Coach: Steve Hansen
Last season: 1st
Key player: Kieran Read
Can anyone stop the All Blacks? That is the main question as we approach the 2014 edition of the Southern Hemisphere’s premier international rugby tournament. They are still unbeaten since that loss at Twickenham in 2012, and despite several close games in the last year – England and Ireland both came within two points of a win – they always seem to find a way to get across the line.
It’s incredibly tough to pinpoint one key individual from amongst their ranks, but last season’s IRB Player of the Year Kieran Read is as pivotal as they come. It’s no coincidence that the Crusaders’ surge to the Super Rugby final came at the time Read returned from injury and began to find his form again – he seems to galvanise any side he plays in. Along with the likes of Conrad Smith, Richie McCaw and Sam Whitelock, they have a vastly experienced leadership group and one that has been there and done it all before.
Are there any weaknesses? None that are immediately obvious or debilitating, although it could be argued that time is starting to catch up with some of their older stars. The sides that have come closest to beating them in the past year – South Africa in Jo’burg, Ireland in Dublin and England in Auckland – have all managed to go out and play as if ignorant of the All Blacks’ aura. If you can do that, and not be afraid to run the ball when they kick it to you (which happens a lot), then you will stand a chance – provided you are clinical.
It’s tough to see anyone else winning the championship, but both South Africa and Australia looked good in the June tests, so it’s not outside the realms of possibility that one of them will bring the All Blacks’ winning run to an end.
Coach: Heyneke Meyer
Last season: 2nd
Key player: Francois Louw
Second to New Zealand last year, they were the only team that really threatened to beat the All Blacks in the Championship last season. Since losing to them in the final game of that tournament, they are unbeaten and have established themselves as the second best side in the world.
Second best doesn’t sit well with such a proud rugby country, however. If they’re to topple the All Blacks, not to mention a resurgent Australia side, Francois Louw will be key. In a pack full of behemoths, Louw is a relative lightweight, and his ability at the breakdown and general work rate is key to South Africa. In a tournament that contains loose forwards the quality of Michael Hooper, Richie McCaw and Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, the Boks need Louw at his best.
Fourie du Preez is a huge loss. Ruan Pienaar does a lot of things well, but keeping the tempo high and providing rapid service to his fly-half is not always one of them. If nothing else, it should be a good test for the precociously talented Handre Pollard, should Meyer choose to stick with him past the opening game against Argentina.
They will likely be New Zealand’s closest challengers again, although could find themselves looking over their shoulder a bit more at an Australia team that has improved immeasurably this last year.
Prediction: 2nd (just)
Coach: Ewen McKenzie
Last season: 3rd
Key player: Kurtley Beale
Last season was a grave disappointment for the Wallabies, only managing to register victories over Argentina. They seem to have improved plenty since then, and the victory of the Waratahs in Super Rugby will inject plenty of confidence into the squad ahead of this year’s tournament – especially given they beat a Kiwi side in the final.
The June series win over France doesn’t tell us too much, given how woeful France are at the moment, but it is encouraging nonetheless. One thing the French have always had is a solid pack, and the performance of the Wallabies’ front five in June was hugely heartening, given that it has been an area of relative weakness in recent times.
Behind the pack, if their talented backs can play with the pace and verve of the Waratahs this season, they’ll be a threat to everyone. Kurtley Beale is a key figure, then, as he seems to be McKenzie’s choice at fly-half, despite spending the season playing in the centres outside the excellent Bernard Foley, who only makes the bench. Beale must unleash the Wallabies’ backs as Foley has done with the Waratahs.
Expect them to be much better than last year and beat one, if not both, of South Africa and New Zealand along the way. They could easily break into the top two.
Prediction: 3rd (just)
Coach: Daniel Hourcade
Last season: 4th
Key player: Agustín Creevy
All neutrals want Argentina to do well, and there’s no doubt that they have improved since their ascension to the Rugby Championship in 2012. That said, they are still searching for their first victory, the closest they’ve come being a draw against South Africa in 2012 and a one point loss to Australia last year.
They are certainly good enough to cause an upset and grab a victory, but the strength in depth needed to put together a consistent run of victories at this level doesn’t seem to be there. In the likes of Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, Marcelo Bosch, Juan Martin Hernandez and Marcos Ayerza, they have players capable of mixing it with the best – but are the rest of the squad good enough to step up? That remains to be seen.
The key man, however, is undoubtedly newly-appointed captain Agustín Creevy. Worcester fans might raise an eyebrow at this decision – he wasn’t exactly the picture of discipline in his first season at the club, picking up plenty of cards. There’s no doubting his passion, though, and there’s obviously something there that Hourcade has seen to make him believe Creevy is the right man to lead this group.
Will this be the year they get a win? They’ve improved, but the other three sides are still well out in front, and Australia, probably their best chance of a win, are a much better side than a year ago. It could be another tough campaign for them.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43