The Rugby Championship, featuring the three best sides in world rugby, kicked off over the weekend with South Africa the only team to record a victory.
Ambitions for all four southern hemisphere sides (Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina) were curtailed by disappointing weather, which meant that open, expansive rugby gave way to damage limitation in the opening round of the competition.
Australia played host to world champions New Zealand on Saturday in a match that featured many of the stars from the Super 15 final played just two weeks before. Australian coach Ewen McKenzie was the subject of scrutiny from the New Zealand team management and press leading up to the game for his decision to leave out the highly-rated Bernard Foley at the expense of Waratahs teammate and playmaker Kurtley Beale in the flyhalf berth.
In the end it was the weather, and not Beale, that had the biggest impact on the game as the Rugby Championship got underway with a tame 12-12 draw in Sydney - with little of the expansive play and none of the tries promised ahead of the match by each team’s selections, due to downpours during the game.
New Zealand had gone into the encounter with consecutive wins in their previous 17 games against all opposition; a record-equalling winnning streak for a Tier 1 nation. Captain Richie McCaw made a point to say that discussions about the record had not featured in his team’s build-up to the game, but the man in charge of the number one side in the world would no doubt have been disappointed for missing the opportunity to further stamp his mark on the game.
Though it was the Australians who potentially had more reason to be disappointed when the final whistle blew. With 11 minutes remaining the All Blacks were reduced to 14 men after Beauden Barrett was sent to the sin bin for an illegal infringement. The Wallabies, though potent in phases, were ultimately unable to capitalise on the advantage and breach the All Black defence, leaving them to rue an escaped chance to take a rare win over their oldest rivals.
If conditions had been bad in Australia, they were much worse in South Africa later in the day. The Springboks would have targeted a win featuring a minimum of four tries in their game against Argentina, but minutes before kick-off in Pretoria the rain had turned to hail, making handling incredibly difficult for both teams.
Young Bok flyhalf Handre Pollard looked shaky behind a pack that failed to dominate the set pieces as Argentina’s forwards stole more lineouts and won more scrum penalties than their opponents.
Both teams performed admirably in the wet but handling errors dominated the game and neither team will be particularly satisfied with the result. South Africa would have gone into the game thinking that a bonus-point victory at home was the minimum requirement against Argentina, but conditions forced them to be satisfied with the win alone. Argentina on the other hand believed that victory was possible when the rain arrived to blunt South Africa’s attacking options out wide, but despite playing with far more purpose than they had previously, they were unable to record their first ever win in the competition.
This Saturday South Africa will travel to Salta tasked the increasingly difficult mission of prying a win from Argentina and their vocal supporters. The Springbok forwards will be particularly determined to restore their reputation as one of the strong forces of world rugby. Argentina won’t want their bonus-point loss to the Springboks to act as the highlight of their season and they will once again seek dominance in the collisions, hoping that their backs can take it one step further this time and give their team an historic victory over the Boks.
On the other side of the globe Australia face the tough task of taking on New Zealand at Eden Park, a venue at which they have only won four of their 25 matches – the last of those four victories coming in 1986. The All Blacks will be smarting from the loss of their winning streak and their unforgiving public won’t settle for anything other than a dominant victory over their Trans-Tasman opponents. Australia will be looking to show that their improvements over the past year make them genuine contenders to lift the trophy this season.
New Zealand take on Australia on Saturday on Sky Sports 3 HD with coverage starting at 8am. Later in the day Argentina host South Africa on Sky Sports 3 HD, where coverage starts at 8.30pm.
Live on Sky Sports this weekend
Elsewhere in the Southern Hemisphere the ITM Cup gets Sky Sports rugby coverage underway on Friday morning with Waikato hosting Canterbury, followed by Hawkes Bay against Taranaki.
Four Currie Cup matches will be featured across our channels this weekend. The Lions take on Western Province in a game between the two top teams, while the only other unbeaten side in the competition - the Sharks - host the Free State Cheetahs in Durban.
On the other side of the equator, Toulouse will take on last season's Top 14 finalists Castres on Friday night, and on Saturday we feature the game between Brive and Clermont Auvergne.
All these matches - and more - feature live on Sky Sports this weekend.