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Rugby Championship starts new era in SH rugby

Leonardo Senatore (centre) belts out the Argentine National anthem

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Article Published: Wednesday 15 August 2012

A new era for southern hemisphere rugby union dawns Saturday when Australia meet New Zealand in Sydney and South Africa face Argentina in Cape Town as The Rugby Championship kicks off.

After 16 seasons of Tri-Nations fare dominated by the All Blacks with 10 titles, long-time outcasts Argentina are joining for a six-round mini-league competition that carries lots of prestige if no prize money.

From Dunedin in the deep south of New Zealand to Mendoza in the far west of Argentina, teams ranked one, two, three and eight in the world will slug it out between August 18 and October 6 for a 56-centimetre, five-kilogram trophy.

It is a mix of gold and stainless steel, and whoever holds it can rightfully claim to be the best national rugby union team in the world with competition expected to be even tougher annually than at the quadrennial World Cup.

While World Cup fixtures vary between easy and difficult for giants of the game, there are unlikely to be many soft Championship outings, especially once Argentina get used to the demands of six Tests within eight weeks.

Shunned for many years as they craved top-class competition, the Cape Town Test represents a coming of age for the Pumas, whose finest achievement was third place behind South Africa and England at the 2007 World Cup.

"We have done the groundwork, we have chosen the best squad, we are ready," stressed coach Santiago Phelan, whose build-up was boosted by the presence of 2011 World Cup-winning New Zealand coach Graham Henry.

Steve Hansen succeeded Henry after the All Blacks joined Australia and South Africa as two-time world champions, and he has no doubts about the ability of the South Americans to make an impression.

"People might not know that they have beaten France more times than France have beaten them. Their home record is particularly impressive --few sides go there and win," noted the All Blacks handler.

"Playing Australia, New Zealand and South Africa is only going to enhance their ability and raise their level. It will be good for the game and they are certainly going to challenge the rest of us."

Star fly-half Juan Martin Hernandez returns after a series of injuries kept him out of the national team since 2009 and No 8 and skipper Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe is a class act.

Richie McCaw-skippered New Zealand boast a perennial match-winner in fly-half Dan Carter and will be the team to beat as usual with many of those who edged France 8-7 in Auckland last October to conquer the world on call.

Eye surgery rules centre Conrad Smith out of the Wallaby Tests on successive weekends, giving off-load master Sonny Bill Williams a chance to wear the black jersey before heading to rugby union in Japan and rugby league in Australia.

Wallabies coach Robbie Deans opted for Berrick Barnes at fly-half over not fully fit Quade Cooper while full-back Kurtley Beale could pose a serious attacking threat in a team captained by flank David Pocock.

Former All Blacks prop Richard Loe says Australia will win only one game out of six because of forward weaknesses, but he should prepare to eat humble pie with home wins over Argentina and South Africa likely at least.

South Africa, who began life under new coach Heyneke Meyer by overcoming combative England 2-0 last June with another Test drawn, are a work in progress with shortcomings at half-back and in the front row.

Fly-half Morne Steyn had a poor place-kicking series against England by his stratospheric standards, scrum-half Francois Hougaard struggled and prop Tendai Mtawarira often lacked the fire expected of someone called "The Beast".

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