By Tim Cronin
The expanded southern hemisphere international rugby season is about to kick off for the first time, with the Investec Rugby Championship and I felt it was worth taking a close look at how the sides stack up at this stage in the season,
The three former Tri-nations teams Australian, South Africa, and New Zealand will be easy enough to get a gauge on based on the Super XV tournament, but the newly implemented Pumas of Argentina might be harder to get a handle on.
Firstly, South Africa and New Zealand look like good shape coming off the Super XV. In fairness the Australians shouldn't have had, and didn't deserve a home semi-final as the Reds only got in the top three because of the charity setup that SANZAR decided to use, which allows every conference winner a home final, regardless of where they finished on the competition ladder.
The fact that the Sharks went to Brisbane and wiped the floor with the Reds, then went on to notch up a good win against the first placed Stormers is a good sign that South Africa has some good stock, who are also in good form at the moment - we just have to hope the pick the best of the bunch - and should have a very good chance of taking the first Rugby Championship title.
The problem the Springboks tend to have is that their form on the road can often let them down. But having three in the top six for the finals of the Super Rugby season is a very promising sign. Their test series against England might have left a bit to be desired, as they didn't put the Poms to the sword as they were expected to. But they should be better for that run, and their fortunes weren't far different from those of the All Blacks, who almost (and probably should have) lost their second test to Ireland.
The All Blacks will starts as favourites, after redeeming themselves in the third test against Brian Odriscoll and his men in June. Being the World Champions they should be expected to win the trophy, and probably need to win it to please many of the high strung fans who weren't happy about winning by just one point in the final against the French (there are plenty of so called 'supporters' here who expect 40 point margin victories in every test). But Steve Hansen still has to prove himself at the top tier against better opposition than (with all due respect) the Irish who travelled a long way after also having a long season. Hansen and the team responded brilliantly in the third test with the 60-0 scoreline as proof, but the Boks, Wallabies, and Pumas will offer some staunch resistance through this new competition. The all Blacks also need to prove that they are better than past World Champion sides, who have often crumbled following their world cup success. There's a heck of a lot of pressure on this team to perform beyond well, and into spectacular.
The Australians had no really threatening teams in this years Super XV. The Brumbies were the best performed right up until they fell over against the Blues. The Reds deserved a spot in the top six (in sixth!) but they also got the golden elevator ride up into third place by winning the (very weak) Aussie conference. The Sharks handing them their marching orders by half time shone a light on the fact that the former champs were well and truly former alright.
Can Robbie Deans win another competition. I haven't painted a bright picture here, but the Wallabies and 'Dingo' won last year's Tri-nations. They shouldn't be written off, and at home should be a tough side to knock over. If they do get the all important wins away in South Africa and N.Z, we shouldn't be shocked. Surprised definitely, but not shocked.
We should all be excited about Los Pumas joining the party. If you're not, then you need to read up on some of the close calls the All Blacks have had in tests against the Argies. It's a shame we haven't seen more of their players leading up to this series, but they typically have a good scrum and aggressive pack with plenty of flair and goal kicking ability through the back line.
No one is expecting them to take out the title, but they should pose a tough problem when they're playing at the massive Buenos Aires stadium, which will also add to the occasion and intensity when sides travel to meet the Pumas on home turf.
Felipe Contepomi has retired before playing a match in the Championship which is a shame, but if coach Santiago Phelan and the people running the ship in Argentina can get their top line players back from Europe they should be a side that demands genuine respect. When lower ranked countries play the southern hemisphere's 'big three' the only ones that really worry are the Aussies.
But Argentinian rugby should prosper and improve now that they'll get regular matches against the top sides and none of the teams or coaches will be taking them lightly. The fact that Argentina are the new side should make for a brutal, engaging tournament, which it will have to be after the high of the Olympic games. I don't think we could have invited any one better to join what was the Tri-nations.
In my mind the All Blacks can start as favourites, but by no means are they the clear cut team to beat. I'd find it hard to argue with Boks supporters who fancy their chances are better. The Wallabies deserve a polite shrug at this stage but nothing more until they prove themselves. Los Pumas don't feel like a real contender yet, but should be treated with plenty of caution none the less.
This should be a brilliant tournament!