Boks beefed up before champs but will they cope in the wet?
Reinforcements look good for Rugby Championship - the true test will be how they adapt away from home
Compared to the June internationals the Springboks will be better resourced for the Rugby Championship that kicks off this weekend.
First the Wallabies host the All Blacks in Sydney before the Springboks get their ball rolling against the Pumas in Durban.
With the Springboks’ improved squad comes greater expectation. Despite the loss of Duane Vermeulen and the limited availability of Faf de Klerk, the Boks boast some serious reinforcements in Malcolm Marx, Warren Whiteley, Eben Etzebeth, Francois Louw, and possibly even Coenie Oosthuizen should he regain fitness.
Although Bongi Mbonambi acquitted himself well in June, Marx will bring steel and steal to the Bok pack through his ruggedness in the collision and his ability to exact turnovers.Whiteley is yet to produce his best rugby since returning from injury but he brings composure and is the ideal sounding board for rookie Bok captain Siya Kolisi.
The Boks looked quite adept at playing a quick-tempo game in dry conditions against England in June, but judging from their first and last Test in that month they are infinitely less comfortable playing with a greasy ball.
Those skills may yet be tested in Durban in a match the Boks need to win with a bonus point if they are to be serious challengers in the four-nation competition.
The All Blacks have captured the Rugby Championship on all but one occasion since its inception in 2012. They come into the tournament on the back of the Crusaders’ ninth win in Super Rugby and a series win over France in the June Tests. They didn’t always have things their own way and were it not for some questionable officiating the French may have been more competitive.
However the All Blacks have always been able to crank it up a notch when they meet their southern hemisphere rivals.All Blacks coach Steve Hansen is wary – or so he says. He has installed Australia as the favourites in the first Test in Sydney on Saturday as part of a wider argument that the Wallabies have closed the gap to the All Blacks. (Former Wallabies centre Stirling Mortlock brushed Hansen’s claims aside as “tripe”.)The All Blacks boast depth in key areas, especially flyhalf where Beauden Barrett, Richie Mo’unga and Damian McKenzie vie for the No10 jersey. Barrett very much occupies the inside lane and may well use this tournament to establish himself as the undisputed first choice flyhalf.
Regular captain Kieran Read isn’t operating at full tilt yet, but by the time the Kiwis play the Boks later in the campaign the No 8 may have recaptured his potency in the wider channels.
The series defeat against Ireland put the Australians through the wringer but it would have prepared them for the rigours of the Rugby Championship.
The Aussies also found strife in Super Rugby but coach Michael Cheika has regularly been able to get his players to play out of their socks in Australian gold. He will lean heavily on the players who got the Waratahs to the Super Rugby semifinals and there will be particular interest in how Bernard Foley, Kurtley Beale and especially Israel Folau rise to the occasion.
They should have regular captain Michael Hooper back from injury but questions are being raised about the fetcher’s ability to lead the side. In David Pocock the Wallabies have another redoubtable fetcher and a proven leader. A win in Sydney for the Wallabies will rip open the competition.
Los Pumas are on a dreadful streak of just three wins in their last 23 games. Yet in Mario Ledesma they have a no-nonsense coach who helped turn the fortunes of the Jaguares around. For him its about restoring the basics to the Pumas team. Their defence and their discipline have cost them dearly over the last few years. The Pumas may yet get a spring in their step should the Europe-based Juan Figallo and Ramiro Herrera be allowed to join their ranks.