Rugby Championship is fertile ground for upsets in World Cup year

The Wallabies are undisputed kings of the Rugby Championship, with one small catch: the crown only fits every four years.

In 2011 and 2015, the Wallabies won the Rugby Championship after beating the All Blacks in Brisbane and Sydney.

The Wallabies open their quest to make it a hat-trick of Rugby Championship titles in World Cup years when they face South Africa in Johannesburg.

The Wallabies open their quest to make it a hat-trick of Rugby Championship titles in World Cup years when they face South Africa in Johannesburg.Credit:AAP

The draw has again been kind in 2019, with the luxury of a home fixture against the All Blacks in this year's championship (they travel to Eden Park for the second Bledisloe game, but that sits outside the Rugby Championship).

But that's not all: the Springboks' decision to field a weakened team in Johannesburg next weekend also creates a golden opportunity for the Wallabies. If Springboks No.10 Handre Pollard and hooker Malcolm Marx miss that game to be "saved" for the All Blacks the following week, it is very winnable for Michael Cheika's men.

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Australia's decision to travel early to South Africa was clever: get away from Israel Folau, get James O'Connor inside the tent away from the glare, and get close as a group.

But are the Wallabies a real chance of backing up their feats in 2011 and 2015 and grabbing some significant silverware?

Here's where we see the four teams in the build-up to this year's edition.

Australia

Ellis Park may be a fortress for the Springboks, but coach Rassie Erasmus has decided to put his best warriors on a plane to New Zealand. South Africans can try and sugarcoat this all they want, but it's a huge slap in the face to the Wallabies.

So, this is a massive opportunity for Australia and no doubt Cheika will be feeding them the line all week that their hosts don't respect them.

Sometimes, a vast amount of overthinking surrounds the modern game when inside dressing rooms it's actually the simplest message that resonates.

If the Wallabies can get off to a great start in South Africa – and it's still a big if – they will feel they can push on and add the 2019 title to their 2011 and 2015 crowns.

Key man: Michael Hooper. I'm not sure there is a player in wold rugby who carries such a burden: he captains the Waratahs, barely misses a game, gets a short break and is then asked to do the same for the Wallabies. David Pocock's return from injury could be seen as adding to the pressure, but the Wallabies can turn this to advantage if they give both men good minutes at No.7.

Under pressure: James O'Connor. The Wallabies have gone out on a limb for him, again, and O'Connor needs to front physically. He's always been surprisingly strong for his size – he transfers his weight well – so let's see that with some good carries with the ball and some committed defence. He doesn't need to produce miracles but people need to see that he cares.

Predicted position: 2nd

Two-time world player of the year Beauden Barrett will be crucial to New Zealand's hopes.

Two-time world player of the year Beauden Barrett will be crucial to New Zealand's hopes.Credit:Stuart Walmsley/Rugby AU Media

New Zealand

Will use the Rugby Championship to see if they can finally crack the code to defensive line speed, although they have been talking about that subject for three years without much sign of progress. Their other goal is to see which of their old men will or won't make it to the Rugby World Cup, and Sonny Bill Williams is very much the name on everyone's lips. A squad minus the senior Crusaders has been sent to Argentina and they have made retaining the Bledisloe Cup a priority over winning the Rugby Championship – but they have the quality to accomplish both.

Key man:

Beauden Barrett. New Blues recruit is a brilliant runner, but can he evolve his game enough to escape the clutches of suffocating Test defensive systems?

Under pressure: Williams needs to show his body can stay together long enough to make the Rugby World Cup because players like Ngani Laumape are pushing the 33-year-old hard for that NRead More – Source

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