Tone of Rugby Championship to be set early

16 August 2018 - 16:37 By Craig Ray
Springboks and the Bulls flyhalf Handre Pollard in action during the senior men's rugby team open training session at Ravensmead, Cape Town on August 6 2018.
Springboks and the Bulls flyhalf Handre Pollard in action during the senior men's rugby team open training session at Ravensmead, Cape Town on August 6 2018.
Image: Chris Ricco/BackpagePix

By Sunday the tone of the 2018 Rugby Championship will be set and for neutrals everywhere the hope is that it doesn’t follow it’s usual pattern.

What has happened five out of the six years of the tournament is that the All Blacks have taken on the Wallabies in Sydney in the opening game of the tournament.

And four times they have prevailed‚ three of those with try-scoring bonus points before a return match at home a week later‚ which they always win.

After a fortnight the tournament is practically over as the Boks usually beat the Pumas at home and struggle in Argentina in week two. They then have to play both New Zealand and Australia away in weeks three and four.

By the end of the first four match days‚ the All Blacks have had three home games and a short Trans-Tasman away game while the Boks have been on the road for three straight weeks.

If the All Blacks win in week one‚ they win the tournament. And in 2014‚ they drew in week one‚ and still won the tournament.

The fixture list is set for a shake up in 2020 when the new SANZAAR television deal kicks in‚ but by then the All Blacks might have marched to two more titles and everyone’s interest in the Rugby Championship would be at record lows.

The Springboks’ opening game of the 2018 edition against the Pumas in Durban on Saturday has failed to register huge excitement in the way the June series against England did.

There is a feeling of inevitability about the tournament‚ which has seen the All Blacks win 30 out of 33 games since Argentina were introduced in 2012.

The feeling that there is a contest for the title has long since gone‚ so it falls to the Wallabies in Sydney to shake it up and stir people from their lethargy. New Zealand fans might even appreciate a contest for the All Blacks.

Australia though have struggled and were outplayed in their 2-1 series loss to Ireland in June. Coach Michael Cheika is under increasing pressure with just 14 wins from 32 Tests since his side made the 2015 World Cup final.

In that time they have lost home series’ to England and Ireland‚ and lost a one-off home Test to Scotland while also losing five out of six against the All Blacks.

The one kernel of hope his side can cling to is that the single win over NZ in the past three years was the last time they met – a 23-18 win in Brisbane last October.

But it was a dead rubber in the third and final Bledisloe Cup Test.

It’s been 16 years since Australia last held the Bledisloe Cup‚ which according to Wallaby scrumhalf Will Genia‚ is more important than the World Cup to him.

To have any chance in the Rugby Championship and in winning back the Bledisloe‚ they have to win in Sydney on Saturday.

Similarly a youthful looking Springbok team has to beat Argentina with a try-scoring bonus point in Durban to get out of the gates quickly in the tournament.

The Boks are realistic and coach Rassie Erasmus knows that expecting to win the Rugby Championship at this stage of his rebuilding job is probably unfair‚ but they have to set the target of winning all their home games.

The exciting duo of utility back Damian Willemse and openside flank Marco van Staden are set for Test debuts off the bench while Eben Etzebeth and his frightening stare are back on the field for the first time in nine months.

Hooker Malcolm Marx and No 8 Warren Whiteley also return‚ as does openside Francois Louw to give the pack an experienced core against the wily Pumas.

Week one always starts with hope for every team‚ which is part of the charm of the tournament‚ even if the outcome is as close to a foregone conclusion as you can get in world sport.