The Rugby Championship kicks off this weekend with Australia welcoming New Zealand, and South Africa Argentina. With the current iteration of this annual Southern Hemisphere tournament (created in 2012 when Argentina joined the Tri Nations) having gone to New Zealand every year bar one, can anyone look past the men in black this time round?
What are the chances?
It would seem unlikely. Our computer gives New Zealand a 94% chance of victory (and that is low in some experts eyes…) with a greater than 50% of a Grand Slam. Australia and South Africa are viewed almost identically from the perspective of our computer with both sides having a 3% chance of title chances, and nearly equal chances of second – South Africa just pipping the Wallabies by a single percentage point. Clearly the games between those teams will decide their positions in the final table.
Argentina round out the table with a 90% chance of finishing last, as they have done in every tournament, except 2015 when South Africa picked up the Wooden Spoon in a shortened tournament due to the 2015 World Cup.
What are the current forms?
The rankings back this up. New Zealand are clear leaders in the World Rankings, currently ranked first with a healthy lead over second placed Ireland. Australia and South Africa are fifth and sixth at the moment, with Argentina ranked in tenth position, currently below Fiji.
As can be seen from the below, all the sides bar New Zealand have also shown some element of decline in recent years. As can be seen below, when the rankings are looked at long term, South Africa, Australia and Argentina have all fallen in the past couple of years.
However, this doesn’t mean that the competition won’t be competitive. Firstly, this graph takes a rolling average of the past 12 months so any (very) recent form may not be reflected. Secondly, closer ranked teams are likely to produce tighter games, which may be more exciting. Whilst the New Zealand matches are, from this perspective, looking unlikely to be competitive, at the very least it looks like South Africa and Australia will be likely to produce some excellent tight contests.
Northern Hemisphere fans may also be especially interested in watching these games with a viewpoint towards World Cup development, and how their teams will fare against these opposition in Japan next year.
There has been some talk that this tournament will be the most competitive for years, and there is some evidence to suggest that. The Australian Super Rugby sides competed admirably in the tournament against the Kiwi sides, South Africa’s comebacks in their series win against Eddie Jones’ England, and a (hopeful) Argentinian revival under new coach Mario Ledesma.
It will certainly be interesting to watch, however from a stats perspective it is difficult to look past New Zealand. They have only ever lost twice in Rugby Championship history, once each to South Africa and Australia, and with a tournament win ratio of just under 90% (compared to 44% for both South Africa and Australia, and 11% for Argentina), as usual the All Blacks will be the team everyone else is chasing.