In a World Cup year a short sharp Rugby Championship – each of the four teams plays each other just the once – may seemingly appear something of a sideshow but that would be to underestimate the importance of the quickfire action over the next month.
As well as trying to win the tournament itself the SANZAR trio and recent addition Argentina will be looking resolve all their World Cup selection issues over the next four weeks which will bring added intensity to everybody’s play, especially those who are clearly on trial or playing for the final places in the squad.
Even a legend of the game such as Dan Carter, to a certain extent, will be under scrutiny. Another bout of injuries saw Carter, 33, start just one Test in 2014 and with Aaron Cruden on the side-lines with a ruptured ACL. Coach Steve Hansen would love to see DC string two or three top level performances together before wrapping him in cotton wool.
Carter made a very decent start in Apia in midweek, combining nicely with his long-time Crusaders mate Andrew Ellis at half-back and kicking exceptionally well from the tee. He will feel much better with that 80 minutes under his belt and next up should be New Zealand’s opening game against Argentina at Christchurch on Saturday.
“I was reasonably happy,” admits Carter. “The kicking went well and my body felt better than it has for the last couple of years. I was running freely and getting plenty of game time for a change is a real positive.
“The physicality was right up there and you expect that every time you come up against a Pacific Islands team. That was good and actually just what we needed in the first game of the season.
“A few guys took a few big hits early and also our teammates gave a few as well. It puts you in good stead for the rest of the year. It’s not going to be the only big hit I’m going to receive this year.”
Indeed not. New Zealand don’t have the easiest of schedules in this year’s truncated competition having drawn the short straw along with Argentina of having two Championship games on the road and just one at home.
Financially, neither Union will miss out because a fourth round of games – not counting towards the Championship – have been organised and in those the All Blacks will host Australia and Argentina will entertain South Africa.
As outsiders, albeit improving all the time, the Pumas and their coach Daniel Hourcade have no hesitation in considering the Championship as part of the World Cup campaign. They are not expected to win and have a licence to experiment if they wish. To that extent he has effectively staged his opening World Cup camp in Sydney where the Pumas have based themselves before nipping over the Tasman Sea for their opening game at Christchurch.
Hourcade rested most of his bigger names in warm-up games against the French Barbarians but it has been full-on in Sydney before they tackled the All Blacks.
“The idea of this training camp is to prepare for the World Cup in the best way possible way so perhaps we will switch our team around depending on game time of each player in the first games of the Championship,” says Hourcade. “For the matches against South Africa, our Championship and friendly, that’s when we will try to line up the team we are thinking of for the World Cup.”
For Australia, with coach Michael Cheika getting his first clear run at the job after essentially answering an SOS last autumn, it feels like a massively important month as he tries to implement his vision for the Wallabies and reintegrate Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell, whose return to the fold he has done so much to make possible.
The appointment of hooker Stephen Moore as captain, after a long period out with a serious knee injury, is another important move from Cheika who knows Australia perform best when they are a close united group, something which was a million miles away this time last year.
“Stephen is not only a player who leads by example on the field, but he is a man who exemplifies the qualities of a Wallabies captain,” says Cheika. “It is a testament to his character that he has been able to overcome a setback and put himself in a position to lead his country again. Stephen has a tremendous amount of respect not only from within this playing group, but across the board in our organisation and universally within the game.”
“Having spoken to the two vice-captains prior to Stephen – Michael Hooper and Adam Ashley-Cooper – both of them couldn’t have made a higher endorsement of Stephen to the lead them personally, this playing group and our country. Leadership is going to be a massive part of this journey, and both Adam and Michael will have a big part to play in supporting Stephen.”
South Africa’s captain De Villiers is another skipper who will be welcomed back by his coach. De Villiers suffered a potentially career ending knee injury in the Boks’s final autumn Test last year when he dislocated a knee cap and badly damaged knee ligament against Wales. It’s been a long road back but De Villiers was back on the bench against the World XV in Cape Town yesterday.
“Jean is a massive asset to South African rugby,” says Meyer. “It’s wonderful to know his return to play is progressing so well that we can give him some game time from the bench.
“The mere fact that he is back in shape and ready to play is testament to his incredible work-ethic and his professional approach to the game. Jean has really put in hours and hours of extra work to get here and he is a great example for any player on how to put yourself in the best possible position to recover.
“We will still manage how he is used against the World XV and he likely to go back to Western Province for a short while where he will be available for their Currie Cup warm-ups.”
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