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Dublin: 11°C Wednesday 14 April 2021

5 talking points ahead of this year's Rugby Championship

New Zealand meet Argentina, while Australia host South Africa this weekend.

1. Pocock or Hooper?

Whatever Michael Cheika decides, Australia can only benefit.

Michael Hooper has been one of the country’s most consistent performers since making his debut in 2012, earning 42 caps in just over three years.

While Hooper has been dazzling Aussie fans with his ball carrying and support running, he’s been doing so with breakdown expert David Pocock experiencing injury after injury.

However with Pocock now looking back to his best after an injury free spell with the Brumbies in Super Rugby, plenty are calling for the 27-year-old to reclaim his spot on the Australian openside.

While plenty can change over the course of the championship, it will be interesting to see which number 7 Cheika puts his faith in ahead of the World Cup.

The most intriguing match-up of the entire championship could be between two teammates.

Michael Hooper is tackled by Peter O'Mahony Hooper stood in as captain while Stephen Moore has been injured. Source: Colm O'Neill/INPHO

2. The shortened format

With this year’s championship cut in half due to the World Cup, the tournament will see just three rounds of games over the course of the competition.

This means the usual home and away arrangement isn’t possible, with Argentina and New Zealand both having to play two of their three games on the road.

On paper, South Africa have landed themselves with the most favourable schedule, with home games against New Zealand and Argentina, while Australia’s two home games are against the All Blacks and the Springboks.

With just one Rugby Championship win for Argentina in their three years in the competition, there’s a strong possibility that New Zealand, Australia and South Africa could finish the tournament with two wins each, with the bonus points and tries scored likely to have a big impact on who takes home the trophy.

The truncated format may just make an already exciting competition even more so.

Aaron Smith is congratulated by Kieran Read and Israel Dagg after scoring a try Will New Zealand be celebrating a fourth title in a row? Source: Photosport/Andrew Cornaga/INPHO

3. Return of the Aussie exiles

You’ll be hard pressed to find a neutral not thrilled to see Matt Giteau back in an Australian shirt, and with positive comments from Michael Cheika about he and Drew Mitchell’s return to the test set-up, we’re likely to see both men featuring over the next four weeks.

Whether it’s at out-half or centre, Giteau in particular is bound to bring a wealth of experience into the Australian backline, while Mitchell showed in the Champions Cup final against Clermont that he’s capable of magic on the wing.

The decision to allow players with 60 capos or more continue their international careers with Australia came as a surprise earlier in the year, but the ARU will be vindicated if these two shine.

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Likewise Kane Douglas is likely to feature at some point during the Championships, after being called up late into the squad last week.

The Leinster second row has stated he’s desperate to return home to Australia, but the Blues are said to be reluctant to let him go without a fight.

If the Queensland Reds are to fork out the required compensation for the second row, he’ll need to prove he’s worth it.

Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell celebrate with fans Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell are back from international exile. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

4. Dress rehearsal for Argentina

Argentina travel to New Zealand this Friday morning for the opening match of the Championship, but with the sides due to meet again in the opening fixture of the World Cup’s Pool 3 in September, there has never been a better chance for Argentina to suss out the All Blacks.

While spoiling the Christchurch farewell for Dan Carter and Richie McCaw would be sweet for Argentina, the bigger picture should be the World Cup, using the game as a dress rehearsal for their meeting at Wembley in two months time.

The usual Argentinean aggression is likely to be upped, and we wouldn’t be surprised to see a few key New Zealand players targeted for special treatment so close to the World Cup.

Without being overly cocky, the Pumas will be confident of seeing off Georgia, Namibia and Tonga, and with this Rugby Championship meeting bound to still be fresh in their minds, it’s arguably they’ve never had a better chance to beat the All-Blacks for the very first time.

Julian Savea scores a try The All Blacks and Argentina kick the 2015 championship off this Friday morning. Source: Photosport/Andrew Cornaga/INPHO

5. Filling in for Duane

With Toulon-bound Duane Vermuelen a potential World Cup doubt due to a neck injury, the responsibility to pack down at the back of the scrum has fallen to the hands of veteran flanker Schalk Burger.

While the 32-year-old has a wealth of experience, very little has come at number 8, but alongside Marcell Coetzee and Francois Louw in the back row, South Africa look fiercely strong at the breakdown.

Whether Burger can replicate Vermuelen’s destructive carrying ability at the base of the scrum, that’s something we should learn over the coming weeks.

Schalk Burger Schalk Burger will be in his less familiar position of number 8 for the start of the championship/ Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

What are you looking forward to seeing most over the course of the championship? Let us know in the comments below.

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About the author:

Neil Treacy

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