The Rugby Championship: what's to be gained before the World Cup?

Rob Simmons [L] and Kieran Read contest a lineout during Bledisloe III in Tokyo, October 27, 2018 Hannah Peters/Getty Images

Another Super Rugby season in the books, rounded out with an historic 10th title for the incomparable Crusaders, the southern hemisphere's rugby focus quickly shifts to the Rugby Championship.

The All Blacks, Pumas, Springboks and Wallabies will play just one game against each other rather than the usual two, in a repeat of what happened during the 2015 Rugby World Cup year.

The 2015 Rugby Championship was won by the Wallabies, the Australians enjoying the benefit of home games against the Springboks and All Blacks, the latter setting them on a path to a surprising run to the World Cup final.

Unfortunately for Michael Cheika's men, New Zealand recovered from that defeat and were far too good at Twickenham a couple of months later.

All four nations have named extended squads for a tournament in which they will likely trial a few final combinations or throw those contending for the last few World Cup spots into the heat of battle. Perform and earn yourself a plane ticket; slip up and its provincial rugby for the remainder of 2019.

Read on as we address some of the key storylines for the 2019 Rugby Championship.

Is momentum a thing and can this tournament actually build/stifle it?

That's a question without a clear answer. There's no doubting the Wallabies were able to springboard off their 2015 tournament victory into what was the toughest Pool ever seen at a World Cup, four years ago. South Africa, on the other hand, were beaten in all three of their games and still advanced to the semifinals in London, albeit after a they suffered the biggest upset in World Cup history when they were beaten by Japan in Brighton.

If anyone needs to perform over the next three weeks, it is the Wallabies. Having lost nine of 13 Tests in 2018, Cheika's side is in dire need of the confidence that only winning can bring.

Is time running out for Sonny Bill Williams?

The simple answer to that question is "yes", particularly given Steve Hansen's slight change of rhetoric after Williams reported to All Blacks camp with a tight hamstring. The Blues centre played just six Super Rugby games this season, before taking to club rugby to get the game time he so desperately needs. Just last month, Hansen defended his game-breaking veteran's track record of performing in big games and said he needed only to satisfy the fitness requirements to earn a ticket to Japan. But the All Blacks coach wasn't so accommodating when asked about Williams over the weekend, confirming that selectors were concerned about the player's "durability." The injury to Ryan Crotty has also muddied the waters slightly, and probably improved Ngani Laumape's hopes of a World Cup berth.

Does James O'Connor deserve a shot at redemption?

He flew out to join the Wallabies in South Africa at the start of the week in a "training only" capacity, but once a deal is finalised with Queensland Reds and Rugby Australia, it's highly likely we'll see O'Connor at some stage during the tournament. Why else would Cheika have him around? That thought may make some Wallabies fans shudder -- and rightfully so, too, given the utility's streak of off-field indiscretions. But O'Connor returns from English club Sale with a glowing character reference from Director of Rugby Steve Diamond, and a belief that he has "found my true self."

O'Connor's attraction lies in his utility value and his ability to beat a player one-on-one, which isn't a skill in over-supply among the Wallabies. Could he return to the city where it all began and turn out for the Wallabies against the Pumas in Brisbane? Stranger twists of fate have happened.

What will Nic White offer the Wallabies?

Another player plying his trade up north through the first half of 2019, White is a huge addition to a Wallabies scrum-half trio that is otherwise short on quality box-kicking. The mere site of that tactical kicking weapon usually inspires a disgust among Wallabies fans, but the truth is that Australia will be no hope at the World Cup without it. White's kicking game has been refined over four seasons with Montpellier and then Exeter Chiefs, but he offers much more than that, too. His ability to dart out quickly from the ruck can catch snoozing forwards unawares; so, too, his short passing game. It may not yet be enough to shift Will Genia from the Wallabies No. 9 jersey in Japan, but you can guarantee White will get his chance to start at some stage during the Rugby Championship.

Can Sevu Reece replicate his scintillating Super season at Test level?

Four years ago, Hurricanes winger Nehe Milner-Skudder dazzled Super Rugby with his brilliant footwork and speed in tight spaces. He then continued that form in the Rugby Championship to earn a spot on the wing in England and become a world champion with the All Blacks. Sadly, we've since seen only fleeting moments of Milner-Skudder's brilliance. Reece, however, has the chance to be the Milner-Skudder of 2019, and turn a marvellous Super season into a year to remember. He is, however, up against it, in that he will have only two, maybe three Tests, to prove himself given no Crusaders players are travelling to Argentina. The big concern about Reece at Test level will be his ability to handle the high ball; the smartest way to gauge that will be to start him against the Springboks in Wellington.

Back-row focus for trans-Tasman rivals

The Wallabies need a loose-forward rethink while the All Blacks need to find a No. 6. Three Tests, and the final Bledisloe Cup game in Perth, afford both teams the opportunity to trial players and combinations before settling on their final trio for Japan. David Pocock's injury means Cheika and his fellow Wallabies selectors, Scott Johnson and Michael O'Connor, will have to revert to a more traditional back-row formation that will include Michael Hooper at openside, Isi Naisarani at No. 8 and then any of Jack Dempsey, Lukhan Salakai-Loto or Rob Valetini at No. 6. Pocock is reportedly edging closer to a return, while Pete Samu could also be added to the squad later on. The days of the "Pooper" combination may be numbered, but only if someone can make a compelling case for selection at No. 6.

New Zealand, meanwhile, are searching for a No. 6 of their own after Liam Squire ruled himself out of selection through injury. That means the likes of Dalton Papali'i, Luke Jacobson, Jackson Hemopo and Shannon Frizell are all fighting for a ticket to Japan; one strong performance might be enough to join the World Cup defence.

How much will teams play like they intend to in Japan?

This is a difficult balance. All four nations will want to refine their approach, but also keep a few things in their kitbag for the World Cup. The biggest focus should be around set-piece and building stability at both the scrum and lineout. The Wallabies' lineout should be one such focal point given its struggles in recent years -- a problem linked with a lack of height in the back-row -- and the tough night likely first-choice hooker Folau Fainga'a endured with his throw in the Brumbies' semifinal loss won't inspire confidence either.

Argentina, meanwhile, will want to rediscover their scrummaging 'bajada' and hope the reinforcements from Europe might help to create a sounder platform to operate from. Otherwise, supporters should watch for an increase in kicking, particularly into the box.

There is unlikely to be the same leniency at the World Cup around breakdown entry that Super Rugby was played under this season, so all four nations would be wise to start joining rucks a little closer to "the gate."

Who replaces Siya Kolisi as Springboks flanker and captain?

Springboks captain Kolisi and his knee injury is of key importance in South Africa; not just because he's the skipper -- and the team's figurehead as the Boks' first ever black captain -- but also because he's a key part of the back-row. He's already been ruled out of the Boks' opening two Tests of the season, against the Wallabies in Johannesburg and the All Blacks in Wellington, with head coach Rassie Erasmus saying his skipper "will be training with us until we leave for New Zealand and then he will probably stay behind to play one or two Currie Cup games." It beggars belief that SA Rugby then will put Kolisi on a plane to Argentina for his first Test of the season after injury, against the Pumas in Salta on Aug. 10, so he's looking like having just the one match, against Argentina in Pretoria on Aug. 17, before the squad heads to Japan for the Rugby World Cup. His absence through the Rugby Championship, then, gives loosies such as Francois Louw, Marco Van Staden, Marcell Coetzee and Kwagga Smith to press their claims to start - and there's certainly a sizable percentage of Boks fans who might prefer any of that quartet to wear the No. 6 jumper. None is a direct replacement for Kolisi, however, so Erasmus then faces the prospect of asking the replacement to play something other than his "natural game", or he tweaks what he wants from his back-row.

Either way, it'll be interesting to watch given that Kolisi, subject to fitness, likely walks straight back into the starting side against the All Blacks in Japan. Players such as Eben Etzebeth, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Duane Vermeulen, Tendai Mtawarira, Steven Kitshoff and Handre Pollard are most likely to wear the captain's armband in Kolisi's absence, but they each are leaders in the team already, and the answer to the captaincy question is less fraught.

Aye, aye, nine

The Springboks have lacked depth at scrum-half for quite a time, with Faf de Klerk played almost to the exclusion of anyone else in the previous two seasons. The fact that his back-ups last season -- Embrose Papier and Ivan van Zyl -- are now not even in the Springboks squad, having finished the Super Rugby season at the Bulls as second and third elect behind Andre Warner, says it all. Fact is, however, that de Klerk likely now has a more meaningful challenge for the No. 9 jumper with Cobus Reinach, who has not played for South Africa since August 2015, and Herschel Jantjies in the squad. Reinach was sensational for Northampton Saints in the Gallagher Premiership season, and Jantjies impressed for the Stormers in their disappointing Super Rugby campaign, providing a spark behind the pack often without actually having anything to light. Neither, perhaps, offers Rassie Erasmus the solid game management that he seems to want from his halfback, but they each likely offer more of a running threat from set-piece and breakdown while Reinach's reputation as an "intercept king" in English club rugby will certainly sow seeds of doubt in opponents.

This Rugby Championship is about development and lessons, more than results, much as the W is still desired, and that will release the pressure that Erasmus seems to feel when he needs to try something new. Reinach and Jantjies each will get their chance to prove their worth as de Klerk's back-up, and to show the coach that a different tactic or style, perhaps, isn't such a bad thing after all.

Replacing the irreplaceable

Handre Pollard is the single most important player for the Springboks; he is not only their metronomic collector of points from the kicking tee but also the guiding hand behind their attack. He showed throughout Super Rugby that he can play all kinds of rugby -- including the stereotypical "simply look to run through you" of South Africa and South African teams in general; but he showed most of all that he can mix sleight of hand, stealth and width into the game plan. He has all the skills, and too often in the past there has been a feeling that he has been asked to rein back his abilities. And for all that he is recognised as a "game manager" there's a feeling that he is also a better playmaker than his acknowledge back-up, Elton Jantjies -- and certainly he doesn't give Boks fans the feeling of being an accident waiting to happen against the best teams. Therein lies the rub of the rugby bench, from where every player seemingly must step onto the field whether or not the player being replaced needs to come off. No worries when Pollard comes off with 10-20 minutes to play and the game's won; but if the fixture's in the balance then Boks fans have been right to question the replacement.

Really, the only time Elton Jantjies looked at home with the Boks against quality opposition last season came when Pollard moved outside to replace the injured Damien de Allende at No. 12; now that game, the famous win in Wellington, offers more food for thought, but that snack's unlikely ever to represent anything other than necessity for Erasmus, who's MO is to have big bodies at 10 and 12. Hence the selection in the squad of Frans Steyn from Europe could yet prove key in the coach's thinking, for he's comfortable equally at 10 and 12, he plays more of a South African game than Jantjies at 10, and his hands and secondary playmaking skills are much better than anything in the armoury of de Allende or Andre Esterhuizen.

Does Steyn start at 12 outside Pollard, and bring those skills to the party from the opening whistle, does he come off the bench as more of a like-for-like replacement for Pollard than Jantjies, or does he come off the bench to cover 12? Key questions all, and Erasmus will be looking for answers through the Rugby Championship.

How much more can the Jaguares improve now they're the Pumas?

Argentina entered the Rugby Championship in 2012, but, for all their undoubted improvement, their 39-5-1-33 record is underwhelming; they've finished last in all but one of their campaigns -- in 2015, the previous abbreviated tournament in an Rugby World Cup year. The Jaguares entered Super Rugby only the following year, and their record in that tournament has been on of progressive improvement - finishing 13th, 10th, 7th and, this year 2nd. They were clearly the second-best team this year, and they gave the Crusaders an almighty tussle in a grand final that featured Test-match intensity.

Much of the focus on their performance in Christchurch fell on Joaquin Diaz Bonilla, who was clearly not at his best and was bettered by Richie Mo'unga in their head-to-head; indeed many pundits have suggested the Jaguares may well have beaten the Crusaders had Nicolas Sanchez been their pivot, but that misses the fact the Argentinean side may also have have won had they nailed any one of their three clear try-scoring opportunities. Of course, the Rugby Championship against the All Blacks, Springboks and Wallabies is a step or three up from Super Rugby, and the Jaguares / Pumas have to improve again if they're to challenge their Test rivals. That's the key question to be asked and answered by the Pumas: How much more room to grow do the players have in blue and white? Will the five European-based players make a key difference? Europe-based props Juan Figallo and Ramiro Herrera are likely to go straight into the "A Team", with a feeling that the diminished level of Argentina's traditional scrummaging strength has coincided with the move home of so many players to bolster the Jaguares; that is, that Argentina's scrum in the current day benefited from the skills developed in Europe rather than any innate "genes" in Pumas forwards.

To that end, the introduction of Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe, who joins Mario Ledesma's staff as forwards coach after a season coaching in the Top 14 with Toulon, could also be key. Sanchez? He's a quality player, no doubt, a player with a big reputation. He'll likely go straight back in to the No. 10 jumper but Diaz Bonilla surely deserves an opportunity to prove he's got Test chops.