Though this year has been struck by the torment of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 Rugby Championship is still set to run on.
It’s an uncertain time for the Springboks and the Pumas given the fitness and cohesion of the players may be off mark. However, the Rugby Championship is always an exciting time of year for the rugby calendar, especially when it comes to think about the stars to watch.
Each team have their own stars of the tournament, and as the tournament looms ahead, here are my recommended ones to watch of the tournament.
Los Pumas and the Springboks share a common problem: insufficient game time and a fragmented pool of players. However, they have marshalled a full squad for the Rugby Championship, and there are several key men in the mix.
Nicolas Sanchez (flyhalf)
A stellar 2018 with wins over the Springboks and the Wallabies had Sanchez at the very heart of the Pumas campaign. A creative flyhalf who is always trying to find space out wide, he would be marshalling his side in this year’s campaign. Despite his dip in form against France at the World Cup, I expect him to come back stronger. If in form, he would be crucial to the Pumas’s championship hopes.
Agustin Creevy (hooker)
The big captain will be a key factor in how far the Pumas go this season, with his lineout skills being among the best in the world. His set-piece ability is rivalled by few on the world stage, while his tackling and dynamic play in the loose will be extremely complementing to the Argentineans as they bid for championship glory.
The pandemic has significantly affected South African rugby, with the nation not even being able to restart their season. It was a double blow for the Boks, with a torrent of injuries and unavailable players. Handre Pollard, their cool head of a flyhalf general, injured his ACL in the Top 14, and they find themselves short on locks with injuries to Rudolph Snyman and Eben Etzebeth. A whole host of players are unavailable, including Cheslin Kolbe and Willie le Roux. Now their participation is pending decision.
However, if they are to go ahead, there are still several men who, if in form, will be crucial to how far they go in the championship.
With his brilliant ball handling, pace and agility, he has a deadly combination of attacking talents. He has the ability to make line breaks and also spot gaps and put players away. Also, when he makes line breaks, he stays connected with supporting teammates to remain ready to pass the ball off if need be. He has the quick hands that playmaking No. 13s like Jonathan Davies possess.
Meanwhile, his defensive ability is simply solid. A dynamic and physical No. 13, this year he would be one of the experienced faces of the campaign, one of the few in the squad who won the World Cup last year and even in the running for the captaincy. The Springboks will look to their No. 13 to make up for the absence of most of their star-studded backline.
The Rugby World Cup final man of the match has been one of the few players the Boks managed to get released from his franchise in Japan, and we know why. Indomitable in the breakdown and a mega tackler, he is a double threat in defence. A dogged determination will keep this man driving on. Meanwhile, he is a bruising ball carrier, as demonstrated in his multiple bump-off occasions in the World Cup final.
At 34 he may have only a few more years on the pitch in the green and gold jersey, but he will be looking to make the most of it. If he’s as fit as he was last year, he will be a key man to Boks progress in this year’s campaign.
New Zealand are the big favourites to win, with the nation being the first to restart play with their Super Rugby Aoteroa season. With several new and promising additions to the team in the form of Caleb Clarke, Will Jordan and Hoskins Sotutu, they have old blood and new blood. The All Blacks are a team of depth and talent.
With Handre Pollard out of this competition with a ripped ACL, Richie Mo’unga is far and away the best No. 10 in the competition. He has a solid boot. Off the tee he is accurate, as though he were programmed, and his deadly kicking is a boon to New Zealand given they’ve long lacked a man who can take those kicks and win the game.
Mo’unga has clever, creative gameplay. He finds the gaps for players on the outside with over-the-top skip passes, and his cross kicks to the wing are simply phenomenal. His chase-down tackle is one of the best in the world and his pace is probably the best on this list.
He’s a man who can create something without taking too big a risk. His attacking creativity can match Finn Russell and he can also pull off majestic passes with a mere flick. He will shine for the All Blacks if in form.
Aaron Smith (scrumhalf)
His fitness does not look like deteriorating yet. He’s renowned for his deadly flat passing, which he exhibited most explicitly in this year’s Super Rugby season, being a commanding halfback pivot on the pitch and directing the Highlanders to wins.
He’s next to Faf de Klerk in box kicking and rivalled by no-one in terms of passing. He has that rugby IQ to guide a team around the park and rally up the backline. His form this year looks even better than last year’s. His sniping runs from the base of the runs and his playmaking ability makes him a double threat in attack, while he has pretty decent tackling.
The Australians are in a rebuild. Whether they succeed depends on how Dave Rennie can hold the team together.
James O’Connor (centre/flyhalf)
He displays solid decision-making and consistent place-kicking. He may well be Australia’s long sought-after answer at No. 10. Equally superb at No. 10 and No. 13, he will be an aid to the Wallabies campaign. His prodigal return to Wallabies rugby may not last long, but he will be looking to make the most of it.
Michael Hooper (flanker)
A hard ball-carrier and dynamic player in the loose and defence, Hooper has often been rated as a bruising flanker and among the top few flankers on the planet. Though his side took a dip in form, the young captain will be crucial in the rebuild to the next World Cup.