Four players to watch during The Rugby Championship 2022
Ahead of the return of The Rugby Championship, we take a look at four players hoping to leave their mark on the tournament.
The Rugby Championship 2022 should kick-off with a bang this weekend as the All Blacks take on the Springboks in South Africa for the first time since 2018.
Following that blockbusting opener in Mbombela, the action switches to Mendoza where hosts Argentina get their campaign underway against Australia.
A competition featuring four of the top nine teams in the World Rugby Men’s Rankings powered by Capgemini needs little seasoning, but spice is added by the proximity of this year’s Rugby Championship to Rugby World Cup 2023.
On the back of a keenly contested July test window each of the competing nations have questions that need answering, and with only 13 months to go until New Zealand raise the curtain on Rugby World Cup 2023 against hosts France at Stade de France, time is of the essence.
They know an 80 minute performance is needed against the RWC champs pic.twitter.com/zZZQUBDOL5— World Rugby (@WorldRugby) August 2, 2022
A change to the fixture schedule for the 2022 Rugby Championship means the All Blacks begin their campaign with back-to-back matches in South Africa, something they have not done since 2009.
Back then, the Springboks won both home tests, in Bloemfontein and Durban, and completed a clean sweep with a win in Hamilton as they claimed the Tri-Nations title.
Jacques Nienaber’s side, who edged to a 2-1 series win against Wales in July, will begin this year’s Rugby Championship as many people’s favourites to win it.
Springbok half-backs Faf de Klerk and Handré Pollard will start a match together for the first time since the 31-29 defeat of the All Blacks last October, while hooker Malcolm Marx has got the nod on the occasion of his 50th cap.
One setback for Nienaber is the absence of winger Cheslin Kolbe, who is recovering from a broken jaw, but his injury has opened the door to former Blitzbok Kurt-Lee Arendse, who will make his test debut just over a year after representing South Africa at the Tokyo Olympic Games.
“I didn’t think a year ago that I would play for the Springboks,” Arendse said this week. “So I’m extremely grateful for this chance and hopefully I can grab it with both hands.”
Securing back-to-back victories against New Zealand would be a considerable statement not only for the tournament ahead but for RWC 2023, as the Webb Ellis Cup holders prepare to defend their crown in France.
The All Blacks would usually be expected to be one of the Springboks’ biggest challengers next year, but the team’s series defeat to Ireland in July has led to a period of soul-searching in New Zealand.
Changes have been made to Ian Foster’s coaching team, while there has been criticism of the team’s defensive work.
All Black fitness is certainly going to be challenged over the first two rounds of the 2022 Rugby Championship as they play consecutive matches at altitude.
However, Rieko Ioane is just excited to be playing in South Africa again. "To not have that annual game over here builds the hype, especially on the outside with everyone looking forward to it," he said.
"Some of the toughest games I've played in the black jersey have been over here. The last time we were here, it went beyond the 80 minutes, and we really had to dig deep.
“But the hardest games, and the toughest places to play in, are the ones you want to be part of. I know the boys, especially the new boys, are excited by that challenge.”
The action switches to Argentina for the second match of the 2022 Rugby Championship, and things will be no less interesting as Los Pumas host the Wallabies.
Saturday will be the first time that former Australia coach Michael Cheika coaches Argentina against his home country and his successor in the Wallabies hotseat, Dave Rennie.
Cheika led Los Pumas to a 2-1 series win against Scotland last month, a victory sealed by a last-minute Emiliano Boffelli try in the deciding test.
Australia’s squad looks very different now to the one Cheika led to the quarter-finals of RWC 2019, however and Tom Wright, one of the players who has come in since then, insisted the squad aren’t thinking about the reunion.
"No, we don't talk about it," Wright said this week. "I certainly wasn't here when (Cheika was coach) or involved in camp. So, for me personally, I don't necessarily know any of the backstory mentioned there that (media) continually remind everyone of.
"If we're too busy worrying about the opposition coach we've probably got our head in the wrong space preparation-wise."
The Wallabies lost their July series to England despite winning the opening test and have since lost influential centre Samu Kerevi to a knee injury sustained at the Commonwealth Games.
However, Rennie has been able to welcome back Rory Arnold and Quade Cooper, among others, into his squad while forward Jed Holloway looks set to make his debut in Mendoza.
Despite the loss of Kerevi, who was due to miss the two matches in Argentina anyway due to his sevens commitments, outside-centre Len Ikitau believes the Wallabies are good enough to win the Rugby Championship and end their long wait for the Bledisloe Cup.
"It was disappointing we didn't get the win over England but it's a new competition and there are trophies up for grabs," he said.
"We're working towards winning the Rugby Championship and that starts this week against Argentina."