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Preview: Rugby Championship

Updated: Wednesday, 15 Aug 2012 15:31 | Comments

Juan Martin Hernandez and Argentina join the Tri Nations to make up the Rugby Championship
Juan Martin Hernandez and Argentina join the Tri Nations to make up the Rugby Championship

by Warren Gatchell

Saturday sees the inaugural Rugby Championship commence, with Argentina joining the former Tri Nations countries of Australia, South Africa and New Zealand in an expanded competition.

A third place finish at the 2007 World Cup accelerated the wheels already in motion for the Pumas’ inclusion. It represents the single biggest change in the global rugby calendar since the beginning of the professional era.

Soon after the 1995 RWC final, where Francois Pienaar famously raised 'Old Bill' in front of an elated Ellis Park crowd, the Tri Nations format was agreed between the broadcasters, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.

The South African Rugby Union (SARU) were always keen on Argentina joining and had lobbied for their participation in an annual tournament for quite some time.

A fourth team could balance out the travel factor for the Springboks who would spend on average three to four weeks living out of suitcases. Then throw in the Tasman Bledisloe Cup matches that are coupled with a solitary week in the Republic for the reverse fixtures.

The broadcast deal for the Tri Nations expired in 2010 and it was during this time frame that the format of the Rugby Championship was agreed, with Argentina officially joining in November 2011.

The Pampas XV, which is fielded almost exclusively with players from their elite performance unit, had been invited by SARU to base themselves in South Africa and play in the domestic Vodacom Cup to get up to speed in a professional environment which sits just below Super Rugby.

The Pampas ended the 2010 season in a respectable fifth place. 2011 illustrated the talent that the South American's bring to the game and how quickly they could learn, going undefeated in their second year, while handing out a few drubbings to their South African opponents on the way to victory.

Some of you might remember the cautious voices before Italy joined to form the Six Nations as the last Five nations game was played in 1999. They have been wooden spoon recipients more often than not, with the odd jostle for fifth place when Scotland has had an indifferent year.

With the exception of England in 2002-2003, the Tri Nations has been a contest between the top three teams in the world in a strength versus strength format where there were no second chances or easy games. The All Blacks won the title 10 times while Australia and South Africa only managed three apiece.

The Pumas, for all their improvement on the international stage and steps towards professionalism domestically, have never beaten South Africa or New Zealand in 27 attempts. Their best effort to date was a 21-21 draw against the All Blacks way back in 1985.

It's not all doom and gloom though, having tasted success against the Wallabies on four occasions, with their last victory in 1997.

The first match of the weekend takes place in Sydney with World Cup holders New Zealand going in as firm favourites.

The Chiefs from Hamilton, featuring Sonny Bill Williams, were crowned champions in this year's Super 15 a week after knocking out Dan Carter and Richie McCaw's Crusaders en route to the final. The players from these two in-form franchises will fill the bulk of the All Black team sheet.

Across the water Australian teams have had an especially poor year and were it not for the Conference system where the respective winner is guaranteed a play-off spot, no Aussie side would have made the top four.

To compound matters, chief play-maker Quade Cooper has been deemed unfit for Test rugby after playing only five matches this year since sustaining a season ending knee injury in the third-place play-off against Wales at RWC 2011.

The opening weekend clash of Australia v New Zealand should be a close contest, with the winning culture gained from the domestic season and form of the All Black players ten points too good for the Wallaby hosts.

The other pairing could be of interest to rugby fans in Ireland as both teams will be touring here this November.

We move over to Cape Town where the Pumas will play a somewhat depleted Bok side that hasn't been helped by the extended Super Rugby season. The South African teams dominated the log (pool) stages only for the sixth placed Sharks from Durban to knock out the table topping Stormers from Cape Town.

This was a mere week after returning from Brisbane where they steam rolled the Reds and any further Australian involvement out of the competition. Sounds like a fairytale story doesn't it?

The next day the Sharks were back on the plane to Hamilton in New Zealand for their third ocean crossing flight in 14 days. Let's just say the third time wasn't lucky.

South Africa's series against England ended on a low note with a draw in Port Elizabeth which places a lot of pressure on the hosts for a big performance.

Injuries to Pierre Spies, JP Pietersen along with the unavailability this season of Schalk Burger and Juan Smith, will mean yet another new look loose trio that will have to scrap with what some have described as the “organised chaos” that is Argentinian rugby.

Argentina were a mixed bag this June, beating France in their opening home game only to lose by 39 points the following week. Felipe Contepomi won't be available for selection but we will see the return of Juan Martin Hernandez at 10.

This match has the potential to be a classic forward orientated battle as both teams try to force their game plan on the other. The Springboks' fitness and power will be the deciding factor with the only chance of an upset being a complete 80-minute performance by the Pumas.

This is unlikely in their first outing against players who are primed at the halfway point of the Southern Hemisphere season. Bok's by five or more.

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