Back Australia to make a much better fist of the 2013 Rugby Championship than it did this year’s Test series against the British and Irish Lions as changes to coaching personnel and some of rugby union’s laws are likely to help the Wallabies.
The Robbie Deans era is over and not before time according to most Australia fans. Deans was the first foreigner to be given the honour of coaching Australia and the former New Zealand fullback made a pig’s ear of it, with the Wallabies having a win rate of only 58 per cent and an unacceptable 3-15 record versus the All Blacks during his tenure. Deans had to go following Australia’s 16-41 loss to the British and Irish Lions in Sydney and the Australian Rugby Union wasted no time in appointing Ewen McKenzie in his place.
McKenzie, a key forward player in Australia’s 1991 Rugby World Cup-winning team, has made an even bigger name for himself as a coach, leading the Waratahs to a couple of Super Rugby finals, having a relatively successful season bossing Stade Francais and, most impressively, taking an ordinary Reds side and moulding it into the Super Rugby champion within two years of moving to Queensland.
In spite of a series of serious injuries, including one to Quade Cooper, the Reds qualified for the business end of Super Rugby tournaments in 2012 and 2013 and they did so playing very attractively. Australia should have replaced Deans with McKenzie, known in Wallabies circles as Link, after the debacle that was the 2011 Rugby World Cup but better late than never. Australia will improve sharply.
McEwen is not only a good coach but also a lucky coach. The International Rugby Board has just modified rugby union’s scrum engagement law, the result being that props must lock arms rather than just touch and, consequently, there will be less emphasis on the initial hit. The IRB wants to see fewer scrum resets and its legislative decision should assist Australia and other teams that struggle at scrum time.
Scrum penalties have killed Australia in recent years. The British and Irish Lions targeted Australia’s front row in the recent series and reaped the rewards. The law change should enable Australia to not only concede fewer penalties but also secure better ball from its attacking set pieces.
New Zealand won the 2012 Rugby Championship – the first edition of the southern hemisphere tournament to feature Argentina – without losing a game and, while it would take a brave punter to bet against the All Blacks going come out on top again, they did not win it as emphatically as its 6-0 record suggests. Only twice did New Zealand score four or more tries in a match and only twice did the All Blacks register a victory by more than 20 points. New Zealand is deserving of its hot favourite status for the 2013 Rugby Championship but it may not have everything its own way.
Sportingbet is trading a handicap market on the Rugby Championship. New Zealand is off scratch, with South Africa (12 points), Australia (14 points) and Argentina (22 points) receiving starts. Punters have nibbled at Australia already – the Wallabies are the favourites at odds of around 3.00 – but value remains in getting with McKenzie’s men. It makes much more sense to back Australia in this market than at odds of around 1.91 in title betting without New Zealand.
Having a punt on the Rugby Championship top try scorer is something only for recreational punters. If one wants to have a crack at landing a big-priced winner then, with Australia likely to play expansively under McEwen, the players on which to focus are Wallabies backs. Former Australian Rules football and rugby league star Israel Folau, who has been selected on the wing for Australia’s first game, is the pick of the prices at around 17.00.
Another Australia back worth considering is James O’Connor at odds of around 26.00. O’Connor played five-eighth for Australia versus the British and Irish Lions but McEwen views the youngster as an outside back, selecting him on the opposite wing to Folau. Some bookmakers have got the message and O’Connor is trading as low as 15.00. O’Connor is over the odds with the bookmakers that have been left behind.
The 2013 Rugby Championship runs from Saturday 17 August to Saturday 5 October and features six home-and-away rounds.