Why Rugby Championship title is the prize no one wants
RUGBY CHAMPIONSHIP SPOTLIGHT: The Rugby Championship trophy is once again pushed further into the shadows of irrelevance in a World Cup year.
Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina find themselves with different requirements two months out from the World Cup and their approach will vary sharply in the shortened competition starting this weekend.
No team that has won the SANZAAR silverware – including when it was the Tri-Nations – has gone on to claim the Webb Ellis Cup in that same year.
The Wallabies notched rare titles in 2011 and 2015 but coach Michael Cheika won’t have his heart set on a hat-trick.
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Cheika has made it clear that fine-tuning a World Cup squad is his priority, with Australia’s 31-man squad for Japan harder to predict than any of the three other nations.
The Wallabies open their international program with an offshore Test for the first time in 35 years, against the Springboks in Johannesburg.
It has handed Cheika a welcome opportunity to escape the all-consuming Israel Folau imbroglio and get two weeks of uninterrupted preparation into a team that underperformed in 2018.
Cheika warned his players must perform or else, with several injured contenders including David Pocock poised to be return for the two Bledisloe Cup Tests in August.
All Blacks counterpart Steve Hansen has repeatedly stated he wants his team close to their best for those trans-Tasman clashes.
His influential Crusaders contingent didn’t travel to Argentina for this week’s opener and other players can expect a rest against the Springboks in Wellington a week later, putting at risk his team’s run of three straight Rugby Championship titles.
“Winning it is not a good [World Cup] indicator historically,” Hansen told journalists.
“We’ve got to use that part of the series to make sure we’ve got the right 31 getting on the plane. So that’s what we’ll be doing.”
South Africa will also trial players and monitor player workloads in their two opening Tests.
Coach Rassie Erasmus wants to see a host of hopefuls put their hand up against the Wallabies and then see if a refreshed and more established group can match last year’s upset win in New Zealand.
The steadiest set-up can be found in Argentina, where Mario Ledesma takes charge of a group dominated by Jaguares players coming off their Super Rugby heroics.
Most of the Jaguares beaten in the final by the Crusaders can expect a flight to Japan, alongside a sprinkling of top-flight European-based players.