Three teams standing -- a Rugby Championship like no other

Three teams standing -- a Rugby Championship like no other

South Africa's players celebrate winning the 2019 Rugby Championship after beating Argentina 46-13 in Salta last year
South Africa's players celebrate winning the 2019 Rugby Championship after beating Argentina 46-13 in Salta last year

SYDNEY - The coronavirus-hit Rugby Championship starts in Sydney on October 31, but without world champions and current title holders South Africa.

Here is what's been going on and how the tournament is shaping up:

- What is it? -

The Rugby Championship is the southern hemisphere's premier tournament, ordinarily contested annually by Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.

Owned and managed by SANZAAR -- a joint venture between the four participating unions -- it used to be known as the Tri-Nations until Argentina were admitted in 2012.

New Zealand's All Blacks won the inaugural event in 1996 and have dominated since, claiming another 15 titles. Australia and South Africa have four apiece while Argentina have yet to get off the mark.

- Pandemic problems -

It was supposed to start in August, with Tests in each nation, until the pandemic forced a postponement. Given travel restrictions and quarantine requirements, SANZAAR decided to hold it in one country for the first time.

New Zealand were the early favourites to be hosts, but arch-rival Australia ultimately got the nod after agreeing that teams could train together in large groups while in mandatory 14-day isolation.

Initially 12 matches over six double-header weekends were scheduled until the All Blacks complained they wouldn't be able to complete quarantine requirements and be home for Christmas.

SANZAAR relented and shifted one of their games to an earlier slot, stretching the tournament to seven weeks.

Then the Springboks, who have been under harsher Covid-19 restrictions, dropped a bombshell last week by pulling out, citing a lack of preparation and match practice.

- How will it work? -

With only three teams now in contention, the number of matches has been slashed from 12 to six, played on consecutive Saturdays between October 31-December 5, with each side facing the other twice.

One game will be in Brisbane, three in Sydney and two in Newcastle, a coastal town two hours' drive north of Sydney.

Otherwise, the rules are unchanged, with four points for a win and two for a draw. A bonus point can be earned if a team scores three tries or more than their opponent or if a team loses by seven points or less.

- Bledisloe Cup -

The Rugby Championship might not start until October 5, but the Wallabies and All Blacks have already seen action contesting the annual Bledisloe Cup, played since 1931 and considered one of the greatest rivalries in sport.

Named after former New Zealand governor-general Lord Bledisloe, who donated the huge silver trophy, the series can be anything between two to four matches, depending on whether it falls in a World Cup year or not.

They are playing four games this year and two are already over -- a tense 16-16 draw in Wellington this month followed by a 27-7 win for the All Blacks in Auckland.

The final two Bledisloe Cup Tests, on October 31 and November 7, will also count towards the Rugby Championship.

- Underdogs Argentina -

With South Africa on the sidelines, the door is wide open for New Zealand or Australia to claim another title, with the Argentines considered long-shot underdogs.

Both are battle-hardened after bruising Bledisloe Cup games which followed high quality domestic Super Rugby seasons. In contrast, the Pumas haven't played a Test since the World Cup in Japan last year.

Coach Mario Ledesma has admitted Argentina will be rusty, but they have a roster of quality players and some have been honing their skills in Europe, including winger Juan Imhoff who scored a try for Racing 92 in their Champions Cup final defeat to Exeter last weekend.

The core of the squad has been undergoing 14 days of quarantine in Australia after a camp in Uruguay, but have at least been able to train together. And they have been boosted by Ledesma recruiting ex-Wallabies coach Michael Cheika as a consultant.

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