The Rugby Championship is a strange competition. It somehow feels less valuable than the Tri-Nations ever was even though the added team, Argentina, is an improving nation that can more than run with the biggest names in world rugby on their day.
The competition is regarded with even less love and interest in a World Cup year. While the Six Nations has the benefit of being at the start of the calendar year where players are still pushing for their place, this tournament happens so close to the World Cup that all anyone wants is to avoid injury and not peak too early in terms of form and fitness.
It is a shortened competition this year and each team has a different emphasis on what they need to see over the course of three games. Expect approaches to vary as the countries work to achieve their goals, with winning the trophy being at the bottom of the requirement list. Here are the four teams ranked in order of their BetXChange odds.
New Zealand 0.22
New Zealand will be the favourites for the 2019 Rugby Championship, but their brass will be aware that winning this tournament is something of a poison chalice. No team that has ever won SANZAR silverware has ever gone on to win the World Cup in the same year. This counts for both the Rugby Championship and the Tri-Nations competition.
Steve Hansen has put his hat in the ring as wanting to win the competition. He has stated on multiple occasions that he wants his team at or close to its best for their series of games which starts with a long trip to Buenos Aires.
Expect to see Hansen use that vaunted New Zealand depth here as he rounds out his World Cup squad by focusing on players on the cutoff line. New Zealand will be without their Crusaders players for the trip to Argentina, leaving them with a second-string pack, with other major stars expected to be used sparingly.
Even so, this is New Zealand we are talking about and the strength in depth that Hansen has at his disposal still makes the All Blacks the clear favourites to lift a fourth successive trophy.
South Africa 5.75
It will all be about trialing players and keeping his stars in shape for Rassie Erasmus this Rugby Championship. South Africa opens by hosting Australia before a trip to New Zealand the following week. With so many stars still recovering from injuries that curtailed their Super Rugby seasons, expect to see very different lineups for each Test that South Africa plays.
The Australia game, in particular, will feature a number of players who could be bolters for the World Cup squad, while the game against New Zealand will likely see a team much closer to that with which the Springboks will open up in Japan. Resting and recovering while still retaining form is a hard balance to strike, but South Africa will be looking to make that happen this Rugby Championship.
The Wallabies are in an interesting spot as we head into the Rugby Championship. Their squad is the most in-flux of any of the Southern Hemisphere heavyweights, with head coach Michael Cheika not even pretending that he wants to win this tournament.
The Aussies will have the advantage of two home games to one road tilt, with their one trip overseas coming first up against South Africa. Cheika has said that fine-tuning his 31-man World Cup squad is his single goal here, a needed task given how the team underperformed in 2018.
While actual games may finally get the Israel Folau saga out of the headlines for a couple of weeks, the worst thing that could happen is for the Wallabies to lose all three games heavily, without any playmaking potential shown from their new back three.
Mario Ledesma has by far the most settled set-up of any of the Rugby Championship coaches. Los Jaguares may have lost the Super Rugby final, but their players make up the bulk of the Pumas team, bolstered by big-name players coming back from Europe to inject a little extra into their game.
While they have only managed to pick up five Rugby Championship wins since 2012, this feels like a version of the tournament where the Pumas can do better. The Argentines are historically always at their best in a World Cup year, while the value of having so many players from one of the best club squads in the world last season simply can’t be underestimated.
In a three-game sprint, with two games at home, their price feels far too low.