Predicted finish: 2nd

World Cup champions, World Rugby’s number one-ranked side and series-winners over the British and Irish Lions – it reads for an impressive recent CV for the Springboks.

In particular, the victory over the Lions shows they haven’t lost the touch that made them the best team in the world two years ago after they chose not to play any test rugby in 2020 amid concerns over the global pandemic.

Granted, the style of rugby on show against the tourists from the United Kingdom and Ireland wasn’t exactly awe-inspiring as defence and tactical kicking reigned supreme over attacking, free-flowing rugby.

The added pettiness of South Africa’s director of rugby and former World Cup-winning coach Rassie Erasmus in relation to the officiating of the first test generated the biggest storyline of the whole series, which is a testament to the dull rugby on show.

However, the Springboks have themselves a winning formula, even if it isn’t as glitzy and glamorous as some would like it to be, and it will take a formidable side to crack the Springboks over the coming weeks.

Equipped with an enormous forward pack that isn’t afraid to throw its collective weight around the park, the Springboks will be expected to dominate the battle up front, which should lay the platform out wide for their exciting backline players.

No player is more exciting, perhaps in the entire Rugby Championship, than wing Cheslin Kolbe, and if the Springboks can work him into some space out wide, as they did in the World Cup final and third Lions test, then success will never be far out of sight.

The loss of Peter-Steph du Toit, World Rugby’s Player of the Year in 2019, is a hefty blow for the South Africans, but their depth of quality throughout the forward pack should cover for his absence adequately.

Siya Kolisi, Franco Mostert, Jasper Weise, Kwagga Smith, Rynhardt Elstadt and Marco van Staden all featured in the back row throughout the Lions series, and Duane Vermeulen’s return from injury will only bolster South Africa’s loose forward stocks.

The real question will be whether they can topple the All Blacks, their long-standing traditional rivals whose game plan is starkly different to that of their own, but the Springboks have every chance of defending their 2019 Rugby Championship crown.


Head coach: Dave Rennie
Captain: Michael Hooper
2020 Tri-Nations finish: 3rd
Draw: All Blacks (Auckland), All Blacks (Perth), Springboks (TBA, Australia), Springboks (TBA, Australia), Los Pumas (TBA, Australia), Los Pumas (TBA, Australia)

Squad: Feleti Kaitu’u, Lachlan Lonergan, Brandon Paenga-Amosa, Jordan Uelese, Allan Alaalatoa, Angus Bell, Pone Fa’amausili, Tom Robertson, Scott Sio, James Slipper, Taniela Tupou, Nick Frost, Matt Philip, Izack Rodda, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Darcy Swain, Michael Hooper, Rob Leota, Fraser McReight, Isi Naisarani, Pete Samu, Lachlan Swinton, Rob Valetini, Harry Wilson, Jake Gordon, Ryan Lonergan, Tate McDermott, Nic White, Quade Cooper, Noah Lolesio, James O’Connor, Matt To’omua, Lalakai Foketi, Reece Hodge, Len Ikitau, Samu Kerevi, Duncan Paia’aua, Hunter Paisami, Jordan Petaia, Andrew Kellaway, Marika Koroibete, Andy Muirhead, Tom Wright, Tom Banks.

Predicted finish: 3rd

There is plenty of optimism coming out of Australia in the wake of their tightly-contested test series victory over France last month.

The Wallabies showed plenty of mental fortitude to emerge from three tense tests with a 2-1 series win as head coach Dave Rennie stamped his authority over the team he overtook from Michael Cheika in the wake of the 2019 World Cup.

Some perspective needs to be applied to that sense of eagerness, though, given that France effectively sent a third-string team over to play Australia’s first-choice team.

Had the likes of Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack, Virimi Vakatawa, Gael Fickou, Charles Ollivon and Gregory Alldritt been present, one has to imagine the series wouldn’t have panned out the way it did.

There may also be some satisfaction that the Wallabies were able to force errors out of the All Blacks last weekend and close the match out with three late tries to keep the Kiwis on their toes throughout the entire 80 minutes of the match.

Rennie and his assistants can certainly take some satisfaction out of the fact that their side piled on the pressure deep into the contest, but that doesn’t hide the fact that the Wallabies were blown apart early in the second half, the only passage of the match the All Blacks began to build some continuity.

Perhaps that the All Blacks only got going for a brief 20-minute period is indicative of a more confrontational Wallabies side that were able to disrupt New Zealand’s rhythm for large portions of the match.

Or, maybe it was just an off day for the Kiwis and the Wallabies still have plenty to work on to be able to consistently match the All Blacks for the duration of a match.

The lineout throwing of Brandon Paenga-Amosa was highlighted as a significant flaw in Australia’s game plan, while young first-five Noah Lolesio might be feeling the pressure heading into this weekend after a horror show off the kicking tee.

These are just two of the many challenges facing Rennie as he aims to rebuild the Wallabies to the world-beaters they used to be throughout the 1990s and early 2000s.

Considering the quality of those teams, that is no easy task for the former Chiefs and Glasgow Warriors boss, and it may still take some time for the potential of this current team to shine through on the global stage.

The talent is there, though, and we could see it on show at times throughout the Rugby Championship, but the need for consistently quality performances and victories throughout the course of this tournament may be a stretch too far for this side.

Los Pumas

Head coach: Mario Ledesma
Captain: Julian Montoya
2020 Tri-Nations finish: 2nd
Draw: Springboks (Port Elizabeth), Springboks (Port Elizabeth), All Blacks (TBA, Australia), All Blacks (TBA, Australia), Wallabies (TBA, Australia), Wallabies (TBA, Australia)

Squad: Facundo Bosch, Julian Montoya, Ignacio Ruiz, Santiago Socino, Thomas Gallo, Facunda Gigena, Francisco Gomez Kodela, Rodrigo Martinez, Santiago Medrano, Carlos Muzzio, Enrique Pieretto, Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, Joel Sclavi, Juan Pablo Zeiss, Matias Alemanno, Rodrigo Fernandez Criado, Marcos Kremer, Tomas Lavanini, Guido Petti, Rodrgio Bruni, Juan Martin Gonzalez, Francisco Gorrissen, Facundo Isa, Tomas Lezana, Pablo Matera, Joaquin Oviedo, Gonzalo Bertranou, Tomas Cubelli, Felipe Ezcurra, Joaquin Diaz Bonilla, Santiago Mare, Domingo Miotti, Nicolas Sanchez, Santiago Chocobares, Lucio Cinti, Jeronimo de la Fuente, Juan Cruz Mallia, Matias Moroni, Matias Orlando, Sebastian Cancelliere, Mateo Carreras, Santiago Cordero, Bautista Delguy, Marcos Moneta, Emiliano Boffelli, Santiago Carreras, Ignacio Mendy.

Predicted finish: 4th

The stars of last year’s Tri-Nations, the surprise factor of Los Pumas has well and truly disappeared.

Truth be told, the Argentines did only win one match in last year’s tournament, but it was who they beat and the way in which they won the game that spoke volumes of what the South Americans are capable of.

Against all odds, after having adhered to lengthy travel and lockdown demands, Los Pumas arrived in Sydney to take down the All Blacks at Bankwest Stadium as their forward pack bullied the Kiwis into submission.

Nobody expected much out of Mario Ledesma’s side, but the Argentines, led by inspirational loose forwards Pablo Matera and Marcos Kremer, outshone the New Zealanders on all fronts.

A masterclass display by veteran Los Pumas playmaker Nicolas Sanchez guided Argentina to a 25-15 victory over the Kiwis, their first-ever test win over the All Blacks.

It was an outstanding display of rugby that exemplified what Los Pumas can do when they click, but it was the only time we saw a performance of that ilk throughout the Tri-Nations.

While back-to-back draws against the Wallabies were promising, if a little dire, Argentina were then pumped 38-0 by the All Blacks in their re-match a fortnight after their famous victory.

There were external factors that may have contributed to Argentina’s defeat, most notably the controversy centred on Matera shortly after their win over the All Blacks, but it was disappointing to see them fall so low so soon after rising so high.

It’s that inconsistency that could see Los Pumas struggle to replicate their juggernaut effort against the All Blacks on a regular basis this year, but they certainly can’t be dismissed as easy-beats as may have been done in the past.

That much proved true last month when they thumped a Welsh side without its Lions stars after they played out a 20-all stalemate a week beforehand.

Going back a further week, and Argentina were given an almighty scare by European minnows Romania, with Los Pumas relying on a converted try by Juan Martin Gonzalez to secure a 24-17 victory in Bucharest.

That further illustrates the inconsistencies that have plagued Argentina in recent times, but if they can deliver physical performances regularly in this Rugby Championship, the other three teams will need to be put on high alert.


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