It would be a stretch to describe this year’s Rugby Championship as merely a testing ground for the World Cup, but with all four teams undergoing some form of transition, their performance in the southern hemisphere’s annual tournament will be an indicator of their progress ahead of rugby’s global showcase in 2015.
Defending champions New Zealand are infusing new blood into their core of grizzled veterans and will again be favorites for the trophy, while Australia are in the midst of a major overhaul, Argentina may be set for a coaching change and South Africa are coming to terms with the impact of rugby’s global labor market on their selection policy.
The biggest issue for the All Blacks is the fitness of captain Richie McCaw, who has barely played at all after returning from a six-month sabbatical from the game.
Coach Steve Hansen told reporters last week he had no concerns over McCaw’s fitness, having watched the openside flanker get through the 2011 World Cup with virtually no training due to a broken foot.
Hansen’s goal for the side is to continue to play at a higher pace than anyone else, having lifted the game to a new tempo last year.
Integrating exciting and aggressive youngsters into a team of tried and tested veterans has been key to Hansen’s goal and 20 of the 33 players used at the last World Cup are no longer in the national setup.
Amid concerns about a lack of domestic depth, Springboks coach Heyneke Meyer has had to select eight players who are either plying their trade offshore or are set to take up contracts overseas.
South Africa lost a large chunk of their 2007 World Cup winning side after the last tournament in New Zealand, while several others are nearing the end of their careers and looking for big paypackets abroad.
The fact that Meyer had to bring back Fourie du Preez from Japanese club rugby highlighted the dearth of talent at scrumhalf, while retaining the metronomic Morne Steyn at flyhalf suggests he wants a dual kicking option close to the ruck.
That conservative gameplan may stymie the attacking talents of a backline that includes young fullback Willie le Roux and evergreen winger Bryan Habana.
Argentina provided a massive boost to the competition in their debut last year and impressed with their performances.
The Pumas will no longer have the element of surprise they had last year, though their 26-12 victory over Wales in Cardiff last November showed the benefit of competing in the tournament.
Australia are undergoing sweeping changes, with new coach Ewen McKenzie likely to implement a more adventurous style of play after taking over from Robbie Deans last month.
McKenzie has virtually no honeymoon period and will be thrust straight into the Rugby Championship with no buildup, hoping to turn a young side into legitimate World Cup contenders with just two years to narrow down his selections.