1st Place: New Zealand
Danger Man: Beauden Barrett
Key Player: Ben Smith
One to Watch: Ardie Savea
Best XV: Moody, Coles, Franks, Whitelock, Retallick, Cane, Savea, Read; Smith, Barrett, Crotty, Fekitoa; Naholo, Smith, Dagg
Question to be answered: They looked as confident and classy as ever in their June destruction of Wales, but how will the All Black’s manage to navigate their way through their first tournament without stalwarts such as Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu?
Expected Answer: The New Zealand Super Rugby sides set the bar in the domestic league once again this season and we are currently looking at an international side who haven’t lost a test since this very tournament last year. Their Wales demolition showed what the new breed of All Blacks can do. Expect Barrett, Savea, Naholo to have some fun.
2nd Place: South Africa
Danger Man: Bryan Habana
Key Player: Elton Jantjies
One to Watch: Faf de Klerk
Best XV: Mtwarira, Strauss, Koch, Etzebeth, Du Toit, Kriel, Louw, Vermeulen, de Klerk, Jantjies, De Allende, Kriel, Habana, Combrinck, Goosen
Question to be answered: Super Rugby life for the Boks has been dark with one glaring exception. The South Africans as a whole failed to convince many in their narrow test defeat of Ireland but now with Allister Coetzee warming to his role, looking to expand play and with the Lions’ in an even more confident frame of mind at this point, they have a real chance – but can they combine their two potential strengths into a finished product?
Expected Answer: I don’t see them being a great challenge to the All Blacks but you feel that they will reflect World Cup semi-finalists, more so than losers to Japan, losers to 14 Irishmen and the wooden spooners of last year’s Rugby Championship. They now just need to clear some deadwood, as they finally have the pieces to groom a both physical and skillful team.
3rd Place: Australia
Danger Man: Israel Folau
Key Player: David Pocock
One to Watch: Quade Cooper – guaranteed to be classy or comedic.
Best XV: Sio, Moore, Kepu, Arnold, Mumm, Fardy, Hooper, Pocock; Genia, Foley, Giteau, Kuridrani, Ashley-Cooper, Mitchell, Folau
Question to be answered: Despite a marvellous World Cup run all the way to the final and their clinching of the Rugby Championship last season, you feel that Cheika could come under some pressure should this tournament showing be a failure – due to recent events. Will the coach get his squad back pulling in the same direction or will their be an inevitable fallout in the Wallabies’ camp?
Expected Answer: The Aussie’s 3-0 test embarrassment on their own turf to England will have hit their mentality hard and in truth they may have to look a whole 12 months back for any reason to be positive. At club level, none of their usual stars have enjoyed form either as the Brumbies were the single Australian club to make the Super Rugby knockout stages – and even didn’t go so well. Perhaps the extra break may be the Wallabies’ saving grace, but backrow aside, I don’t see enough high quality players playing at a high standard as we speak. Flop on the cards? It’s a bold call, but I can see it unfolding.
4th Place: Argentina
Danger Man: Santiago Cordero
Key Player: Juan Martin Hernandez
One to Watch: Manuel Montero
Best XV: Marcos Ayerza, Agustin Creevy, Tetez-Chapparo, Petti, Lavanini, Matera, Desio, Senatore; Cubelli, Sanchez, Hernandez, Moroni, Montero, Cordero, Tuculet
Question to be answered: This was backed to be the year that Argentina broke out as a major, consistent force of World Rugby. Their thrashing of Ireland in the World Cup quarter finals was followed by the welcome reality that the squad would now train week in week out with one another as Jaguares in Super Rugby. However, the mood and hopes of the players may well have dampened since England 2015 after an underwhelming thirteenth place finish in the SANZAAR competition. Whether that proves to be the reality, is the big question.
Expected Answer: The Jaguares who took on the Super Rugby world were only without Marcos Ayerza, Jaoquin Tuculet and Tomas Cubelli from the international set-up. Yes, it’s a different team with subtle differences but based on what we’ve seen so far (a 27-0 defeat to France in June), the South American’s are currently struggling with the new organisations and the Jaguares project will have to be seen as a long-term one instead. Due to the strength of the competition and the fact that the Puma players have been demoralised against the exact men in Super 18 that they will go head to head with in the coming months, I can’t see anything great beckoning for them this time out.