Rugby Championship Preview - All Blacks set to dominate.

Steve Hansen is sitting pretty once again
Steve Hansen is sitting pretty once again

Alex Johnson takes us through the former Tri-Nations championships but thinks that New Zealand look good yet again.

New Zealand have dominated the tournament since the expansion, with the All Blacks winning the titles in both 2012 and 2013 in style by going undefeated in their six games.

The four big-hitters of Southern Hemisphere rugby head into combat in the Rugby Championship in August.

Previously known as the Tri-Nations and contested annually by New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, the tournament was expanded in 2012 to include Argentina and re-named as the Rugby Championship.

It is ten weeks of adrenaline-fueled rugby to showcase the quality of Southern Hemisphere rugby to the world. Each team will play each other twice - once at home and once away between August 16 and October 4 - to determine who wins the title.

New Zealand have dominated the tournament since the expansion, with the All Blacks winning the titles in both 2012 and 2013 in style by going undefeated in their six games. Their victory in the inaugural edition of the Rugby Championship, which followed the All Blacks' impressive World Cup victory in 2011, was followed by an unbeaten title defence 12 months later and shows why New Zealand sit top of the IRB World Rankings.

In last year's Rugby Championship they finished nine points ahead of second-placed South Africa and a full 19 ahead of rivals Australia. It was a truly dominant performance and most rugby fans will be expecting a similar procession this time around.

When New Zealand face Australia in the first leg of the Bledisloe Cup they have a chance to create rugby history, as Richie McCaw's men can achieve the most successful run of Test victories. Currently, the All Blacks share the record with 17 wins and sit alongside the great South Africa side of the late 1990s and the New Zealand team of 1965-69.

The 2014 crop of All Blacks come into the Rugby Championship after a morale-boosting 3-0 home Test victory over England in June and full of confidence after going unbeaten throughout the entire of 2013. And their hopes of a third Championship will be boosted by the return of the world's leading Test points-scorer Dan Carter, who is back in an All Blacks shirt after a seven-month sabbatical.

Australia are showing good form heading into the Rugby Championship and they will be dreaming of beating arch-rivals New Zealand - who they host in round one in Sydney on August 16 - to the trophy.

The Wallabies have won seven internationals in a row since their last defeat, which came in October when they were beaten 41-33 by the All Blacks. However, Ewen McKenzie's side are coming into the tournament as third favourites and ranked behind New Zealand and South Africa in the IRB World Rankings.

The Wallabies boss has opted for consistency in his selections to help create a solid unit and get them in great shape for the Championship. Australia have had to play second-fiddle to New Zealand in recent years, but come into this year's tournament quietly confident they can turn their promise into results on the field.

The consistency in team selection is demonstrated by the fact that McKenzie's 32-man squad for the Rugby Championship includes 25 players who performed in Australia's 3-0 Test series clean sweep victory over France earlier in the summer. It is an experienced and powerful squad with a combined total of 781 Test appearances.

The coach is confident that the Wallabies are heading in the right direction and he wants his troops to continue that in the tournament, and what better way could there be to make an impact than securing victory in the opening Bledisloe Cup clash against New Zealand.

South Africa come into the Rugby Championship sitting second behind New Zealand in the IRB World Rankings. The Springboks' confidence will be on the up after a successful summer so far, after two victories over Wales and a thrashing of Scotland. The two matches with Wales showed the two sides of South Africa, firstly they handed out a drubbing in Durban before complacency set in in Nelspruit as they were pushed all the way and needed a late penalty to deny Wales a first-ever win on South African soil.

In last year's Rugby Championship they managed to do the double over both Australia and Argentina, but ultimately came unstuck against the might of the All Blacks. Given the imperious form of New Zealand of late, there is the distinct possibility that history will repeat itself and South Africa and Australia are simply battling for second place yet again. So it is the two games between those two that could turn out to be the most important games of the 2014 Rugby Championship.

However, South Africa face going into this year's competition without a host of stars who excelled 12 months ago. Possibly the biggest blow is the absence of Fourie du Preez, who misses out with an ankle injury that looks set to keep him on the side-lines for three months. The scrum-half is influential in the Springboks like up and has been the standout performer in recent months. The simple fact is that none of the contenders to come in and replace him have anywhere near the experience of a man who won the World Cup and made 70 Test appearances since his debut in 2004. Coach Heyneke Meyer must successfully fill that big void in the side.

It is not just du Preez who will be missing the Rugby Championship, with Jaque Fourie, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Arno Botha, Pierre Spies and Flip van der Merwe all out through injury. The loss of such star names is going to leave a massive hole in the Springboks squad and Meyer faces a selection headache ahead of the opener with Argentina on August 16.

South Africa will be out to push New Zealand all the way this time around, and they will benefit from playing Argentina first off. Taking on the rank outsiders in the opening game, while key rivals Australia and New Zealand face each other, is a big bonus from the Springboks, especially if they can record a big victory in Pretoria.

If South Africa do aspire to leapfrog New Zealand to the top of the world rankings, they need to be winning the Rugby Championship this time around. Getting off to a strong start against the competition's underdogs could put South Africa full of confidence and in the early driving seat.

Argentina come into the competition as the outsiders and not much is going to be expected of them. They have slipped down the world rankings to 12th and recent results have been going against them - their only victory since last year's Rugby Championship came against Italy last November.

But Los Pumas are not happy to just be taking part and making up the numbers and should not be under-estimated by their more illustrious opponents. They have performed at the top level of international rugby for a long time now, reaching the semi-finals of the World Cup in 2007 and rising as high as third in the world rankings in 2008.

The Argentinians will be looking to play well and put in some good performances in their home fixtures. The fact is they are still learning the style and standards of Southern Hemisphere international rugby and it is a stiff learning curve against the powerhouses of New Zealand, South Africa and Australia - but Argentina are slowly improving.

The first couple of years in the Rugby Championship have been a baptism of fire, with only one draw in their 12 games since the expanded competition. No-one is expecting Argentina to pull off one of the biggest shocks of all time and actually win the competition, but they will scrap all the way under new captain Agustin Creevy, and are more than capable of pushing the other three teams all the way.

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