A truncated Rugby Championship and a World Cup launchpad: Pumas and All Blacks
Once in every four years, the pinnacle of annual Southern Hemisphere Test rugby is slashed in half, reduced from its usual six-round format to a truncated three-week appetiser for the apex of rugby union as a whole, the greatly-coveted World Cup. In the lead up to the ninth instalment in Japan in little over two months, The Rugby Magazine casts a magnifying glass over each Rugby Championship side, and how they can use this year's abridged tournament as a springboard; travelling headlong towards the William Web Ellis trophy in Yokohama.
In the second part of The Rugby Magazine's look at the lessons The Rugby Championship sides' are set to garner from this summer's truncated, three-week tournament, Argentina and New Zealand come under the magnifying glass.
Anticipation is hovering around Los Pumas after a stellar performance from the country's sole professional rugby team, Los Jaguares, in Super Rugby this year. The Buenos Aires-based side stormed their way to a spot in this year's Super Rugby final with a squad that is expected to closely mirror the first-choice international side. On the fourth attempt, the Argentinians found their balance, making the most of the continuity that even the All Blacks, with their streamlined pathway, cannot match between club and country. The Jaguares also struck a balance between the type of exciting, all-court game that saw them streak to the semi-finals during the 2015 World Cup and the type of forward-orientated grunt work that fostered enough international success to warrant their addition to the Rugby Championship in 2012. Along with their historical tendency of enjoying supercharged performances whenever a World Cup comes around, many are predicting the Argentinians will cause England and France real problems in Pool C.
However, for all their success in Super Rugby, there is still a sizeable challenge for Mario Ledesma, Argentina's head coach. While his nation's club side may have excelled, he will now have to ensure that the same players can do what they did in Super Rugby against international standard sides. When you watch the Jaguares' Super Rugby exploits, one thing you cannot question is their passion or effort; Agustin Creevy, Pablo Matera and Jeronimo de la Fuente give it their all. But is what we've seen from the club side good enough to take to the World Cup arena? Every year in the English premiership, without fail, the side promoted from the Greene King IPA Championship go from dropping less than a handful of games a season to fighting for survival. The danger for the Argentina players and the challenge for Ledesma and his fellow coaches is finding a way of getting more from a group of players that were already pushing themselves to compete with the mighty New Zealand clubs. A change in game plan and the addition of a smattering of overseas players could be the key differences between the Jaguar and the Puma, but will it be enough? That, and integrating their returning players, is the biggest challenge facing Argentina this year.
It's hard to say exactly what the challenges are that Steve Hansen will be facing, mostly because whenever fingers point at gaps in his team, the All Blacks take to the field the following week and completely dispel any such allegations. All the same, there are two areas Hansen will have to address during the Rugby Championship; the blindside and how much Crusaders star Richie Mo'unga can be trusted in the fierce environment of a World Cup.
While Liam Squire seemed to be the closest thing to a perfect fit for Jerome Kaino's replacement in the black six jersey, the former has struggled with injuries of late and ruled himself out of the Rugby Championship, citing a lack of Test fitness for his reasoning. Now, Hansen will have to decide whether he is content to wait for Squire to get his body back up to speed away from the All Blacks camp during the Championship, whether he opts to bed-in one of Shannon Frizell or Vaea Fifita, or incorporates Crusaders second row Scott Barrett (also currently injured) or the Hurricanes star openside/number eight Ardie Savea. This is perhaps the hardest of Hansen's deliberations.
Finally, with fly-half and fullback Damian McKenzie ruled out of the World Cup with an ACL injury, Crusaders' standoff Richie Mo'unga stands the chance of cementing himself into a bench role for New Zealand. Like first-choice fly-half Beauden Barrett, McKenzie and most other top Kiwi fly-halves, Mo'unga is more than proficient from fullback and will be set with the challenge of proving he can transfer his cold-blooded Super Rugby composure to international rugby.
Expect to see plenty of rotated/weakened teams during the Rugby Championship, except perhaps from Argentina, who will be keen to get their team set and roll full steam towards the World Cup. With new combinations and the intent of many to impress their national selectors enough to earn key roles in the big games in Japan, there should be plenty of exciting rugby, and perhaps the odd moment of drama, in this year's truncated Rugby Championship.