With 2018’s iteration of the southern hemisphere’s highest level of rugby competition set to kick off this weekend, we take a look at some events you might have to look forward to in this year’s Rugby Championship.
Richie Mo’unga to be thrown in the deep end
Steve Hansen and the other All Blacks coaches have been fairly consistent with easing new players onto the international stage. Excepting a few prodigious talents here and there, most newer caps have been given a handful of minutes off the bench before being thrust into a starting position.
One particularly notable exception to this occurred in 2015, the year of the last Rugby World Cup, when Lima Sopoaga was given the reins in his debut match – after he had only come into the squad as an injury replacement for Aaron Cruden.
Starting debuts aren’t always going to be nerve-wracking – not if you’re playing at home against one of the lower ranked teams in the world – but Sopoaga was thrust into the spotlight in one of the toughest places to play in world rugby, Johannesburg, against a Springboks team rearing from a close loss to the Wallabies in the previous week.
Richie Mo’unga’s exceptional form for the Crusaders has seen him come into discussions regarding who should be leading the All Blacks’ backline – and whilst Hansen has suggested that Barrett is still seen as the leading first five in the squad, it would not be a shock to see Mo’unga be given the playmaker duties in one of the tougher Rugby Championship matches.
We’ll likely see a very settled 23 selected to begin with, but seeing Mo’unga named at 10 for one of the bigger matches later in the tournament wouldn’t be surprising.
Reece Hodge to emerge as the Wallabies’ first choice centre
Samu Kerevi has slowly locked down the 13 position in the Wallabies backline in the last year, but when injury struck him down in late June it was expected that Tevita Kuridrani would slot into his place on the team sheet. Kuridrani was previously the first choice centre for the Wallabies for a number of years and offered a very similar replacement option for coach Michael Cheika.
Of course, the one thing you can count in rugby is injuries in positions where you can least afford them. So it was, that Kuridrani tore a muscle in the Brumbies’ final match of the Super Rugby season – an effective dead rubber against the Waratahs – and removed any chance of him taking Kerevi’s place.
Arguably the Wallabies’ most versatile player, Reece Hodge, has now ostensibly been given the job of plugging the midfield and keeping the Wallabies firing. Hodge has spent time in almost every backline position for Australia in his three years with the team, and in the recent match against an Australian Super Rugby selection is what Hodge who was handed the 13 jersey.
Hodge’s international experience means he’s preferred over the likes of newcomers such as Billy Meakes and Curtis Rona, and his flexibility and adaptability mean that’s he’s an automatic selection at least somewhere in the Wallabies 23.
Of most interest is the fact that Hodge offers a considerably different playstyle to injured teammates Kerevi and Kuridrani – his kicking ability is exceptional both in terms of placement and distance and he has a knack for getting the ball to players in space. He’s also much less likely to try winning a one on one with opposition players but is still excellent at getting over the gain line.
Hodge will almost certainly start at centre when the Wallabies host the All Blacks in Sydney for the first Bledisloe Cup match of 2018 – but even once Kuridrani and Kerevi become available later in the season, it will be Hodge who Cheika entrusts with the 13 jersey.
Argentina to lose all their matches
Since Argentina joined The Rugby Championship in 2012, they have finished dead last in the competition in every season except 2015, when they recorded a home win against South Africa. In many of those seasons, the Pumas picked up a draw or a victory – but they have been few and far between.
The recent success of the Jaguares in Super Rugby would suggest that Argentinian rugby is on the rise, but the Pumas’ restrictive selection means fruits are unlikely to be bore at the international level. Argentina have been on a downward slide in recent times and ex-coach Daniel Hourcade has paid the price, with new coach Mario Ledesma now given the tough job of turning around the team’s fortunes.
New staff often breathes fresh life into sports teams – and no doubt we will see this with Argentina in the coming years, but this upcoming Rugby Championship is unlikely to give Puma’s fans much reason for immediate optimism. Expect to see Argentina start the competition on the back foot from day one, and a flogging is on the cards when the All Blacks visit Buenos Aires in round five.
The competition to be decided in the last round
The All Blacks have started The Rugby Championship as firm favourites in the last few years and 2018 is no different. We’ve seen New Zealand whitewash the competition in the last two years – but maybe this season will be a little different.
Argentina aside, the competition looks to be considerably stronger than in recent years. Australia have a settled squad with game changers in the form of David Pocock, Michael Hooper, Will Genia, Kurtley Beale and Israel Folau. The nature of The Rugby Championship means that the Wallabies always start off on the wrong foot because they always play the All Blacks in the first two weeks of the competition – but this year they’ve tried to get in a bit more practice beforehand with their hit out against the Super Rugby selection.
The first Bledisloe will be a titanic battle – and until recent years, when the Wallabies have been at their weakest for a long time, Sydney has traditionally not been a prosperous hunting ground for the All Blacks.
Equally as important is the fact that the Springboks have genuine class all over the park and an astute coach in Rassie Erasmus. Whilst their top team may not be quite as established as the All Blacks’ or the Wallabies’, they unquestionably have enough talent to win against anyone on a good day. With young, thirsty wings on the outsides and experienced grunt up front in the form of Malcolm Marx, Eben Etzebeth and Francois Louw, the final round of the competition where South Africa hosts New Zealand in Pretoria will be an absolute thriller.
For the sake of the competition and for the sake of world rugby as a whole, South Africa and Australia need to stand up to New Zealand – and in 2018 they may well have the firepower to do so.
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