The Rugby Championship resumes this weekend with an historic first Test for the All Blacks in Nelson and the potential for Australia to slip to their lowest-ever position in the World Rugby Rankings.
The Rugby Championship resumes after a week’s break with all four teams in Australasia as New Zealand welcome a buoyant Argentina to Nelson, and South Africa arrive in Brisbane to face an Australia side who, like them, are eager to bounce back from a loss in round two.
Two fly-halves stole the show last time out with Beauden Barrett’s record four-try and 30-point haul for the All Blacks against the Wallabies, securing the Bledisloe Cup for a 16th straight year, and then Nicolas Sanchez’s ‘full-house’ in Los Pumas’ impressive win over South Africa in Mendoza.
Sanchez is the only fly-half from round two to retain his place as South Africa and Australia both ring the changes in an attempt to rediscover that winning feeling, while the All Blacks are looking to grow depth with their changes for their first Test in Nelson, the location of the first recognised game of rugby in New Zealand back on 14 May 1870.
New Zealand (1) v. Argentina (9)
World champions New Zealand have rung the changes with Coach Steve Hansen expressing a desire to “grow the experience and depth of our squad”. Nehe Milner-Skudder returns for his first Test since last October on the right wing with Ben Smith dropping back into his usual full-back role as a result. TJ Perenara gets the nod at scrum-half and forms a new partnership with Richie Mo’unga, who gets a chance to show what he can do in a first Test start in place of Beauden Barrett, the four-try hero against Australia in round two. Prop Karl Tu’inukuafe, Scott Barrett, Shannon Frizzell and Ardie Savea come into the forward pack with scrum-half Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi in line for his Test debut from the bench.
Argentina coach Mario Ledesma has kept his changes to a minimum after ending an 11-match losing run in the Rugby Championship a fortnight ago against South Africa with the return of Martin Landajo to partner Nicolas Sanchez in the half-backs the most notable of his four changes. Jeronimo de la Fuente also replaces Bautista Ezcurra at inside centre with the other changes coming in the pack as Tomas Lezana comes in for Pablo Matera in the back-row and Santiago Garcia Botta starts at loose-head prop with Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro moving across to tight-head as a result.
With more than 17 points and eight places between themselves and Argentina, New Zealand will not gain any reward for victory on Saturday. An Argentina win by more than 15 points would lift Los Pumas above France and into eighth, while a narrower margin of victory would bring them to within eight-hundredths of Les Bleus.
v. South Africa (7)
Kurtley Beale (pictured) will start his first Test at fly-half for four years with Bernard Foley dropping to the bench as one of three changes that Michael Cheika makes to his backline for the visit of the Springboks. Matt Toomua steps into the starting line-up at inside centre with Israel Folau returning at full-back after an ankle injury ruled him out of the loss to the All Blacks in Auckland. Rory Arnold, meanwhile, will start his first Test of the year in the second-row alongside Adam Coleman with Taniela Tupou taking up a place on the bench after recovering from a hamstring injury.
South Africa Coach Rassie Erasmus has reacted to the loss to Argentina by making wholesale changes, including a new-look front row with Steven Kitshoff and Bongi Mbonambi joining Frans Malherbe. Captain Siya Kolisi moves to six with Pieter-Steph du Toit coming in to join number eight Warren Whiteley in the back-row. Elton Jantjies is given another chance at fly-half with Handre Pollard dropping to the bench with Damian de Allende to start his first Test of the year alongside Jesse Kriel in the centres. Cheslin Kolbe will make his Test debut if he comes off the bench in Brisbane.
While the Wallabies are unable to improve on their present position of fifth, a winning margin of more than 15 points would see them close the gap on England above to just under a rating point. Any form of victory for the Springboks would result in them trading places with Australia and condemning the Wallabies to their lowest position since the rankings were introduced in October 2003.