Wellington - The All Blacks juggernaut hit a road bump in
the British and Irish Lions series but it should be back to business as usual
for the world champions when they take on South Africa, Australia and Argentina
in the Rugby Championship.
New Zealand reduced their rivals to road kill when they took
the title last year, winning all six matches with try-scoring bonus points and
bookending their campaign with crushing wins in Australia (42-8) and South
The sustained pressure the Lions were able to put the All
Blacks under in their drawn series in June and July would normally offer hope
to the Wallabies and Springboks were not both proud rugby nations at such a low
Argentina look even less likely to beat the All Blacks for
the first time and it is against the other two nations they will be targeting
the two wins they want in their sixth crack at the southern hemisphere
The Pumas take their quest initially to Port Elizabeth to
face South Africa on Saturday after reigning champions New Zealand and
Australia have opened the tournament in Sydney, the first of three Bledisloe
Cup tests this season.
The Wallabies once again have the unenviable task of taking
on the All Blacks in back-to-back tests at the start of their campaign and only
the most optimistic of Australians are expecting a first win in six matches
against their neighbours.
A wretched Super Rugby campaign when none of the five
Australian teams managed a single victory over New Zealand opposition in 26
attempts sandwiched a disappointing June test window when the Wallabies were
humbled at home by Scotland.
Michael Cheika remains confident the re-building process he
embarked upon after reaching the final of the 2015 World Cup is on course and
that his team have a genuine chance of taking possession of the Bledisloe Cup
for the first time since 2003.
Australia have won just eight of their 18 tests since the
World Cup final, however, and coach Cheika was not exactly spoiled for choice
when he named flanker Michael Hooper his new captain last month.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has, by contrast, been able to
maintain New Zealand's extraordinary winning rate despite rebuilding his team
in the wake of the departure of a handful of greats after the successful
defence of the Webb Ellis Cup.
Beauden Barrett will lead the line from flyhalf, Kieran Read
captains the side from the back of the scrum and a third World Rugby Player of
the Year, lock Brodie Retallick, completes an impressive spine.
Dane Coles has the talent to join that trio in claiming
rugby's highest individual prize and the hooker should play some part in the
championship despite missing the opener because of a head knock.
South Africa restored some pride to the Springboks shirt in
June with a 3-0 home sweep of France and some of their players have at least
enjoyed some success at provincial level after the Lions reached a second
consecutive Super Rugby final.
The exciting Lions outfit now provides the spine of Allister
Coetzee's Springboks team even if the inspirational captain of both sides,
Warren Whiteley, will miss the Rugby Championship because of a groin injury.
Coetzee still has to convince many that he is the right man
to lead South Africa to the next World Cup and will be looking to harness the
spirit Johan Ackermann built with the Lions in Johannesburg.
While South Africa are languishing at fifth in the world
rankings, Argentina are a lowly ninth after two home defeats to a second string
England side in June.
Daniel Hourcade's side are in danger of plateauing after
taking a single win each of his first three seasons in charge and have yet to
reap the expected dividend of having most of the squad also playing for the
Jaguares in Super Rugby.
It is now 10 years since Argentina's breakthrough third
place at the World Cup and, with the future alignment of southern hemisphere
rugby by no means certain, the Pumas could do with making a statement or two in
this Rugby Championship.