Rugby Championship state of play 2017: New Zealand
By Louise Warr
Last Updated: 18/08/17 10:54pm
We take a look at the state of play in New Zealand ahead of the 2017 Rugby Championship.
Super Rugby form
This season's Super Rugby semi-finals had a distinct Kiwi feel about them, the country boasting three of the four teams still left with a chance of lifting the title; 2016 champions the Hurricanes, the Chiefs and the conference-topping Crusaders.
The Crusaders went on to take the title and Scott Robertson became the first person in Super Rugby history to win a title as a player and a coach as the Crusaders knocked off the Lions 25-17 in front of packed house at Ellis Park.
Their eight-point win was the Crusaders' eighth Super Rugby title, but first since Robbie Deans left the helm in 2008 after winning his fifth as coach.
The win also saw the Canterbury-based side to become the first franchise to cross the Indian Ocean and return with the silverware, while also equalling the record for the most wins by any team in a single Super Rugby season with 14 (Reds 2011 and Hurricanes 2015).
They also have shown dominance against many of those they will face in national colours, with the Chiefs' final-round win over the Brumbies giving New Zealand teams a 25-0 winning record against Australian opposition this campaign, the first such clean sweep over their trans-Tasman rivals.
In fact, Australia's horror run against Kiwi teams actually extends to 30-0 if results from last year are factored in.
When it comes to scoring tries, the New Zealand franchises have once again shown their attacking prowess, with three of their sides featuring in the top five try-scoring outfits; the Hurricanes leading the way with 93, the Crusaders in third with 79 and the Highlanders with 62 in fifth. While the other two sides, the Chiefs and the Blues are not far behind in sixth and seventh.
New Zealand vice-captain Ben Smith will only be available to face Australia in two Tests, missing out on four Rugby Championship Tests against South Africa and Argentina, along with the third Test with the Wallabies.
The 31-year old, who has played in 62 Tests for the All Blacks, will take a break until the start of next season in order for his body to recover as Smith aims to reach the 2019 World Cup in prime condition; following a precedent set by Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, who both took breaks prior to the 2011 and 2015 World Cups.
"Contractually he's on sabbatical now," his agent Warren Alcock told the New Zealand Herald.
"He has decided to make himself available for the two Bledisloe games because he has missed some rugby this year."
The All Blacks were dealt a second blow when utility back Jordie Barrett was ruled out of the rest of the season with a shoulder injury picked up in the Hurricanes' Super Rugby semi-final against the Lions. Uncapped Crusaders full-back David Havilli takes his place in the squad.
However, Sonny Bill Williams is back in the No 12 jersey for New Zealand's Rugby Championship opener.
Williams was handed a four-match ban after becoming the first All Black in 50 years to be sent off during New Zealand's second-Test loss to the British and Irish Lions earlier this month, but has now served his suspension.
Have the All Blacks lost their fear factor?
New Zealand go into the Rugby Championship in a somewhat unfamiliar position, on the back of disappointment. While they may not have lost the series against the British and Irish Lions, the All Blacks were shown to be beatable
This paired with Ireland's victory over them in Chicago shows that despite their status as the world's best, they are not superhuman.
However, following the Lions series, Sam Warburton told Sky Sports News HQ that despite the result people's opinion on the All Blacks shouldn't change: "I think Ireland showed that last year, they had a good win last year, but players never believe the hype anyway, I think that is something which is built up externally.
"But without doubt, they are the best team in the world. They are back-to-back world champions, on their patch as well. We knew it was going to be the toughest challenge we could have had in our rugby careers.
"They are still the best team in the world. Just because we drew doesn't make us the best team, they have earned that right from performing so well over the past 10 years or so."
Forwards: Kieran Read, Liam Squire, Jerome Kaino, Sam Cane, Ardie Savea, Vaea Fifita, Luke Romano, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Scott Barrett, Owen Franks, Nepo Laulala, Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Wyatt Crockett, Joe Moody, Dane Coles, Codie Taylor, Nathan Harris.
Backs: Ben Smith, David Havili, Israel Dagg, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Waisake Naholo, Rieko Ioane, Ryan Crotty, Anton Lienert-Brown, Sonny Bill Williams, Ngani Laumape, Beauden Barrett, Lima Sopoaga, Damian McKenzie, Aaron Smith, TJ Perenara, Tawera Kerr-Barlow.