Rugby Championship review: All Blacks back on top but Wallabies on the rise

The Rugby Championship has been run and won for another year, with the All Blacks securing their seventh title despite the weekend's loss to the Springboks.

SANZAAR on Tuesday declared the tournament had delivered "high-quality" rugby to fans across the southern hemisphere, lauding its ability to play the Championship across three countries amid the difficulties created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The unfortunate incident of "photo-gate" - when captains Michael Hooper, Ardie Savea and Siya Kolisi were snapped alongside each other in Townsville - aside, SANZAAR does deserve praise for their stewardship of the tournament this season, so too Rugby Australia who facilitated the final four rounds across Queensland.

Attention will now shift to the northern hemisphere as each of Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa head to Europe and the United Kingdom for their individual spring tours, the Wallabies and All Blacks going via Japan and the United States respectively.

Before then, the players have a chance for some R&R before they reassemble for the final Tests of their 2021 international season.

So what will each nation take out of the Rugby Championship? Read on as we review the tournament.

ARGENTINA: 0-6 [Fourth]

It was always going to be a tall order for the Pumas to match their impressive deeds of 2020, when they defeated the All Blacks and then drew twice with the Wallabies. But their failure to secure even a solitary losing bonus point is huge cause for concern moving forward.

They again faced the significant challenge of playing all their games away from home, and deserve plenty of plaudits for committing to the Championship for a second straight year under such circumstances. But there was no sign of the resolute defence and breakdown dominance they used to thwart each of the Wallabies and All Blacks last year. The Pumas conceded an average of 3.83 tries per game and were badly exposed by the All Blacks and Wallabies in the wider channels.

Coach Mario Ledesma introduced some new faces but was let down by a group of players, including talisman Pablo Matera, who chose to cross the border into NSW to attend a health retreat ahead of last weekend's Test with the Wallabies. After the disruption of photo-gate, it was the last thing the Pumas needed as they were overrun by Australia in the first half. Though they showed some fight late, the 32-14 loss was indeed a sorry end to a poor tournament.

Standout performer: Julian Montoya

The Pumas skipper was a shining light in a dismal campaign for the South Americans, leading from the front on both sides of the ball. Montoya's ability to get on the ball at the breakdown remains one of his greatest attributes while he is also a tireless contributor in both attack and defence. He also is the key cog in the Pumas maul, which had its moments throughout the tournament.

Remaining Tests of 2021: France, Nov 7; Italy, Nov 14; Ireland, Nov 21.

Outlook: First and foremost, the Pumas deserve a spell and some time at home with their families. They have endured an exhausting few months, which has included multiple quarantine spells and travel to the UK, South Africa and then Australia.

Tests against France and Ireland will prove tough challenges, with the game against Italy one Ledesma should really be targeting for victory. The Pumas coach has grown his squad and they did have their moments during the Rugby Championship, their second-half effort against the All Blacks in Brisbane and late fightback against the Wallabies on the weekend, evidence the Argentines are capable of mixing it with world rugby's elite.

Perhaps the biggest issue for Ledesma moving forward is the loss of the Jaguares Super Rugby franchise. That team had been an excellent breeding ground for talent and gave the Pumas the opportunity to build combinations and continuity that would then be enhanced at Test level.

AUSTRALIA: 4-2 [Second]

After back-to-back hammerings to start the tournament, the Wallabies' season seemingly turned on one strike of Quade Cooper's right boot and Australia haven't looked back since. Having then strung four straight wins together - the first time in four years the Wallabies have managed that feat - things are certainly looking up in Australian rugby.

Key to that resurgence has been some off-field negotiating by coach Dave Rennie, whose decision to recall Cooper and centre Samu Kerevi has been a masterstoke. The impact Kerevi would make on the Australian setup was never questioned, but Rennie's bold decision to throw Cooper the keys to the Wallabies misfiring engine was a genuine gamble that has reaped huge dividends.

At the other end of the experience spectrum has been the emergence of Rob Valetini, Len Ikitau, Andrew Kellaway and Tate McDermott each of whom has consolidated their strong early footing at Test level. Add to that the continued growth of Taniela Tupou, second coming of Pete Samu and improvement of general depth across the squad, and the Wallabies appear to be in their best shape since the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

The Bledisloe Cup sweep will remain a sore point on the season, no doubt. But the harsh lessons learned in that series, and New Zealand's struggles against the Springboks, suggest the trans-Tasman gap might not be as great as originally feared.

Standout performer: Samu Kerevi.

While Quade Cooper has been lauded for his efforts in the driver's seat, it is Kerevi who really dominated for the Wallabies and now must genuinely be regarded among world rugby's elite midfielders. The Queenslander's ability to adapt from a Japanese Top League season, to an Olympic Sevens campaign, and then back to Test rugby for the first time in two years, was really quite something.

Kerevi led the Rugby Championship for total carries [65], defenders beaten [21] and offloads [8], and generally had the Wallabies backs on the front foot throughout his five games at No. 12. An injury suffered early in the second-half against the Pumas on the Gold Coast sent a scare through the camp, but it now appears he will be right for the closing three Tests of the Wallabies' spring tour.

Remaining Tests of 2021: Japan, Oct 24; Scotland, Nov 7; England, Nov 14; Wales Nov 21.

Outlook: What a difference a month can make. After three comfortable defeats by the All Blacks, there were rumblings around Dave Rennie's job security ... now there are calls for him to be handed citizenship immediately. Rennie can thank Cooper for his work in calling out the convoluted process if the coach does in fact ever see a situation where he wants to be an Aussie in the future.

But that will likely be the last thing on his mind, particularly with three tough Tests in the UK to confront and a potential banana-skin game against Japan in Oita later this month. Does Rennie look to rotate some of his players for the Brave Blossoms clash or stick solid with those that have done the job over the past four Tests? It's likely James O'Connor, at least, should expect a start in Japan after easing his way back into Test rugby off the bench.

Rennie has retained the services of Japan-based Kerevi, Cooper and Sean McMahon for the tour and meanwhile looks set to call in the likes of Will Skelton, Rory Arnold and Tolu Latu for the UK leg. And it's at lock and hooker where the Wallabies could still use some clarity in their thinking; a number of players are putting their hands up, though none have really nailed down a starting spot unlike other positions across the team.

What is clear, however, is that there is renewed interest in this Wallabies team and genuine optimism about what they might be able to achieve up north, including a first victory over England since the 2015 World Cup. Rennie's team is playing an attractive, smart brand of rugby that no longer has a weakness at scrum time and seems to be building a more reliable lineout. Three wins out of four to end their year would be a fine result for 2021, while a sweep and a 10-4 record would really put the rugby world on notice.

NEW ZEALAND 5-1 [First]

While Saturday night's last-gasp loss to the Springboks will have left a bitter taste in the All Blacks' mouths, it was otherwise a case of "job done" as New Zealand added the Rugby Championship trophy to their Bledisloe Cup retention from mid-August. They also had a momentary taste of the world's No. 1 rank, only to see it revert back to South Africa on Sunday.

All in all, the All Blacks are sitting pretty at 9-1 for the year, their Rugby Championship triumph secured without the services of Aaron Smith, Sam Whitelock and Richie Mo'unga for large chunks of the tournament. Meanwhile, the likes of Ethan Blackadder, Luke Jacobson, Brad Weber, TJ Perenara, David Havili, Asafo Aumua and others have all had valuable time in the Test saddle. Foster has expanded his playing ranks and few players, if any, were shown to not be up to the international task.

However, the closing two Tests of the tournament have shown that New Zealand are anything but the finished product and that challenges lie ahead in Europe. Having swatted aside the Wallabies - who play a similar style of game - with relative ease, the All Blacks had big problems dealing with the breakdown intensity, high-balls and lineout threat of the world champions. The box kicks of Faf de Klerk, in particular, gave the All Blacks' back three all kinds of issues.

Standout performer: Jordie Barrett

It's true, Barrett had his issues under the high ball. But such is the regularity, and improving accuracy, of the Springboks aerial assault, it makes a perfect record in the department an incredibly challenging task.

Barrett, however, looks to have asserted himself as the All Blacks' first-choice fullback with his counter attack and booming right boot proving hugely valuable in Queensland; remember it was the Hurricanes custodian who spared the All Blacks defeat in Townsville. Barrett finished with the equal most defenders beaten [21] for the tournament and second for total carries and run metres.

Remaining Tests in 2021: USA, Oct 23; Wales, Oct 30; Italy, Nov 6; Ireland, Nov 13; France, Nov 20.

Outlook: The All Blacks have remained in Australia following the Rugby Championship, the squad granted a week off on the Sunshine Coast for some sun, surf and no doubt a few rounds of golf. A number of players also enjoyed the NRL Grand Final on Sunday night, too.

When they eventually regroup on the training paddock, the areas of focus will be abundantly clear, particularly with their northern opponents, Ireland and France in particular, likely to employ similar tactics to those utilised by the Springboks. The All Blacks will however be bolstered by the return of Sam Whitelock, Shannon Frizell and Dane Coles, while Sam Cane will also make a return towards the end of the tour.

A perfect five wins from five will be what's expected of the All Blacks, with Foster getting the chance to build into the tour with the intensity of each Test set to rise week to week. It's likely Richie Mo'unga will be restored to the No. 10 jersey for those closing two Tests, while the All Blacks forwards understand the work they have to do after being shaded physically by the Springboks on the Gold Coast.

While the chance at a perfect season is gone, the All Blacks have learned a lot about themselves over a testing two weeks.

SOUTH AFRICA 3-3 [Third]

It was always going to be a challenging tournament for the Springboks and while they will be disappointed with just the three victories, their closing triumph over the All Blacks - which also meant they regained the No. 1 ranking - was cause for great joy for the world champions.

Coming off a bruising and largely one-dimensional series against the Lions, followed by two reasonably dour Tests against the Pumas, the Springboks struggled to adapt to Australia's width while their usually pinpoint kicking game went awry first up on the Gold Coast. They also learned that selecting giant lock and back-row combinations isn't always the order of the day, with Kwagga Smith making a huge impact when he was given the opportunity to start against the All Blacks.

Simply, the Springboks learned they will have to play a little more rugby against southern hemisphere opposition than what they may have to against northern opponents. A tried-and-test forwards-led, kick-heavy approach will remain their bread and butter, but they now know there will be times when a slight differentiation from that approach may be necessary.

Standout performer: Kwagga Smith

Finding a consistent and effective performer for the Springboks across the Australian leg of the Rugby Championship was no easy feat, with the lack of Test rugby since the World Cup, and separate quarantine stints, perhaps catching up with the world champions.

But after two strong efforts off the bench, Smith was at last given the chance to start against the All Blacks and the Boks were quickly rewarded with a far stronger on-ball presence, determined defender and in-close linkman who was able to pick his way through traffic.

With coach Jacques Nienaber seemingly preferring to stick with the bomb squad, and Franco Mostert in the No. 7 jersey, Smith's starting opportunities might be few and far between moving forward. But there was much to like in his twin efforts against the All Blacks; he adds a point-of-difference that can complement both Siya Kolisi and Duane Vermeulen in the back-row. The Boks will also be looking forward to the return of 2019 World Rugby Player of the Year, Pieter-Steph du Toit.

Remaining Tests in 2021: Wales, Nov 6; Scotland, Nov 13; England, Nov 20.

Outlook: Reports out of South Africa this week suggest the Springboks' northern tour could be at risk, with players unwilling to spend any further time in quarantine or bio-security bubbles. Given South Africa remains on the UK's list of "red zone" countries, a resolution is being sought to best service the mental health of the Boks players and staff.

If everything proceeds as planned, the Boks will face three tough Tests against Wales, Scotland and England, where they will be desperate to re-establish the momentum they lost for the Australian leg of the Rugby Championship and to ice what has otherwise been an historic season.

Producing more of the rugby they played in the closing Test against the All Blacks will be key, and would give them every chance at a spring tour sweep next month.