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World Cup in sight as Rugby Championship kicks off

A shortened Rugby Championship — to accommodate the World Cup — starts on Saturday with southern hemisphere teams honing their game plans ahead of the showpiece tournament in France.

AFP looks at how each team is tracking:

Jones put to the test 

Wallabies coach Eddie Jones faces his first test since replacing the axed Dave Rennie against world champions South Africa in Pretoria.

The master tactician, renowned for his innovative thinking, has been charged with revitalising a struggling team to give them a shot at once again lifting the World Cup.

He has vowed to instill a gritty, and winning, mentality by making them more aggressive in attack while defending like “mongrel dogs”, what he calls “the Australian way”.

Adaptability has been another buzzword, with veterans Michael Hooper and James Slipper sharing the captaincy in an Australian first.

But history is not on Jones’s side in Pretoria, with Australia yet to win at Loftus Versfeld Stadium over seven games stretching back to 1963.

All Blacks dominance on line 

The All Blacks are coming off one of the worst years in their history, winning just eight of 13 Tests and setting firsts by losing a home series against Ireland and going down on home soil against Argentina in 2022.

Despite this, they still managed to clinch the Rugby Championship, for the eighth time in its 10 editions. Nevertheless, the spotlight will be again shining sharply on coach Ian Foster in Mendoza this weekend.

The World Cup in France will be his swansong, and he has demanded the team be “dominant from Test one” this year, in contrast to their sluggish start in 2022.

While questions linger over his leadership, Sam Cane has retained the captaincy.

Among a number of veteran players kicking off what is probably their last international seasons are Aaron Smith, Richie Mo’unga, Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick.

Pumas have work cut out 

Perennial strugglers Argentina have shown tremendous development since former Wallabies coach Michael Cheika took over, but Los Pumas seem destined to again prop up the ladder.

The fixture list is not in their favour, with just one home match against the All Blacks this weekend, before travelling to Australia and South Africa.

They head into their clash against New Zealand with injury worries and Cheika again looking to veterans Julian Montoya, Pablo Matera, Jeronimo de la Fuente and Emiliano Boffelli to lead from the front.

In a setback, they will be without powerhouse forward Marcos Kremer for the entire tournament after he copped a five-week ban over a shocking clearout during the Top 14 clash between Racing 92 and Stade Francais — his third red card of the season.

While his star is no longer as bright as it once was, 34-year-old fly-half Nicolas Sanchez made Cheika’s squad and will be aiming to do enough to play at a fourth World Cup.

Boks miss star names

World champions South Africa boast a formidable squad, but have split it for games against the Wallabies then the All Blacks to avoid jet lag as Auckland is 10 hours ahead of Johannesburg.

Coach Jacques Nienaber opted to send 12 Springboks to New Zealand early, depleting the side to face Australia, which will be skipped by experienced No.8 Duane Vermeulen.

Inspirational captain Siya Kolisi was among that advance party, but a knee injury is set to be keep him out of the tournament, with star fly-half Handre Pollard also sidelined.

Marco van Staden will wear Kolisi’s number six shirt and operate as openside flanker against the Wallabies, with their other leading option, Kwagga Smith, already in New Zealand.

The absence of Pollard, a pivotal figure in their 2019 World Cup final triumph over England in Japan, is a serious blow. Rising star Manie Libbok will replace him.