After a dominant June series win against France, the All Blacks will be hoping to keep the Rugby Championship trophy and Bledisloe Cup locked up for another year as the 2019 World Cup edges closer.
The All Blacks outscored their French mid-season opponents 127-38 over three tests and will be hoping for more of the same when they meet with Australia, South Africa and Argentina over the next few weeks.
Steve Hansen’s men will open their Rugby Championship campaign on a high, with the Christchurch-based Crusaders having secured another Super Rugby title and four of the five New Zealand franchises reaching the knockout stages of the competition.
The All Blacks’ first fixture of the Championship – against Australia in Sydney – will be where they make their mark and set the tone for the rest of the competition. Despite Australia emerging victorious in Brisbane the last time the two teams met, the last time they met in Sydney, the All Blacks romped to a 54-34 win. If the New Zealand side can find that second gear early on, they may end Australia’s Championship aspirations before they have a chance to get off the ground.
The schedule of the tournament serves to benefit the All Blacks, as – aside from their early visit to Sydney – they will spend the first half of the tournament at home. Their final fixture – the third Bledisloe Cup test – in Yokohama could prove decisive if Australia can defend their home turf in the opener. Outside of World Cup fixtures, the All Blacks have suffered two consecutive losses at a neutral venue. They lost to Ireland for the first time in their history at Chicago’s Soldier Field in 2016, and in 2010 they lost to Australia in Hong Kong.
With an Australian resurgence on the cards after a strong series against world number two Ireland and South Africa coming off a series victory against world number four England, performing on the road, especially towards the tail end of the competition, will be key for the All Blacks as they fight to retain their place atop rugby’s pecking order.
What has separated the All Blacks from the rest of the teams in the competition is their difference in problems. While the Wallabies and Springboks have concerns surrounding depth in key positions, one of the All Blacks’ biggest problems is that you can only have 15 men on the field at the same time. With the Rugby World Cup just over one year away, each minute on the field serves as an audition to get on the plane to Japan next year – especially for those on the fringes.
Rookie Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus recently acknowledged his side don’t currently have the ideal level of depth that he would like, while it’s no secret that Australia’s lack of depth in the halves and midfield injury crisis has hamstrung their chances of success in the upcoming tournament. Argentina will also be going through an adjustment period of sorts as they move forward with new head coach Mario Ledesma.
For Steve Hansen’s All Blacks, the surplus of talent at a number of positions gives selectors a problem most wish they had.
At first five-eighth, Richie Mo’unga is nipping at the heels of the incumbent Beauden Barrett. The scintillating form of the Crusaders playmaker has fans and pundits calling for the 24-year-old to assume the All Blacks’ No. 10 jersey sooner rather than later, while the electrifying Damian McKenzie – recently named by SANZAAR as Super Rugby’s Player of the Season for the third successive year – continues to push his own case for the spot.
In the midfield, the All Blacks still pose a major threat despite missing the oft-injured Sonny Bill Williams for at least the first part of the campaign. Williams’ injury woes open the door for Crusaders centre Jack Goodhue – who led all Super Rugby backs in made tackles this year – to resume his formidable partnership with the rock-solid Ryan Crotty and potentially shore up a permanent spot in the national side. Hurricanes form midfielder Ngani Laumape, included as injury cover for Williams, will also be focused on building his portfolio in the black jersey as he pushes for World Cup selection.
In the forward pack, the return of Kieran Read will serve as a huge boost as the captain grew from strength to strength at the tail end of the Crusaders’ Super Rugby season. Read will marshal many of the same troops from that title-winning group, with seven Crusaders forwards picked in the All Blacks squad, including five front rowers.
The area of most concern for the All Blacks from a selection standpoint is the back row. This stems from the omission of Vaea Fifita and inclusion of Jackson Hemopo. Fifita seems to have fallen out of favour after a drop in form and being used primarily as a lock by Chris Boyd at the Hurricanes. Hemopo – also used mainly at lock during the Super Rugby season – received the nod and will be used exclusively as a blindside flanker. After the departure of longtime workhorse Jerome Kaino, the No. 6 jersey is fairly open, though Liam Squire seems to have the tightest grip of any recent comer.
This tournament should clear things up for Hansen moving forward as he refines his World Cup group and tries to secure his sixth Rugby Championship title since the competition’s remodeling in 2012.
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