Complete A-Z of the 2014 Rugby Championship
The Rugby Championship 2014 gets underway on August 16. Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa will battle it out to become champions of the southern hemisphere.
Each team will play each other twice, once at home and once away. The winner is the team that finishes top of the table after six games.
The tournament is an expansion upon the Tri Nations, with Argentina being added to the competition in 2012. New Zealand are the current holders, winning the two Rugby Championships to date. They have also not lost a game in the tournament in that time.
Now you know the basics, here is the complete A-Z guide to the 2014 Rugby Championship.
A. All Blacks
The All Blacks. The No. 1 team in international rugby. They are also the current holders of the Rugby Championship, winning all six of their games in 2013.
They go into this year's competition as the favourites. The Kiwis have an experienced squad led by the formidable Richie McCaw, and featuring talents such as Ma'a Nonu, Kieran Read and Julian Savea.
England pushed the All Blacks close in their three-match Test series. However, New Zealand emerged unbeaten, showing that they remain unflappable in tight contests.
South Africa and Australia will certainly provide the holders with stern competition. The All Black experiences already this summer will give them the confidence to see off their rivals and retain the trophy.
B. Bonus Points
Points mean prizes, as they say. In the Rugby Championship, there is only one prize; first place. Points can be obtained by a win (four points) or a draw (two points).
However, there is further means of points-scoring: the all important bonus points.
Bonus points are picked up either through scoring four or more tries, or through losing by fewer than seven points. With the margins so fine in the Rugby Championship, these bonus points could become all important.
The All Blacks picked up four bonus points on their way to the title in 2013. For Argentina, bonus points could represent their best chance of making a mark on the tournament table. Losing bonus points would signal that the Pumas are closing the gap to the Tri Nations teams.
Not the Carter you were expecting to see, was it? This is Sam Carter, the Brumbies lock, who has been rewarded with Wallabies selection against France this summer.
The 24-year-old is in line for his first Rugby Championship; a chance to establish himself at the highest level.
The other Carter, New Zealand's Dan, has returned from a six-month sabbatical just in time for the summer tournament. The fly-half has only a limited Super 15 window to get himself back up to speed for the competition which starts on August 16.
The two Carters are at contrasting stages of their careers; 32-year-old Dan is returning for what could be his final flurries in international rugby. Sam Carter, however, is just setting out on the game's biggest stage. The Rugby Championship affords him an opportunity to become the second world-class Carter in world rugby.
D. Du Plessis
The Du Plessis brothers form two-thirds of the Springbok front row and the foundation of their forward pack.
Jannie is a 32-year-old prop who has won 54 caps for South Africa. Bismarck, a hooker, is two years his junior. Both are abrasive ball-carriers and typify the relentless physicality of the Springboks' game.
Expect to see this pair securing the set piece for South Africa in the Rugby Championship. They will be solid at scrum time, and Bismarck will look to do the business throwing into the lineout.
The Du Plessis duo will ensure South Africa are a force as they look to improve on their second-place finish in 2013.
E. Ellis Park, Johannesburg
Ellis Park, Johannesburg, was the venue where New Zealand clinched the Rugby Championship trophy in 2013, beating South Africa 27-38.
This will also be the venue for the repeat of that fixture this year. Australia will have something to say about it, but Ellis Park could well play host to the 2014 title decider.
The stadium holds more than 62,000 fans and will be a tough place to go for New Zealand to defend their 2013 crown.
The 2014 Rugby Championship will throw the three premier full-backs in world rugby into direct competition. The battle to become the best No. 15 in the game will form an underlying plot in this hotly contested tournament.
Australia's Israel Folau is a complete athlete. Coming from a background in rugby league and Aussie Rules, his speed and power have transcended all three sports. He leads the way in Super 15 tries, clean breaks and offloads. Folau will provide Australia's most lethal attacking threat.
Rivalling Folau in the Super 15 stats is New Zealand's Ben Smith. He overshadowed England's Mike Brown in the summer Tests and will look to repeat the feat over his southern hemisphere rivals. Smith is a busy full-back who is hungry in his search for work.
Completing the trio of first-rate full-backs is South Africa's Willie Le Roux. The 24-year-old from the Cheetahs is a livewire. Another No. 15 who relishes getting his hands on the ball, linking plays and finishing off moves.
Three of the most watchable players in the world. If you needed further reason to follow the Rugby Championship, this it it.
With New Zealand, South Africa and Australia all so evenly matched, goal-kicking could be vital in determining the course of this year's tournament.
South Africa's Morne Steyn was the top points-scorer in the 2013 Rugby Championship. The Springbok racked up 88 points, including 17 conversion and 18 penalties. His reliable right boot will push South Africa towards the top prize.
Steyn's rivals from the kicking tee are likely to be Australia's Bernard Foley and Kiwi kicker Dan Carter. Foley is currently the second-top points-scorer in the Super 15, earning him international honours with the Wallabies. Carter is a class act but has been away from the game. Any rustiness with the boot could cost his country dear.
H. Honey Badger
Nick Cummins is the Honey Badger.
This may sound like the conclusion of an advert for a ropey Hollywood movie, but it is actually the nickname of Wallaby winger Nick Cummins.
The Western Force wide-man made his debut in the inaugural Rugby Championship in 2012. Since then, he has cemented his position in the Australia side.
He is deceptively quick and a natural finisher. Oh, and he is also stark raving bonkers. See the video above if you are yet to experience majestic madness of a Nick Cummins post-match interview.
The Rugby Championship could be the last time we see Cummins in an Australian shirt for some time. The Honey Badger has decided to play his rugby in Japan to support his large family. This contravenes the ARU's selection policy, meaning that Cummins will may well miss the World Cup in 2015.
This could be the final show for Cummins, the great entertainer, before he takes his final international bow.
There are some notable absentees through injury from the Rugby Championship this year. There will no doubt be more to come during the tournament, with the intense physicality involved.
The Springboks have been hit hardest by injury problems. Jaque Fourie, Jean De Villiers, Arno Botha and Pierre Spies have all been out long-term with season-ruining injuries.
Their most recent blow comes in the loss of scrum-half Fourie Du Preez. The Japan-based player had been in fine form but will now be out for at least three months with an ankle injury. Flip van der Merwe is also considered an injury doubt.
Australia will be without Quade Cooper but are hopeful of the return to fitness of scrum-half Will Genia. David Pocock will definitely not be playing after an ACL injury ruled the openside out for the season. Pocock is part of a packed Brumbies physio room which includes Stephen Moore, Matt Toomua and Joe Tomane.
New Zealand will be sweating on the fitness of captain Richie McCaw after a rib injury put an end to his Super Rugby season. He may well be fit to line up against Australia on August 16. Conrad Smith and Victor Vito may not be so lucky after picking up hand and calf injuries respectively.
Argentina have sought to avoid an injury crisis by resting their top players ahead of the tournament. Horacio Agulla, Marcelo Bosch, Agustin Creevy, Juan Martin Hernandez, Juan Manuel Leguizamon and Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe were among the 13 rested for the summer Tests. Will this tactic pay off for them?
Rugby is expanding rapidly as a sport in Japan. Nick Cummins is the latest big-name player to make the move there. He follows the likes of Fourie Du Preez, Rico Gear and Riki Flutey in joining Japan.
With Super Rugby set to expand to 18 teams in 2016, there are calls for a Japanese side to be included. The 2019 World Cup is due to be held in Japan as well, building a picture of a nation that is taking to the sport with great enthusiasm.
With the growing rugby market in Japan, and South Africa's TV concerns, it is not unthinkable that Japan could also join the Rugby Championship in the future.
At 6'5", Tevita Kuridrani is one to watch for the Wallabies. The Fijian-born outside centre brings all the attributes you might expect from a player heralding from that part of the world.
Pace, power and balanced running make him an exciting prospect in the Australian midfield.
The 23-year-old from the Brumbies made his debut against the All Blacks in 2013 and will be looking to make a mark against them again this summer. His international career since then has not been an easy one.
Kuridrani was sent off and banned for five weeks for a tip-tackle against Ireland.
Kuridrani featured four times in last year's Rugby Championship. This year he will want to come away having started every game. If he achieves this, he will begin to consolidate his place on the international stage.
L. Le Roux
Willie Le Roux has been a shining light in a struggling Cheetahs team this year. He does not have the brute power of Israel Folau—but then again, who does?
Le Roux's weapons are his rapid acceleration and his vision. The full-back is at his deadliest when taking the ball at first receiver. He punishes narrow defences by skirting outside their last man and feeding the wingers in the wide channels.
Le Roux's kicking game also demonstrates his stunning awareness and ability. He is not content with simply breaking the line, the move must be finished as well. His well-weighted kicks are an opposition full-back's nightmare.
Ewen McKenzie is the Australian coach hoping to mastermind a Wallabies win in the Rugby Championship this year.
The former Queensland Reds boss has been Australia coach since their defeat to the Lions in 2013. McKenzie has an impressive domestic record, but this tournament will allow him to make his mark on an international stage.
McKenzie has yet to guide Australia to a victory over South Africa or the All Blacks. If Australia do not manage to change this statistic this summer, questions will start to be asked about his future.
McKenzie and the Wallabies will be looking to improve upon their third place in the 2013 Rugby Championship.
You will be hard-pushed to find a better inside centre than Ma'a Nonu at the moment. The Blues and All Blacks powerhouse has formed one of the great partnerships of recent times with Conrad Smith.
With his accomplice injured, Nonu will have to strike up a new midfield relationship.
By the end of the Rugby Championship, Nonu will be knocking on the door of 100 Test caps. This would be a fitting reward for a player who has been at the top of the world game for a long time now.
Sure, the near-17 stone centre is effective on the crash ball, but he has more to his game than that. His handling and offloading ability sets him apart from your big midfield boshers. The Rugby Championship is about to be steamrollered into action by big Ma'a Nonu.
O. October 4
October 4 is the date of the final round of fixtures in the Rugby Championship 2014. That Saturday in autumn could determine the destination of this new trophy.
The final round of fixtures sees Argentina vs. Australia and the mouthwatering South Africa vs. New Zealand.
A tournament spanning seven weeks could all come down to one afternoon in October.
JP Pietersen has this summer converted to outside centre for the Springboks. Blessed with blistering pace, the Sharks winger has scored 16 international tries from out wide but is now being deployed in the midfield.
This is perhaps due to the injuries to Juan De Jongh and Jaque Fourie, but the move seems to be working. Pietersen has one try in his three caps at centre to date. You wouldn't bet against him adding to that score in the Rugby Championship.
This tournament will help determine whether JP is a fully fledged international No. 13 or whether he is merely a stopgap.
Malakai Fekitoa and Tevita Kuridrani are also looking to make a name for themselves this summer in the midfield. Which man will come out on top?
Q. Quade Cooper
Things are never simple with Quade. Back from the international brink, after a twitter tirade against Robbie Deans, Cooper will unfortunately play no part in the Rugby Championship this year.
The 26-year-old Reds fly-half suffered a shoulder injury against the Rebels which will require surgery. Quade will also undergo surgery to clean up hip damage, putting him out for up to 16 weeks.
Australia's loss is a loss to the whole Rugby Championship. Cooper is an undoubted talent who many feel has failed to fulfil his potential. This tournament offered Cooper an opportunity to mark a return to the international game and coach McKenzie's plans.
The Rugby Championship is a tournament that could ultimately come down to squad depth. The strength of the replacements bench could be all important in those stalemate situations.
Argentina have a smaller pool of players to pick from, and as a result, they may be found lacking in the replacement stakes. Their decision to rest their key players and give game time to their second string, illustrates the inexperience of those outside the starting XV.
South Africa have a nice blend of youth and experience at the moment. This means that their bench is particularly strong. When Schalk Burger, Schalk Brits and Ruan Pienaar hit the pitch with 20 minutes to go, you know that the Springbok strength runs deep.
New Zealand, of course, will fancy their chances. Their bench features front-row experience in Keven Mealamu and Wyatt Crockett. They also have some exciting young players to bring on in the backs.
TJ Perenara, Beauden Barrett and Malakai Fekitoa have all had impressive Super Rugby seasons and could run riot against tiring defences.
Australia have the least experienced replacements, particularly in the way of forwards. Scott Higginbotham is likely to give the back-row a boost from the bench. There are some attractive options for the Aussies in the backs, though, Kurtley Beale and Pat McCabe among them.
The battle of the benches will be a close call between South Africa and the All Blacks. Australia will have to hope their starting team get the job done.
New Zealand's pair of Smiths are crucial to their back play. Scrum-half Aaron controls the direction of play and keeps the tempo high. Full-back Ben is a hugely important in both 22s for the All Blacks.
The Highlanders duo are both deadly in the broken field. They share an eye for a gap and the footwork to exploit them. They are usually found on the shoulder of a line-breaker, running intelligent support paths and keeping plays alive.
The All Blacks have game-changers all over the pitch. The Smiths are just two of these players who can make something out of nothing.
The Rugby Championship may only be entering its third year, but some believe its future is already in doubt.
While all teams involved are in the southern hemisphere, South Africa's time zone proves problematic for televising games. When the Springboks play away, their games are broadcast at breakfast time back in South Africa. This makes it less accessible for audiences and a less viable option for broadcasters.
Saracens chairman Nick Wray says that South Africa leaving the competition to play a Test competition in Europe is "inevitable."
Argentina are most definitely the underdogs in the Rugby Championship. Their joining of the Tri Nations formed the new, expanded tournament.
The Pumas haven't won a game in the two years the tournament has been running. Could this be the year? Argentina have rested their key players in the summer Tests in preparation for the tournament. Hopefully for them, that will pay dividends.
Their best result to date was a 16-16 home draw against South Africa in 2012. With careful preparation this year, the wait for their first win may not last much longer.
Duane Vermeulen is everything you would expect from a South African back-rower. He is hard-running, hard-hitting and fearless in the contact area.
The 28-year-old South African No. 8 made his debut in the 2012 Rugby Championship and has been a regular Springbok ever since. His tussle with Kiwi Kieran Read will be an important one if South Africa are to leapfrog last year's winners.
Keep an eye out for Vermeulen's hard yards which allow the Springboks to play on the front foot. This allows them to unleash their exciting back line.
For all the forward power on show in the Rugby Championship, it is the wingers who will hog the limelight. The fleet-footed finishers assembled in the tournament are undoubtedly the world's best.
New Zealand's Julian Savea is the main man. The 23-year-old has 23 tries in 22 All Black starts. One-on-one in the wide channels, he is nearly unstoppable. He has the strength to bulldoze over people and to fend off covering defenders if they go high.
There are echoes of Lomu about this young winger and they will only get louder as he keeps scoring tries.
Adam Ashley-Cooper in the man for all positions for Australia. The 30 year-old has 94 caps for the Wallabies, nine of the last 10 coming on the wing. He has scored four tries in that spell, showing he is an accomplished performer in fine form.
The Springbok contender is Bryan Habana. The Toulon winger was the face of his home World Cup in 2007 and will now look to make another tournament his own. The 31-year-old has 55 tries in 97 matches for South Africa and scored a brace against Wales in the Durban Test in June.
The Rugby Championship, then, has a variety of world-class wingers on display: Habana's pace, Savea's power and the all-round ability of Ashley-Cooper. The smart money is on Savea to steal the show.
X. Starting XV
Picking an all-star XV from the Rugby Championship sides is no easy task. There are some talented Argentinians available, but it is hard to make a case for their inclusion.
Here is an idea of what a composite starting Rugby Championship XV would look like. Comment below with a XV of your own.
- 15. Israel Folau (Australia)
- 14. Bryan Habana (South Africa)
- 13. JP Pietersen (South Africa)
- 12. Ma'a Nonu (New Zealand)
- 11. Julian Savea (New Zealand)
- 10. Dan Carter (New Zealand)
- 9. Aaron Smith (New Zealand)
- 8. Kieran Read (New Zealand)
- 7. Richie McCaw (New Zealand)
- 6. Willem Alberts (South Africa)
- 5. Victor Matfield (South Africa)
- 4. Brodie Retallick (New Zealand)
- 3. Jannie Du Plessis (South Africa)
- 2. Bismarck Du Plessis (South Africa)
- 1. Tony Woodcock (New Zealand)
The Rugby Championship offers some young players their first experience of a senior international tournament.
Of all the youngsters to look out for, Handre Pollard is the man most talked about. The 20-year-old South African fly-half has had a real breakthrough year in 2014. Can he cap it off with some assured cameos this summer?
Pollard was named IRB Young Player of the Year for 2014. He then went on to make his full Springbok debut against Scotland, scoring 13 points. He faces strong competition at stand-off from Morne Steyn and Ruan Pienaar, but he has shown that he is the man for the future who deserves a chance.
Will that chance come in the 2014 Rugby Championship?
Zero. The number of wins achieved by Argentina in the 2013 Rugby Championship. Indeed, zero is about as much chance as many people give the Pumas of achieving their first win in this year's competition.
Sure, it will be tough for Argentina to assert themselves amongst the Tri Nations superpowers. As Italy have shown in the Six Nations, the step up takes time. However, playing in this company will eventually reap rewards for the South American side.
It is only a matter of time before we see the first Argentine win in the competition.