Monday August 15, 2022

So often these days sporting competitions are given a tag of the ‘most unpredictable in living memory’, but it really seems that applies to this year’s Rugby Championship.

New Zealand’s first series defeat in 28 years and up-and-down form for South Africa since their World Cup win have left them fourth and third in the World Rankings respectively, whilst Australia and Argentina have also struggled to find consistency.

But the latter pair have shown plenty of promise and although the gap in the rankings to the former duo might remain similar, the possibility of a one off win for the competition’s two weakest teams against the two strongest has arguably never been greater.

This week, and indeed next week, however, we will see the top two favourites take on each other, while Argentina and Australia meet at the Estadio Malvinas Argentinas in Mendoza.

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Here we provide a preview for the first round fixtures, and odds from William Hill as the Southern Hemisphere’s biggest rugby competition gets underway.

South Africa vs New Zealand, Live on Sky Sports Action (4:05pm KO BST)

All Blacks get big payday to play Wales in Cardiff

The drama around New Zealand’s national team has potentially never been higher. They are at their lowest point in the World Rankings in their history, have lost a home series for the first time in nearly three decades, and their coach Ian Foster is under huge pressure.

He has been defiant in defending himself, but opening the Rugby Championship with two games against the World Champions and only team ranked higher than them in the tournament is a daunting prospect, especially when you consider that both games will be in the Springboks’ backyard.

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There are more than a few surprises in New Zealand’s line-up, namely in the front-row, where hooker Samiosa Taukei’ho makes only his second start, and tighthead Angus Ta’avao comes in for the injured Nepo Laulala. Tyrel Lomax and Ethan de Groot didn’t feature in the Ireland series, but are the two replacement props.

All of them will face a huge test against a side famous for their own front row and, as ever, South Africa have named a powerful team for this opener.

The Springboks will field a largely settled squad as they prepare for their first game on home soil against New Zealand for four years, but captain Siya Kolisi still saw his side as underdogs for the encounter.

“How we see it as a group is that we haven’t beaten the All Blacks at home in eight years,” said Kolisi.

“We cannot control what happens in the All Blacks camp, but we can control what we do. We know what we want to do, and we would like our plans to work well. We are playing against an amazing side.

“We’ve been in a situation before where we lost two matches in a row, and what we learned is that it takes one game to kick-start a team, so we do not see ourselves as favourites at all.”

Odds on William Hill: South Africa 8/11, New Zealand 23/20

Handicap Betting: South Africa by two points

Argentina vs Australia

The story of this game is also centered around its coach, but rather than Michael Cheika being under pressure, he has a real opportunity to win big here and much less to lose.

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His side come into this game unfancied, but will be full of confidence and belief after a superb series win against Scotland in July.

Sandwiched in the middle of two hard-fought victories, where their best rugby came in the way they finished off those tight games, they suffered a relatively heavy defeat, and will feel they squeezed every last drop out of themselves to win the series.

Argentina name an experienced squad for this encounter, as Cheika hopes to beat his former team, with skipper Julian Montoya returning after missing the final test of the Scotland series, while the scorer of a late winner in that game, Emiliano Boffelli, continues on the wing.

On the reverse side, a less experienced Australia will feel they fell short of their best as they spurned a 1-0 series lead to lose to an England side that looked as if they were in big trouble after the first test.

It has taken the wind out of their sails somewhat, as they seemed to be going on something of a revival with two victories against South Africa last year and a win against the All Blacks, before a disappointing Autumn and this series defeat has left them back to square one.

They name two uncapped players for this match-up with Jed Holloway starting at blindside flanker and Matt Gibbon on the bench at loosehead prop, while Jordan Petaia’s brief experiment at full-back comes to an end as he shifts onto the wing.

Michael Hooper will no longer play in the starting team, withdrawing for personal reasons, as James Slipper takes his place as captain while Fraser McReight will replace him in the number seven jersey.

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Hooper said: “While this decision did not come easily I know it is the right one for me and the team at this point in time.

“My whole career I’ve looked to put the team first and I don’t feel I am able to fulfill my responsibilities at the moment in my current mindset.”

Odds on William Hill: Argentina 2/1, Australia 2/5

Handicap Betting: Australia by six points

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