Rugby: Southern hemisphere ease into gear in Rugby Championship

Handre Pollard of South Africa (right) breaking through a tackle from David Roumieu of France playing for the World XV (left) in Cape Town on July 11.
Handre Pollard of South Africa (right) breaking through a tackle from David Roumieu of France playing for the World XV (left) in Cape Town on July 11.PHOTO: EPA

SYDNEY (REUTERS) - There will be no definitive answer as to where the balance of power in international rugby lies until the World Cup final at Twickenham in October but the truncated Rugby Championship, which kicks off on Friday, should provide a few clues.

New Zealand, South Africa and Australia, who have won six of the seven previous World Cups between them, will again battle it out with 2007 semi-finalists Argentina but each will face the others only once as opposed to the usual two encounters.

The slimmed down competition is designed to avoid too many hard-hitting encounters depleting the southern hemisphere challenge at the World Cup in September and October, although another round of non-championship matches will follow.

The All Blacks kick off against Argentina in Christchurch on Friday and Steve Hansen will be hoping they blew off all their early season rust in the 25-16 win over Samoa last week, when they needed Dan Carter's kicking to save their blushes.

Hansen has carefully managed his squad to extend the careers of older campaigners like Carter and captain Richie McCaw as well as bring through the best of the young talent and develop depth in all positions.

As they begin their quest for a fourth straight title, the world champions can expect the usual physical challenge from Daniel Hourcade's Argentina, who got their first win in their third campaign last season.

That victory came over Australia in Mendoza and it will be their second match against the Wallabies at the same venue this year which offers the Pumas their best chance of a second win, even if they ran the Springboks close again last year.

Australia, now reduced to number six in the world, will at least not have to start their campaign with back-to-back tests against New Zealand, as they have in the last three years.

Saturday's clash with the Springboks in Brisbane offers them more hope of an opening victory, something they have not enjoyed since they won the truncated final Tri-Nations championship ahead of the 2011 World Cup.

A tweak to the eligibility rules means new coach Michael Cheika has experienced back Matt Giteau back in the fold but it may be to the halfback combination behind that 2011 triumph, Quade Cooper and Will Genia, that he turns to initially.

South Africa coach Heyneke Meyer has to deal with a lengthy list of players unavailable to him through injury. Number eight Duane Vermeulen, lock Pieter-Steph du Toit, centre Frans Steyn and scrumhalf Fourie du Preez are just some of the players in the treatment room.

The Springboks are hoping neck surgery will still allow the influential Vermeulen to play a part in the World Cup and Meyer, like the other coaches, is sure to use the Rugby Championship to give most of the players in his squad a run-out.

That means the end result might not be the ultimate indicator of World Cup form - 2011 Rugby Championship winners Australia were clearly second best to the All Blacks in the World Cup semi-finals just weeks later - but you can be sure northern hemisphere coaches will be watching every second.