Argentina join the sport’s elite
A new era for southern hemisphere Rugby Union dawns on Saturday when Australia meet New Zealand in Sydney and South Africa face Argentina in Cape Town as The Rugby Championship kicks off.
After 16 seasons of Tri-Nations fare dominated by the All Blacks with 10 titles, long-time outcasts Argentina are joining for a six-round mini-league that carries lots of prestige if no prize money.
From Dunedin, in the deep south of New Zealand, to Mendoza in the far west of Argentina, teams ranked one, two, three and eight in the world will slug it out between August 18 and October 6 for a 56-centimetre, five-kilo trophy.
It is a mix of gold and stainless steel, and whoever holds it can rightfully claim to be the best national Rugby Union team in the world with competition expected to be even tougher annually than at the quadrennial World Cup.
While World Cup fixtures vary between easy and difficult for giants of the game, there are unlikely to be many soft Championship outings, especially once Argentina get used to the demands of six Tests within eight weeks.
Shunned for many years as they craved top-class competition, the Cape Town Test represents a coming of age for the Pumas, whose finest achievement was third place behind South Africa and England at the 2007 World Cup.
“We have done the groundwork, we have chosen the best squad, we are ready,” stressed coach Santiago Phelan, whose build-up was boosted by the presence of 2011 World Cup-winning New Zealand coach Graham Henry.
Steve Hansen succeeded Henry after the All Blacks joined Australia and South Africa as two-time world champions, and he has no doubts about the ability of the South Americans to make an impression.
“People might not know that they have beaten France more times than France have beaten them. Their home record is particularly impressive... few sides go there and win,” noted the All Blacks handler.
“Playing Australia, New Zealand and South Africa is only going to enhance their ability and raise their level. It will be good for the game and they are certainly going to challenge the rest of us.”