13th Aug 2012 2:45pm | By Jahn Vannisselroy
It’s time for the big boys to step up.
The best rugby teams the northern hemisphere has to offer were dispatched in the June Tests and the focus now turns to the revamped Rugby Championship, featuring the Wallabies, All Blacks, Springboks and new entrants the Pumas, of Argentina.
The All Blacks, now world champions who smashed Ireland 60-0 in their last outing, may appear favourites, but the Championship is arguably the sport’s toughest international competition, the level of rugby and the amount of travel involved meaning there is never a soft game.
Former All Black captain Sean Fitzpatrick, who played 92 Tests for his country, says South Africa, despite a recent 21-21 draw with England, will not lie down, and Australia, the competition’s current champions, are a wily side with something to prove.
And, he says, don’t underestimate Argentina, who have been given a helping hand by former New Zealand World Cup-winning coach Graham Henry.
“The Pumas are a very good side – if they can get their top players on the field,” Fitzpatrick says. “The structures Henry will put in place will benefit them in years to come. The things he implemented with Wales all those years ago, we’re starting to see them bear fruit now. Still, right now, the Pumas can compete with the best.”
Of the All Blacks, Fitzpatrick says new faces on the periphery, guys such as Crusaders centre Robbie Fruean and Chiefs halfback Tawera Kerr-Barlow, make it an exciting time to be an NZ fan. The depth in almost every position is comforting, too.
“[New coach] Steve Hansen wants to create his own identity, and he’s going about that. There was a lot of talk after the World Cup of a hangover and I think they made it very clear against the Irish that they’d moved on from that,” he says. “This is a new team and the World Cup has nothing to do with it any more, which is great.”
However, the midfield is the one worry. Centre Conrad Smith, who Fitzpatrick says has been in “the form of his life”, will not figure early in the competition, due to an eye injury, his leadership both on and off the field leaving a large gap. And then there’s the loss of Sonny Bill Williams, who was fantastic all season as part of the Chiefs Super 15-winning squad, but will soon leave to take up big-money contracts in Japanese rugby and then Australia’s NRL. If he’s not released to play against Australia, Hansen will have a puzzle.
“Maybe Hansen could play Aaron Cruden at number 10, Dan Carter at 12 and Ma’a Nonu at 13,” Fitzpatrick suggests. “But he would be reluctant to move the best number 10 in world rugby to number 12. However, you never know. Whether Nonu has enough pace at 13 is another question …”