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Rugby Championship
Ten key players for Rugby Championship
Richard Kelly
August 21, 2014
Who will stand up and lead their nation to claim The Rugby Championship title? © Getty Images

With the dust settled on a fantastic Super Rugby season, attentions now switch to Test rugby for the rest of the year. Although there will undoubtedly be a plethora of stars on show in this tournament we take a look at the key facts and figures of some of the players that are likely to be among the most important to their respective nations' chances.

Bismarck du Plessis

A cornerstone of a fearsome Springboks pack who managed a lineout throw success rate of 93% during South Africa's Tests against Wales and Scotland in June. He also managed four turnovers won in those matches. For the Sharks, he made 17 Super Rugby appearances and managed to dot down for three tries in a side that often struggled to get over the line. He also featured among the top 10 for turnovers won (17) in Super Rugby, too.

Bismarck du Plessis has had a great season so far © Getty Images

Israel Folau

The code hopper has become the protagonist of the Wallabies' resurgence. As part of the Super Rugby-winning Waratahs, he was unplayable at times. He made 52 offloads during the season, while nobody else managed to make 30. He ranked third for defenders beaten (52), second for clean breaks (25) and finished joint-top of the try-scoring charts with 12. He was also at the top at the end of the regular season and, in doing so, became the first man to top the charts in both Super Rugby and the NRL. In the recent three-Test series against France, Folau made more than twice as many metres (374) as any of his team-mates and scored three tries, assisting a further two. He also beat 17 defenders, at least 11 more than any of his colleagues and managed at least four more clean breaks (7).

Folau is one of many Wallabies x-factor players and a try-scoring freak © Getty Images

Willie Le Roux

The fullback had a solid debut Rugby Championship in 2013, scoring three tries in his six caps. Further establishing himself as first choice he scored three tries in three internationals earlier in the year and proved his knack of breaking the line, conjuring seven breaks altogether despite beating only the same number of defenders.

Le Roux was dubbed the 'world's best fullback' following the Springboks win over Wales earlier this year © Getty Images

Wycliff Palu

Palu is fast establishing himself as a prominent figure in one of the most competitive back-rows in world rugby, and he averaged more carries (10.5) than the rest of his team-mates in the front eight in the recent series with France, despite featuring for just 117 minutes of action. The Waratahs back-rower is strong in the loose and managed four defenders beaten in that short space of time, while perhaps his main strength comes with his ability to offload. Palu was the top offloading forward in Super Rugby 2014.

In one of his best seasons to date, Palu has continued to establish himself as a prominent figure © Getty Images

Kieran Read

Many are of the opinion that the try-scoring machine has established himself as the top player in Test rugby over the past 12 months, but the No. 8 had limited exposure in the recent series whitewash of England, playing just 40 minutes. For the Crusaders he managed 12 appearances and assisted six tries, at least two more than any other forward.

Despite playing only 40 minutes for the All Blacks this year, Read remains one of the most threatening players in the side © Getty Images

Nicolas Sanchez

Sanchez was the top tackler in the 2013 Rugby Championship, making more than 25 more hits than any other back in six appearances. In last year's edition, he also managed three breaks and landed 13 of 16 shots at goal; if Argentina are to have any chance of producing their first victory in this tournament, they need him to be firing on all cylinders. Sanchez again averaged more than 10 tackles per game in Argentina's June matches, but the fly-half also showed his creative hand by assisting two tries in games against Scotland and Ireland (two matches).

Sanchez will need to play a major role if Argentina is to win their first Rugby Championship match © Getty Images

Julian Savea

The winger was the star of the All Blacks' recent Test defeats of England, scoring four tries in his two appearances to take his tally to 23 touchdowns in 22 appearances. That impressive tally includes eight tries in his past five matches. He beat 10 defenders in those two matches against England, with only three other players managing more having all played three games respectively. In his season with the Hurricanes, his try-scoring return (7) was slightly more modest but he was one of only five players to hit 50 defenders beaten (51) for the season. He also ranked fourth for breaks (20), underlining the fact he is almost impossible to contain for an entire 80 minutes.

Almost impossible to stop, Savea is sure to be impressive throughout the series © Getty Images

Aaron Smith

Smith has perhaps added an extra dimension to his game this year having scampered over for two tries against England and four through the Super Rugby season. The Highlanders scrum-half provided the fourth-most try assists (9) in the club competition this year, though if there is one criticism of his performances it has been in defence. He completed just 71% of tackles in Super Rugby and 57% in his three 2014 Test caps.

Solid in attack, Smith will be huge for the All Blacks © Getty Images

Matt Toomua

This tournament is key to the hopes of Toomua's long-term future in the Test environment, but he should feature plentifully after a strong showing against Les Bleus. Playing in midfield, he managed to score one try and assist two other scores - establishing himself in the best possible manner. With the Brumbies in 2014, he scored seven and assisted seven, and such fruition will be invaluable in the big games of the tournament.

A playmaker for the Brumbies, Toomua will join forces with Kurtley Beale to direct the Wallabies' backline © Getty Images

Joaquin Tuculet

Tuculet plies his trade in the French Top 14 with Bordeaux-Begles, and he impressed many with his performances for the Pumas in June - scoring two tries and beating more defenders (9) than any of his colleagues. His average gain of eight metres per carry is healthy, and perhaps a sign of his lack of willingness to kick from hand and tendency to attack from deep. He did not feature in the 2013-2014 French league, but scored two tries in four appearances in European competition.

Tuculet's attacking prowess will be of huge importance for Argentina as they look for their first win in The Rugby Championship © Getty Images

Follow @OptaJonny, the official Twitter page for Opta's coverage of rugby union and rugby league, and @OptaJason, the official Twitter page for Opta Sports' coverage of sport in Australia and New Zealand.

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