Rugby Championship: Wallabies, All Blacks, Springboks & Pumas storylines

Attention has quickly turned from Super Rugby to the Rugby Championship with all four nations revealing extended squads for the opening two weeks of the tournament.

The action begins on August 18 when Australia host New Zealand in Sydney, before a return meeting in Auckland a week later. Meanwhile, South Africa and Argentina do battle in Durban on the same date before meeting again in Mendoza seven days later.

Read on as we break down the squad lists and isolate the key selection storylines for each nation.


Squad (to be trimmed later this week)

Backs: Tom Banks, Kurtley Beale, Israel Folau, Bernard Foley, Will Genia, Dane Haylett-Petty, Reece Hodge, Marika Koroibete, Jack Maddocks, Billy Meakes, Sefa Naivalu, Jordan Petaia, Nick Phipps, Joe Powell, Curtis Rona, Matt Toomua.

Forwards: Jermaine Ainsley*, Allan Alaalatoa, Rory Arnold, Adam Coleman, Folau Faingaa*, Ned Hanigan, Michael Hooper (capt), Sekope Kepu, Tolu Latu, Brandon Paenga-Amosa, David Pocock, Tatafu Polota-Nau, Tom Robertson, Izack Rodda, Pete Samu, Rob Simmons, Scott Sio, Caleb Timu, Lukhan Tui, Taniela Tupou.

Selection storylines

Backs: Wallabies coach Michael Cheika got a look at Reece Hodge for the first time last Friday but probably left with no clearer picture about his outside centre for Saturday week. Hodge was solid enough against a Super Selection XV but wasn't forced into any genuinely tough defensive reads from a XV playing behind a beaten pack. Curtis Rona joined the Wallabies squad on Monday as did the rest of the Waratahs' Test contingent; the former NRL flyer having a touch over a week in camp to impress Cheika.

Forwards: If there are two options at outside centre, Cheika has four players to choose from at hooker. Friday night's trial saw Folau Fainga'a get a start before Brandon Paenga-Amosa -- who was the preferred option in all three Tests against Ireland -- came off the bench in the second half. Meanwhile, Tolu Latu finished the season in strong form for the Waratahs -- earning a start in the semifinal loss to the Lions -- and then there is the presence of a refreshed Tatafu Polota-Nau who boasts 82 Tests of experience.

This week: The Wallabies have followed the trend of recent years in taking their pre-Bledisloe camp well beyond the game's Eastern Suburbs base. Cheika's 36-man squad will be slugging it out in Cessnock, in the heart of Australia's famed Hunter Valley wine region, until Friday. The birthplace of the NRL's Johns brothers, it is rugby league heartland.

Injuries to watch

Skipper Michael Hooper remains the Wallabies' biggest concern, though the openside flanker remains confident of leading his side out onto ANZ Stadium. He will face a fitness test early next week. Australia have otherwise reported a largely clean bill of health, though doubts remain over the fitness of winger Dane Haylett-Petty. While a Wallabies spokesman confirmed both he and lock Izack Rodda would be fit for Bledisloe I, Haylett-Petty's situation is a tad murky given he hasn't played since the Rebels' loss to the Reds on July 6.



Backs: Gonzalo Bertranou, Emiliano Boffelli, Sebastían Cancelliere, Tomás Cubelli, Jerónimo de la Fuente, Bautista Delguy, Joaquín Díaz Bonilla, Bautista Ezcurra, Santiago González Iglesias, Martín Landajo, Juan Cruz Mallía, Matías Moroni, Ramiro Moyano, Matías Orlando, Nicolás Sánchez. Forwards: Matías Alemanno, Rodrigo Bruni, Agustín Creevy, Santiago García Botta, Marcos Kremer, Tomás Lavanini, Juan Leguizamón, Pablo Matera, Santiago Medrano, Julian Montoya, Javier Ortega Desio, Guido Petti, Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, Juan Zeiss, Marco Ciccioli, Lucas Favre, Diego Fortuny, Santiago Grondona, Mayco Vivas, Ignacio Larrague, Franco Molina.

Major selection storylines

Backs: Matías Moroni is back in the Pumas squad after missing out in the June Tests. His versatility will certainly come in handy, as he played in the centres and on the wing for the Jaguares in their last couple of matches towards the end of the season. Veteran scrum-half Tomas Cubelli also makes a return to the setup after missing out in June.

Forwards: Young loose forward Santiago Grondona and prop Mayco Vivas have been included in the squad after impressive performances at the Junior World Championship in France in June. They join a familiar and settled group of forwards, although the pack will be without the experienced Tomás Lezana and Leonardo Senatore because of injury.

This week: Argentina will wrap up their preparations at home, before flying to South Africa at the weekend. They will enjoy Durban's mild climate, which should suit their fast, robust style of play.

Injuries to watch

Former Brumbies scrum-half Cubelli hasn't played a lot of rugby over the past few years because of injury. He is probably third in the No. 9 pecking order at the moment, and will have to prove his fitness over the next week to make the 23-man squad for the Durban Test.



Backs: Jordie Barrett, Ben Smith, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Waisake Naholo, Rieko Ioane, Jack Goodhue, Anton Lienert-Brown, Ryan Crotty, Sonny Bill Williams, Beauden Barrett, Damian McKenzie, Richie Mo'unga, Aaron Smith, TJ Perenara, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi.

Forwards: Kieran Read (capt), Luke Whitelock, Sam Cane, Ardie Savea, Liam Squire, Shannon Frizell, Jackson Hemopo, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Scott Barrett, Joe Moody, Tim Perry, Karl Tu'inukuafe, Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Owen Franks, Codie Taylor, Nathan Harris, Dane Coles.

Major selection storylines

Backs: Steve Hansen heard plenty of selection advice in Christchurch this season. But the All Blacks coach won't be swayed by the vocal red-and-black faithful, confirming on Monday Beauden Barrett will continue to start at No. 10 ahead of the in-form Richie Mo'unga. The question as to whom lines up in the midfield and across the back three is less clear cut, though. Ryan Crotty is a lock to start at either No. 12 or 13; his partner to come from either Jack Goodhue, Anton Lienert-Brown or even Ngani Laumape despite the Hurricanes battering ram only acting as cover for the injured Sonny Bill Williams.

In the back three, a lot will depend on where Hansen and Co. opt to use Ben Smith. Should the Highlanders veteran be shifted to the wing then Damian McKenzie could start at fullback. A more likely scenario is Smith staying at fullback, with Rieko Ioane and Waisake Naholo filling the left and right wing positions respectively.

Forwards: The All Blacks forward pack looks a far more settled beast, particularly given the return of skipper Kieran Read. The only potential point of conjecture looks to be at blindside flanker, although Liam Squire would be heavily favoured to start ahead of Highlanders back-rower Luke Whitelock.

This week: The All Blacks will come together in Christchurch later this week, making it easy for the Crusaders players to join the squad once their Super Rugby celebrations finish. Hansen will get one final look at his players -- Crusaders aside -- in action on Friday night when the annual "Game of three halves" is contested against the Canterbury and Otago Mitre 10 Cup teams.

Injuries to watch

Already ruled out of the back-to-back Bledisloe Cup encounters, Sonny Bill Williams and Dane Coles will be tracked for the second block of games against Argentina and South Africa. Williams hasn't been sighted since the All Blacks' third Test victory over France and saw sparing Super Rugby action preceding that; the code-hopper enduring a succession of hand, knee and shoulder injuries throughout 2018. Coles, meanwhile, has been sidelined since the All Blacks' 2017 spring tour when he ruptured his ACL having only worked his way back from a serious bout of concussion a few weeks earlier.



Forwards: Cyle Brink, Jean-Luc du Preez, Thomas du Toit, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Eben Etzebeth, Steven Kitshoff, Siya Kolisi (captain), Francois Louw, Wilco Louw, Frans Malherbe, Malcolm Marx, Bongi Mbonambi, Franco Mostert, Tendai Mtawarira, Sikhumbuzo Notshe, Marvin Orie, RG Snyman, Akker van der Merwe, Marco van Staden, Warren Whiteley.

Backs: Lukhanyo Am, Ross Cronjé, Faf de Klerk, Aphiwe Dyantyi, André Esterhuizen, Elton Jantjies, Jesse Kriel, Willie le Roux, Makazole Mapimpi, Lionel Mapoe, Lwazi Mvovo, Embrose Papier, Handré Pollard, Ivan van Zyl, Damian Willemse.

Major Selection storylines

Backs: Twenty-year-old Damian Willemse is one of three new caps in the Springbok squad. The Stormers fly-half impressed in his first full season of Super Rugby with his running ability and his strong defence. With coach Rassie Erasmus only picking one specialist inside centre in André Esterhuizen, Willemse could be a surprise choice in the No. 12 jersey, while he is also being talked up as a backup for Willie le Roux at fullback. Erasmus' search for a match-winning scrum-half ahead of the next year's World Cup continues, as he included four in his squad for the Rugby Championship.

Forwards: The return of Eben Etzebeth and Malcolm Marx will boost the Bok pack. Etzebeth, who captained the team in the Rugby Championship last year, hasn't played any rugby since getting injured on Boks' European tour in November, while Marx played in all of the Lions' Super Rugby matches after the June break following a hamstring injury. No. 8 Warren Whiteley also returns to the fold, but he faces stiff competition for a place in a rejigged Springboks back-row. Blue Bulls fetcher Marco van Staden is in the mix to start next week against Argentina, while veteran Francois Louw also returns to the squad.

This week: The Springboks will train for the rest of the week in a cold and rainy Cape Town and will leave for the tropical climate of Durban on Sunday, where they will step up preparations for the Rugby Championship opener against the Pumas at Kings Park on Saturday week.

Injuries to watch

The impressive Cyle Brink and the fellow back-row bruiser Jean-Luc du Preez have been included in the Springboks squad, but both will have to undergo a medical to see if they remain with the team. Du Preez is struggling with a MCL sprain, while Brink, who scored a try in the Super Rugby final against the Crusaders, has an arm injury.