5 Reasons Why New Zealand Will Win the Rugby Championship
The Southern Hemisphere rugby giants go head-to-head over the next six weeks in the second edition of the four-nation Rugby Championship.
Defending champions New Zealand will be confident of retaining their title against a South Africa team still in development, a Wallabies side possibly still reeling after losing to the British and Irish Lions, and an Argentina team still finding their feet after joining the tournament only last year.
The All Blacks start the tournament as most observers' favorites, and here are five reasons why.
All Blacks Captain Richie McCaw Is Back
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New Zealand's favorite son Richie McCaw is back to lead the side following a six-month sabbatical to rest his weary bones and recharge the batteries.
McCaw last played for the All Blacks nearly nine months ago and decided the break was needed following the demands of leading his side to World Cup glory, victory in last year's tournament and their autumn tour to Europe.
At 32, some might question whether McCaw will prove to be the towering figure of the past, but those who have observed him closely know that he is likely to be every bit as good as before.
He has proved his ability to hit the ground running after injury-enforced layoffs before, and his experience and professionalism will guarantee his preparation is spot on.
New Zealand's Record and Schedule
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The All Blacks have lost just one of 17 Tests since winning the 2011 Rugby World Cup, winning 15 and drawing the other one. They were unbeaten in last year's Rugby Championship and have a schedule this year that favors them.
Winning momentum is a key element for any champion team, and the All Blacks have a steady head of steam thanks to their recent record, including a 3-0 victory over France this summer.
New Zealand start their campaign away to Australia in Sydney—a venue and contest they know well from more than 80 years of competition with their close rivals—before three consecutive home games with the Wallabies, Argentina and South Africa.
The All Blacks can win on the road in Australia and will be expected to win all three home games. They then travel to La Plata to face Argentina in a game they won 54-15 last season and will expect to win again.
So it is not inconceivable that the All Blacks will be 5-0 going into what will be their toughest challenge, the Springboks in Johannesburg. They won that fixture 32-16 in 2012, and even if they were to lose it this year the chances are they would already have the title wrapped up.
The Opposition: Australia, South Africa and Argentina
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This New Zealand team have yet to prove absolutely that they are a vintage All Blacks side, though their record over the last two years is very impressive.
The World Champions drew the final Bledisloe Cup game 18-18 in Brisbane last October and were beaten 38-21 by England at the beginning of December as the demands of a long season finally caught up with them.
Those two blips aside, the All Blacks unquestionably have been the dominant force in world rugby.
None of their rivals can claim such an impressive record. The Springboks come closest having won 10 of their 15 matches over the same period, losing three and drawing two.
South Africa finished third in last year's tournament, and while they have won their last six Tests and have some exciting new talent, they appear still to be a team in development.
There is a new look about the Wallabies as well, especially in their back line, with new coach Ewen McKenzie making a number of changes since the Lions thumped Australia 41-16 in the final Test.
Argentina, meanwhile, need to show that they can offer more than a competitive forward element to their game. Second-season syndrome could well be a feature for the Pumas this year.
Israel Dagg and New Zealand Back Line
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New Zealand base much of their attacking game on turnover ball, and in Israel Dagg they possess the most potent runner in world rugby at the moment.
Every member of the All Blacks back line poses a running threat—including Dan Carter's flamboyant replacement, Aaron Cruden—but so much of their attacking play goes through flying Crusaders' full-back Dagg.
New Zealand are never more threatening than when they pinch the ball against the run of play. With the opposition's defensive line unset, Dagg and back-three teammates Julian Savea and Ben Smith are then given free rein to exploit the gaps.
No team in world rugby does it better, and no full-back is currently more effective at counter-attacking than Dagg. His kicking game is pretty handy too.
The All Blacks' Back Row
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We've already mentioned the impact returning skipper McCaw will have on the tournament, but the veteran flanker enjoys critical support from experienced back-rowers Kieran Read and Liam Messam.
Reid skippered the side during McCaw's sabbatical and for many fans has been one of the outstanding forwards in world rugby for the last couple of years.
Messam misses the opening game due to a hamstring injury, but he has been in terrific form for the Crusaders this season and should be back for the remainder of the tournament.
The trio have 190 caps between them and are the most experienced and settled back-row unit in the tournament.