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Rugby Championship review: New Zealand underline World Cup credentials

The Rugby Championship represented the last serious action before the World Cup kicks off in France in September, and even then the tournament’s truncated format and the willingness of coaches to test the full depth of their squads may have taken a little of the edge off the outcome.

But in the build-up to any Rugby World Cup all eyes have to be on the southern hemisphere, which has provided the winner of all but one of the nine tournaments staged and six of the last eight semi-finalists.

So what have we learned and how will the Rugby Championship’s big guns shape up in France this autumn?

WhatRugby World Cup 2023
WhereFrance
When8th September - 28th October 2023
How to watchITV
OddsFrance 11/4, New Zealand 11/4, Ireland 9/2, South Africa 9/2, Australia 17/2

New Zealand look back on track

Three comfortable wins was the expected return for the All Blacks but it was important for New Zealand, and especially head coach Ian Foster, to get it right.

After defeats to Ireland and France in the autumn of 2021, New Zealand lost a first home series in the summer of 2022, losing back-to-back Tests against Ireland, and then suffered a first home defeat to Argentina, setting alarm bells ringing.

Since then it’s been nine wins and a draw in 10 matches and the All Blacks have looked their old, assured selves.

Joe Schmidt’s appointment as attack coach looks to have brought more structure, and a record of 39 points conceded in three Rugby Championship matches indicates their defence is ready for a World Cup campaign.

Matches against Australia and then South Africa await before they kick off their World Cup campaign with an intriguing clash with hosts France on 8th September in Paris.

Les Bleus are narrow favourites for that match but the All Blacks have shortened in the outright market and are neck and neck with France at the top of the betting at 11/4.

Defence a key plus for South Africa

The World Cup holders rotated more than most in their Rugby Championship matches, sending several frontline players as an advance party to New Zealand for their second match rather than fielding them in the opener at home to Australia, then ringing the changes again for their final game at home to Argentina.

The Springboks might have wanted to look for more stability having suffered defeats to Ireland and France in the autumn, although both were by narrow margins, and they ended the year with a convincing win over England at Twickenham.

A big win over Australia was followed by defeat to New Zealand, in which they fielded probably closest to their first team, and then a one-point home win over Argentina.

The narrow margin of that final game might raise eyebrows, although the Boks were 22-9 up with five minutes to go.

For the majority of that game South Africa were tireless in defence, making 161 tackles, and that is a good sign as all their World Cup campaigns have been built on solid defence.

The Boks shipped just four tries on their way to success in 2019, two of them in their opening pool match against New Zealand, and boast a remarkable record of three World Cup final appearances and no tries conceded.

Argentina dangerous pool rivals for England

The World Cup draw initially looked to have favoured England, pitting them against Argentina, Japan, Samoa and Chile, but Los Pumas are shaping up to be tough opponents under Michael Cheika.

Argentina couldn’t repeat their heroics of last year and were well beaten at home by New Zealand in their opener, but then stunned Australia in Sydney before a battling performance against South Africa.

It took them until the 74th minute to breach the Springboks' defence but with more accurate kicking - fly-half Santiago Carreras missed two of five penalties and crucially one of the two conversions in the final minutes - could have sealed a famous win.

The traditional powerhouse scrum hasn’t been seen at its best but this has been a strong workout for the South Americans, who are England’s first opponents at the World Cup in what should be a Pool D decider on September 9th.

Argentina were 30-29 winners when the teams met at Twickenham in November and are 21/10 shots to get the better of England again in Marseille.

Alarm bells ringing louder for Australia

After a final run of 12 defeats in 17 matches, Australia head coach David Rennie was replaced by Eddie Jones this year, but there has been no upturn in fortunes as the Wallabies finished bottom of the pile in the Rugby Championship.

A home defeat to Argentina will have hurt the most but the concern goes deeper than results.

There is a lack of depth to the squad and attempts to shake up the established players and look for young guns with a more instinctive approach didn’t pay off in their final defeat to New Zealand as half-backs Tate McDermott and Carter Gordon failed to make an impact.

Discipline is a huge issue - there were seven yellow cards in the whole of the Rugby Championship, five of them shown to Australia players - and injuries may catch up with them. 

Prop Allan Ala'alatoa is out of the World Cup after an injury picked up against New Zealand, and replacement tight-head Taniela Tupou also had to come off later in the game. Skipper Michael Hooper remains on the sidelines.

If there’s good news for the Wallabies it’s that they are on the softer side of the draw away from the big four - their key pool rivals are Wales while England or Argentina await in the semi-finals. 

Their fans will probably take all the comfort they can.

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