The Rugby Championship, involving four of the world’s top 10-ranked teams, begins this weekend with New Zealand entering the latest battle for southern hemisphere supremacy as strong favourites. The All Blacks begin the defence of their title against Australia at ANZ Stadium in Sydney, while the other fixture of the opening weekend sees Argentina, coached for the first time by Mario Ledesma, travel to Durban to play South Africa.
As one tournament prepares to get underway another comes to a conclusion with the Rugby Africa Gold Cup all set for a thrilling finish at the Hage Geingob Rugby Stadium in Windhoek, where Namibia and Kenya are in a straight shootout for the region’s title and a place as Africa 1 at Rugby World Cup 2019. Uganda and Zimbabwe go head-to-head in Kampala and Tunisia host Morocco in the other games.
All five matches will count towards the World Rugby Rankings with big gains possible for some of the competing nations. We take a brief look at the possible permutations.
"Him leading by example rather than voice is the way he goes about things"— All Blacks (@AllBlacks) August 16, 2018
All Blacks teammates pay tribute to Sam Whitelock ahead of his 100th Test this weekend.
AUSTRALIA (5) v NEW ZEALAND (1)
Tom Robertson makes only his third test start for the Wallabies after Scott Sio was ruled out of the Bledisloe Cup opener with a shoulder injury. Hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau starts his first test of 2018 and, despite missing the last two months with a hamstring complaint, Michael Hooper captains the side from openside. Elsewhere, Reece Hodge takes the outside centre position as expected after injuries to Tevita Kuridrani and Samu Kerevi, while Allan Alaalatoa comes onto the bench for the Wallabies after missing the June series defeat to Ireland. Fellow replacement Matt Toomua is in line to play his first Wallabies test since the 2016 Bledisloe and is joined on the bench by uncapped outside back Jack Maddocks.
The All Blacks have named a settled squad from the one that played France in June with the inclusion of captain Kieran Read and second-row Brodie Retallick for the first time in 2018 the main talking points. There has been one late change to the bench with prop Ofa Tu'ungafasi ruled out with a rib injury and replaced by Tim Perry, who is set to make his test debut. Jack Goodhue also gets the nod at centre ahead of Anton Lienert-Brown for his second test start.
- New Zealand have dominated the Rugby Championship since Argentina were invited to join the party back in 2012 with five titles
- Australia prevented a clean sweep of All Blacks' Rugby Championship titles when they won a truncated tournament in 2015
- The Wallabies stunned New Zealand 23-18 in Brisbane last October for their first win over the All Blacks since 2015
- The All Blacks have held the Bledisloe Cup since 2003
- New Zealand have only lost one of their last 13 tests (against the British and Irish Lions)
- Second-row Sam Whitelock will become the eighth All Blacks player to win a century of caps and the first World Rugby U20 Championship graduate
The All Blacks can increase their lead at the top of the rankings by a maximum of 0.53 of a point if they win well, opening up a gap of 4.4 points between themselves and Ireland. Only 1.4 points would separate the world's top two nations, though, if the reigning champions get off to a losing start. Any form of win will be enough for Australia to move up to third, above England and Wales.
SOUTH AFRICA (6) v ARGENTINA (10)
Experienced forwards – Malcolm Marx, Eben Etzebeth, Francois Louw and Warren Whiteley – make their first appearance this year for the Springboks after missing the June internationals with injury. As a result of Whiteley and Louw's inclusion in the back row, captain Siya Kolisi moves over to the other side of the scrum and into the number seven jersey. In the backline, Makazole Mapimpi will start at right wing in the place of the injured Sbu Nkosi, while two uncapped players, Damian Willemse and Marco van Staden, are set to make their Springbok test debuts off the bench at King's Park.
Argentina have picked prop Juan Figallo for the first time since their RWC 2015 bronze final loss to the Springboks as they relax a policy of choosing only home-based players. Tight-head Figallo, from English Premiership club Saracens, is one of three changes to the pack that started the 44-15 defeat to Scotland in June. He replaces loose-head Javier Diaz with Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro switching sides, while Marcos Kremer and Javier Ortega Desio come into the back row for Tomas Lezana and Leonardo Senatore. Outside centre Matias Moroni, winger Ramiro Moyano and scrum-half Gonzalo Bertranou are called up at the expense of Matias Orlando, Sebastian Cancelliere and long-serving Martin Landajo. Hooker Diego Fortuny is in line for his debut if required from the bench.
- South Africa have won 23 of the 26 test matches played against Argentina
- Argentina return to the scene of their 37-25 win over the Springboks in 2015, in which Juan Imhoff, the Argentinian left wing, became the first player to score a hat-trick in a test against the Springboks
- Since their defeat to Australia in the Rugby World Cup 2015 semi-finals, Argentina have won just eight of their 31 tests and only four of their last 12 encounters
- Los Pumas have only managed three victories in the Rugby Championship since their introduction in 2012
- They have only finished off the bottom of the table once – in 2015 when South Africa picked up the wooden spoon
- Springbok full-back Willie le Roux will celebrate his 29th birthday on Saturday
South Africa will not gain any rating points in victory because of the sizeable gap between themselves and Los Pumas. However, an unexpected win for Los Pumas, in Mario Ledesma's first match in charge, would result in the South Americans taking ninth place off Fiji.
It's all on the line this Saturday as @RugbyNamibia face @OfficialKRU for a place in Pool B at Rugby World Cup 2019— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) August 16, 2018
The loser will join the #RWC2019 repechage, in Marseille this November with @RugbyCanada, @HongKongRugby
and @DRVRugby pic.twitter.com/0oP4phB8vl
NAMIBIA (23) v KENYA (28)
Namibia coach Phil Davies has made three changes from the side that beat Zimbabwe 58-28 at the start of the month. RWC 2015 veterans, hooker Louis van der Westhuizen and wing JC Greyling, both start as does Wian Conradie, who replaces Rohan Kitshoff on the blindside. Johan Deysel, a try scorer against the All Blacks at RWC 2015, captains the side in the continued absence of the injured Renaldo Botha.
Dalmus Chituyi, Felix Ayange and Curtis Lilako return for the Simbas’ final Rugby Africa Gold Cup encounter. Chituyi, the two-try hero in the 45-36 win over Zimbabwe at the end of June, missed last weekend’s 67-0 win over Tunisia through injury alongside former Kenya Sevens international Ayange who was recovering from the effects of dental surgery, while Lilako returns after a three-game absence.
- A draw guarantees Namibia qualification for RWC 2019 as Africa 1
- Namibia have won each of their four games to date with a bonus point
- Namibia have won eight out of the 10 meetings since the first encounter in 1993
- Kenya’s two wins both came at home, in 2006 and 2014
Namibia will oust Canada from 22nd place in the rankings if they win and drop by three to five places if they lose, depending on the margin of defeat. Kenya will replace Namibia as the top-ranked African team, excluding South Africa, if they win. With at least 1.61 points up for grabs for a win in Windhoek, the Simbas would climb to 25th in victory – or 23rd if they win by over 15 points.
UGANDA (35) v ZIMBABWE (45)
- Uganda won the last two meetings, but Zimbabwe have the better head-to-head record: 7-5
- Zimbabwe’s last win in Kampala was 25-15 in 2011
- Lawrence Sebuliba scored a hat-trick and Philip Wokorach contributed 13 points in last season’s 38-12 win for Uganda
- A win would guarantee Zimbabwe their place in next season’s Gold Cup
Uganda can improve their rating by a maximum of 0.41 points if they win well but that wouldn’t be enough to lift them any higher than their current position of 35th. A heavy defeat for Zimbabwe would cost them two places and see them drop to an all-time low of 47th. Victory for Zimbabwe is worth at least a five-place rise to 40th – unless Morocco win away in Tunisia, in which case they’d have to settle for a four-place improvement.
MOROCCO (43) v TUNISIA (42)
- Morocco have won 15 of the 21 meetings between the nations, with two draws
- Tunisia’s last victory was 27-26 in Tunis in 2002
- There were only three points between the sides across the last two encounters
- Defeat could cost both sides their place in the Gold Cup
A home win would see Tunisia climb at least two places – unless Zimbabwe put Uganda to the sword. A well-beaten Morocco would slip four places to 47th. A big win for Morocco would result in them matching their all-time best of 37th, irrespective of how Zimbabwe fare. Tunisia would fall six places in such a scenario.