15 Storylines to Watch in the Four Nations This Year

Tom Sunderland@@TomSunderland_Featured ColumnistAugust 4, 2013

15 Storylines to Watch in the Four Nations This Year

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    Now the finest competition between four of the Southern Hemisphere’s best rugby nations, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Argentina, make up this year’s Four Nations Rugby Championship.

    As well as the champagne rugby that’s bound to entertain, however, there’s also a raft of side stories worthy of note this year.

    Whether it’s related to matters on the pitch or off of it, concerning just the one player or multiple, all of the following subplots are factors in what promises to be an incredible spectacle kicking off later this month.

1. Quade Cooper’s Australia

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    Having been left out of the Australian squad to face the British and Irish Lions earlier this summer, Quade Cooper has much to prove for the Wallabies as he makes his first international appearance since late 2012.

    The Queensland Red star, per the Daily Mail, described the Wallabies’ camp as a “toxic environment” around the same time as his original omission for the national playing squad.

    Now, under Ewan McKenzie, Cooper will undoubtedly seek to sew up his relationship with the Australian side as its starting fly-half.

    Just how much of an impact will Cooper have on his team’s playing approach? Will he fit back in as easily as some would hope? The man himself will answer both these questions and more in the not-too-distant future.

2. Pressure Mounting for New Zealand?

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    As reigning world champions, New Zealand undoubtedly have the most to lose in this year’s Four Nations Rugby Championship, which they’re hoping will be as fruitful as the last.

    On that occasion, Steve Hansen’s side walked out with six victories from six matches, boasting a points difference of plus-111.

    To put that into context, South Africa, the second-most impressive attacking side in the tournament, recorded a points difference of 100 points less than that.

    With the Chiefs winning their Super Rugby finale against the Brumbies this weekend, the title remains in the hands of a New Zealand franchise, providing perhaps some precursor as to what may happen in the Four Nations.

    There’s no questioning the titans’ strength when it comes to sheer ability and physical qualities, but whether or not the squad has the depth to come out on top of their mental examination is another matter entirely.

3. Wallabies Attempt to Bounce Back from Lions Mauling

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    Although the spectacle of the Rugby Championship is a marvel of the sport, rugby had another extravaganza grace its shores this summer as the British and Irish Lions made the most of their tour to Australia.

    In that series, the Aussies fell victim to their visitors, falling on the worse side of a 2-1 test result.

    After winning three of their matches in the 2012 incarnation of the Four Nations, Australia can only hope that their tally improves this time around, with the Lions’ exhibition perhaps providing new motivation for the Wallabies to get back on track.

4. Argentina Chasing Maiden Victory

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    Having only joined the competition last summer, Argentina are still considered newcomers to the Four Nations Rugby Championship and are fast rising as a rugby power.

    Twelve months ago, the Pumas showed some impressive ability at times, and despite finishing bottom of the pile, there were some major signs for encouragement.

    Regardless of that, however, Argentina still have a 100 percent losing record in the Four Nations, a record they will look to put right in the coming weeks.

    This time around, the South Americans should feel far more at ease with their presence in such matters, and a first Four Nations win is a firm possibility.

5. Mandela Pride

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    Albeit a slightly morbid talking point, Nelson Mandela’s health remains a topic which will be of concern to just about any South African, not to mention those from outside the nation.

    According to a BBC News report in late July, the former president continued to show signs of improvement from the latest episode in his battle against a lung infection.

    With that being the case, many South Africans will rejoice that their ex-government figure is on the mend, not least of whom will be the national rugby team.

    Whichever way such an occasion might fuel one’s desire to succeed, South Africa can use this particular side story to their advantage, bringing joy to a country that has gone through a lot of late.

6. Sir Graham Henry: The Black Puma

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    Having coached the All Blacks for seven years, Sir Graham Henry ended his tenure as New Zealand head coach on the highest of high notes, winning the World Cup in front of a home audience.

    Although he maintains some connection with the New Zealand Rugby Union, Henry’s main position now is as a part of the Argentina coaching staff.

    Originally playing a bit part in last year’s Four Nations, Henry has joined the Pumas in a more prominent position this time around, something that will only benefit the South Americans.

    Considering the strides made by Argentina in recent years, Henry’s contributions could well pave the way for further development on behalf of the Pumas and possibly to the demise of New Zealand.

7. Bledisloe Cup Encounter

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    Always an epic to be held in the highest regard, New Zealand’s meeting against Australia this year promises to be a most delectable opener for the Four Nations and an excellent advertisement for the competition in general.

    Last year, New Zealand emerged as victorious in two of the three Bledisloe Cup encounters, the other being drawn 18-18 in Queensland.

    Even with that result, however, it would seem the All Blacks are in firm control of this particular fixture and will look to extend their unbeaten run in August.

    The first game of the tournament will be especially testing for Steve Hansen’s side, who travel to the ANZ Stadium on August 18 looking to disappoint the Australians in front of their own fans.

8. Beginning of the McKenzie Era

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    After losing to the Lions in their own backyard earlier this summer, Australia were swift to relieve themselves of Robbie Deans as head coach, instead looking to Ewan McKenzie for guidance.

    McKenzie’s last contribution as coach of the Queensland Reds was to fire the Australian franchise into the Super Rugby qualifiers before finally going down against the Crusaders.

    In Queensland, the 48-year-old promoted fast, free-flowing rugby and has already shaken things up Down Under after making the controversial decision to bring Quade Cooper, a player with whom he has a strong bond, back into the fold.

    Having made over 50 appearances for the Wallabies himself, McKenzie has a very powerful link with the Australian side and will now look to assert some dominance as head coach following what some may look upon as a bit of a barren patch.

9. Super Rugby Decider

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    As aforementioned, this month has already seen the Waikato Chiefs crowned as Super Rugby champions for the second consecutive season.

    However superstitious it might sound, New Zealand audiences should be ecstatic as a whole that the Brumbies overcame in their epic finale. This is due to the fact that for the last two years, the Four Nations champion has, coincidentally enough, been the nation which just so happens to host the Super Rugby victors.

    In 2011, it was the Queensland Reds’ triumph which coincided with Australia’s victory in what’s most likely to be the last-ever Tri Nations tournament, while the Chiefs’ win last year preceded New Zealand’s success in the maiden Four Nations.

    Now, the All Blacks must hope that the Waikato franchise’s fortune again falls in line with some of their own, although it will take a lot more than just luck to win this occasion.

10. Notable Absences

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    As well as those surprise inclusions, there are a number of absences, which might prove just as shocking for each of the four teams in the Rugby Championship.

    For New Zealand, perhaps the most surprising omissions from Steve Hansen’s squad are Ben Afeaki, back-rowers Victor Vito and Matt Todd and scrum-half Piri Weepu.

    South Africa will miss out on the talents of Bulls pair Francois Hougaard and Deon Stegmann, both of whom picked up injury in the Super Rugby semi-final.

    According to Rugby Week, the Wallabies will have to do without the talents of Anthony Faingaa, who needs reconstructive shoulder surgery, whereas Argentina have no major concerns.

11. Richie McCaw: The Return

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    Having recently returned to rugby after a sabbatical of seven months, Richie McCaw’s presence will be a magnificent sight for all within the New Zealand squad.

    Having played the last couple of games in the Crusaders season, the All Black legend is coming back to his regular state of match fitness and will be a very useful weapon at Steve Hansen’s disposal.

    Even at the age of 32, McCaw remains one of the best back-rowers in world rugby, his experience and knack for knowing what to do and when to do it proving invaluable in the past.

    But that doesn’t mean he’ll still be the same player he once was. There is the chance that McCaw will be considered “over the hill” after this, what could prove to be his last Rugby Championship.

    Of course, at this stage, all of this is mere speculation, and McCaw is the only person who can really reveal any such answers, all depending on just how much playing time the veteran will see.

12. Argentina’s Foreign Ruling

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    For New Zealand and Australia, the inclusion of players who decide to take their talents away from native shores is hard and fast: if you opt for a move abroad, your international future is in great jeopardy. For South Africa, the ruling is slightly less strict.

    However, for the Argentines, there are no such policies in place, an understandable conclusion given that Argentina’s native league would have no pedigree when compared against the Southern Hemisphere’s other rugby nations.

    If anything, to leave the South American country in its current standard would be almost encouraged. In fact, of the 30-man training squad announced for the Rugby Championship by Santiago Phelan, only eight remain in Argentina, with the rest playing in England, France or currently unattached.

    In the future, one might see the country’s standards of Argentine rugby rise enough that staying in their home nation for a career is perfectly viable, but for now, the Pumas will put to the test this argument of nationalism and just which policy works best in the international game.

13. Old Timers Assemble

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    As is ever the case, this Rugby Championship will call some of the best nations in the sport together under one roof and with it some of the best individual talents.

    A large part of that talent just so happens to come hand-in-hand with experience, something a lot of the players set to feature have in spades.

    Felipe Contepomi

    It’s remarkable that Felipe Contepomi, Argentina’s highest-ever points scorer, has managed to maintain such high standards, even in the latter stages of his career.

    Even at the age of 35, the Stade Francais fly-half with over 80 international caps to his name and soon to retire from the game still has his role to play in any success Argentina might have a chance at.

    Adam Ashley-Cooper

    A player who could well go on to realise the rare feat of reaching 100 international caps, Adam Ashley-Cooper is just 20 appearances away from that achievement and is the most seasoned veteran of Australia’s squad.

    Renowned for his malleability and gift to play just about anywhere in the back line, Cooper’s contributions will be essential to the Wallabies’ running game.

    Richie McCaw

    Richie McCaw’s involvement at the Rugby Championship is slightly unknown at the moment considering his recent break from the sport and just how Steve Hansen will utilise his abilities.

    The sixth-most internationally capped player of all time will have the opportunity to add yet more onto his tally this summer, but will it be as powerful an input as it once was?

    Jean de Villiers

    Debuting for South Africa more than 10 years ago, Jean de Villiers remains his country’s most capped centre and will now go down as one of its most capped players on almost 90 caps.

    This season, De Villiers showed with the Stormers just how much of an impact he can make on matters, even at 32 years of age, and that his playing days may run for a few years more just yet.

14. Day of the Debutant

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    With the best interests of the next generation at heart, this summer’s competition will see some of the nations involved hand the opportunity of an international debut to a number of youngsters.

    Australia are by far the most considerate babysitters after Ewan McKenzie named 10 uncapped players in his 40-man training squad, while Argentina have chosen to stick with what they know, naming a squad of players all capped in the past.

    South Africa are the next most concerned with the youth, with six uncapped members on board for the tournament, while New Zealand’s TJ Perenara is the only All Blacks member lacking previous experience.

    For the Springboks, Robert Ebersohn, soon to be of Montpellier, stands out as a particularly promising asset in the centre, while the Wallabies will be hoping that the likes of Peter Betham, Chris Feauai-Sautia and Bernard Foley can live up to their potential.

15. Dan Carter’s Century

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    A player who’s entirely deserving of such an accolade, Dan Carter promises to make his 100th New Zealand appearance over the course of the next two months.

    Good health will ensure that by mid-October, the Crusaders fly-half will have 101 caps to his name.

    An incredible servant to the All Blacks’ cause for the last 10 years, Carter has been with the nation through thick and thin over that space of time and was instrumental in winning the 2011 World Cup.

    The 31-year-old has four Super Rugby titles to his name and will assuredly go down as one of the finest players to grace the No. 10 jersey, and will continue to play his role in the 2013 Rugby Championship.

    UPDATE: BBC Sport announced on August 13 that Carter had picked up a calf injury and would miss the first two games against Australia, ruling out the 100-cap accolade.