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Australia, New Zealand and South Africaturn to familiar faces

Stuart Barnes Posted 7th August 2013 view comments

So much for developing young talent to build towards the next World Cup; the essence of the forthcoming Rugby Championship (the one starring New Zealand not Nottingham) is experience.

The top two teams in the world - the All Blacks and Springboks - have shown the utmost respect for the rejuvenated warriors that have taken their teams to past World Cup glories.

In New Zealand's case it is absolutely no surprise that the venerated Richie McCaw has been recalled to the All Black cause and restored as captain. Yet it is worth remembering that in the last six months the man has played a grand total of 25 minutes rugby, coming off the bench for the Crusaders in a Super Rugby game.

Back in Black: Richie McCaw

Back in Black: Richie McCaw

McCaw is going to lead the world champions in a defence of their title in England and, refreshed and restored after his break expect age to have done nothing to wither this truly great rugby figure.

There has been much debate concerning the importance or otherwise of captaincy this summer. The Lions decided to pick on form first and leave the leadership to a group of leaders rather than overly focus on the skipper.

If McCaw was the most influential of performers in 2011 then Fourie du Preez was that and more when the Springboks lifted the title in 2007.

Stuart Barnes
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That is not how New Zealand sees it. In the last World Cup McCaw played on one foot and barely trained through the knock out stages onwards but there was never the remotest doubt that the half fit (at best!) McCaw would struggle through to the end.

He was that important as captain. In the fairly recently published biography of Graham Henry, the former All Black coach stated that he felt his team would not have won the final had McCaw been missing.

Influential

South Africa has also decided that age is no hindrance to class. If McCaw was the most influential of performers in 2011 then Fourie du Preez was that and more when the Springboks lifted the title in 2007.

The most influential AND the best player in the tournament; Bryan Habana was named player of the tournament in a moment of populist stupidity. It was the scrum-half's greatest moment when he was the world's best player.

And now he has returned. The story is far more astonishing than McCaw's. Du Preez has not worn the Springbok shirt since the 2011 World Cup and has played very little top level rugby since. His sojourn in Japan has made him a richer man but a better rugby player?

Of course, the South African coach, Heyneke Meyer, knows all about the man having worked with him during the Blue Bulls prime. He understands the intellect of the man; maybe he is a split second slower than in the best days but the brain hasn't rusted and Meyer probably thinks his team could do with an intellectual edge.

Physically they are - and always will be - well equipped but to match and beat New Zealand a little more clarity in the way they shape the game is needed. The scrum-half can add a huge amount to South Africa despite being available for only the first three games of the competition. His influence on the training field should be immense.

The experience on and off the field is so valuable to a test match team.

Evergreen and gold

Hence Robbie Deans recalled the evergreen George Smith to the green and gold of Australia for the Lions series. Hence Argentina retains the fading magic of Felipe Contepomi. The experienced players have a role mentoring the team; their significance goes way beyond the team sheet on a match day.

That is why - if fit - Adam Jones is a banker for the next World Cup. He may be mid 30s by the time of England 2015 but he does not have excessive mileage on the rugby clock. Like the great names already mentioned his vast knowledge will be a formidable weapon in the Welsh bid to win their first World Cup.

In a team full of power and dynamism, his athleticism is not the question; his technique, however, might be a potent answer in a pool with Australia still seeking someone to stabilise their scrum.

At the time of writing, Australia are favourites to be eliminated from the pool with Wales and England dominating their set piece. There is plenty of time for that to change and with Ewen McKenzie at the helm it probably will. He has gone on record as saying that the Wallaby scrum is not quite the wobbly worry that some think it.

Ben Alexander rebounded from the pounding Alex Corbisiero gave him but is that simply a matter of Alexander's character or the scrum deficit in much of the Southern Hemisphere?

McKenzie will alter the Aussie style of play with an extra element of Queensland fluency. James O' Connor will be put out of his misery and moved back to the wider parts of the field where he is amongst the best players on the planet.

Quade Cooper will presumably be reunited with Will Genia and Australia hopes they will be reignited as they attempt to regain the Bledisloe Cup from a New Zealand team that have the Wallabies in a psychological neck lock.

Decamping

Argentina will seek to scrum South Africa into trouble but keep an eye out for Coenie Oosthuizen. Here is a prop that would be worshipped in the scrum obsessed world of French club rugby.

He is not heading for Europe but Springboks like Habana, Morne Steyn, Juandre Kruger, Jano Vermaark and Chiliboy Ralepelli are France-bound and will make it even harder for the British and Irish contingent to regain the Heineken Cup.

The Argentines have a lot of men decamping in England when the international dust settles. Bath have signed prop forward, Juan Pablo Orlandi while Worcester has the services of Agustin Creevy, the former Montpellier hooker as well as Senatore, the Puma number eight.

Behind the scrum Leicester will watch Gonzalo Camacho, Saracens Marcello Bosch, while the new French champions, Castres (who said money rules?) will have their fingers crossed that Santiago Fernandez gets through this brutal tournament safely and in form.

The 2013 Rugby Championship is going to be worth the watch for so many reasons. The Lions lit up the world game when they ignited in the second half of the third test in Sydney, here's hoping these four teams can fan the flames of the international game at the midway point between World Cups.

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