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Rugby Championship Report Card: Rating the All Blacks, Springboks, Wallabies and Pumas

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Wallabies must unleash Vunivalu in Europe (2:32)

After just two minutes off the bench this season, the ESPN Scrum Reset crew plead with the Wallabies to give Suliasi Vunivalu plenty of game time on the spring tour. (2:32)

The Rugby Championship is in the books for another year, the 2022 edition the most keenly fought yet, with each nation suffering at least two defeats.

But it was New Zealand who emerged from the shared 2-2 records ahead of the closing two rounds of the tournament to take out the trophy for the second straight year, and third if you included the truncated Tri Nations of 2020.

South Africa finished in second place, one point behind on the ladder, while Australia and Argentina were third and fourth respectively after they concluded their campaigns with back-to-back losses.

Read on as we review each team's campaign, their progress towards the World Cup and what lies ahead for this year's November Test series in the northern hemisphere.

NEW ZEALAND: FIRST

GRADE: B

It has been a weird year for New Zealand rugby and the All Blacks, but with their two most cherished trophies -- outside of the World Cup -- back in the cabinet once more, brighter days appear to lie ahead. The home series loss to Ireland stings, no doubt, but in wrapping up the Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship the All Blacks machine has proven itself to not be a spent force, albeit one that still needs work before it arrives in France next year.

Certainly it was rusty for the opening weeks of the tournament, which brought losses to South Africa and Argentina, the victory over the Springboks in Johannesburg seemingly the result that saved Ian Foster's bacon, even though it later saw the jettisoning of assistants Brad Mooar and John Plumtree. The introduction of Joe Schmidt in a more hands-on capacity didn't pay immediate dividends, but there was enough in the closing victories over Australia to suggest what had been a muddled attack was now headed in the right direction - Will Jordan's try in Auckland a clear example.

New Zealand also benefited from a fortunate run with injury, until their final game of the tournament at least, while lock Brodie Retallick's timely return from injury helped lighten the load on the outstanding Ardie Savea. They were also the beneficiaries of one of the biggest calls in rugby history.

Player of the tournament: Samisoni Taukei'aho

While Savea continued to play to his usual high standards, it was the emergence of Chiefs hooker Taukei'aho that really caught the eye. Having for so long been blessed with the dynamic running games of Dane Coles and then Codie Taylor, the All Blacks have found another player cut from the same cloth in Taukei'aho.

The 25-year-old rake topped the tournament for tries scored [5] and while some of those came via his position at the back of the All Blacks maul, the sight of Taukei'aho roaming wide in clean air in Melbourne was something to behold. He will only get better in the run to the World Cup.

REMAINING TESTS: Japan, Wales, Scotland, England

Having finally strung back-to-back Tests together, the All Blacks will head to first Japan and then on the United Kingdom with loads of confidence, something that was in short supply just a few weeks ago.

One of the more intriguing aspects of their tour will be whether Jordie Barrett remains at No. 12 after a fine outing in Auckland, or reverts back to his usual position at fullback. The fly-half position at last appears settled with Richie Mo'unga set for a run of starts in the role, but the other key debate in New Zealand rugby that revolves around Sam Cane and the captaincy just won't subside.

Expect Foster to give some of the wider members of his squad a run in Japan before the tougher Tests against Scotland, Wales and England follow. A first showdown with Eddie Jones' team since the 2019 World Cup offers a fascinating conclusion to the All Blacks' roller coaster 2022.

SOUTH AFRICA: Second

GRADE: B-

The Springboks will lament a poor closing sequence against the All Blacks in Joburg, and then a largely listless display against the Wallabies in Adelaide, after they left themselves with too much to do on the tournament's final day. Still, Jacques Nienaber's side finished with the same 4-2 record as the All Blacks and at last ended their stretch of defeats in Australia, which had dated back to 2013, when they rolled the Wallabies in comprehensive fashion in Sydney.

South Africa were well served right across the paddock with the likes of Malcolm Marx, Eben Etzebeth, Jasper Wiese, Damian de Allende and Makazole Mapimpi consistent performers across the tournament, and they were led superbly as usual by Siya Kolisi.

But there was uncertainty in the halves where form, injury and concussion resulted in four different combinations across the six Tests; the Elton Jantjies incident also an unwanted distraction. Handre Pollard's injury did however open up the opportunity for Damian Willemse, who was a driving factor behind the drought-breaking win in Sydney.

The world also got a glimpse of the new breed of Springboks wingers with both Kurt-Lee Arendse and Canan Moodie catching the eye, the latter in particular looking very much like the player Jake White predicted would play "100 Tests" for South Africa.

Star performer: Malcolm Marx

As previously mentioned, the Boks were well served by a number of consistent performers but it was Marx who really underlined his world-class abilities during the Rugby Championship.

As dynamic as ever at the breakdown, the hooker's set-piece was also solid, while his 80-minute engine was perfectly reflected in bonus-point sealing try in Buenos Aires. While the Boks failed to run down the All Blacks on the final day, it was Marx's desperate handling a week prior that had at least given them the chance to do so.

Remaining Tests: Ireland, France, Italy, England

At 6-3 for the year, the Springboks will encounter three stern tests in Europe in November. But they are well placed to combat each of those teams, the clash with Ireland a precursor to their crunch World Cup showdown in Paris next year.

Just what Nienaber decides to do at No. 10 potentially carries the most intrigue, with Pollard having linked up with English champions Leicester and Willemse impressive in his absence before sustaining a concussion himself. Having already piloted the Boks at back-to-back World Cups, including the win in 2019, Pollard has the runs on the board; but Willemse will come under serious consideration and should get a chance to perform in Europe.

AUSTRALIA: Third

GRADE: C-

The Wallabies might well be the most frustrating side in world rugby. Clearly, they have the ability to play the kind of rugby that makes them a World Cup threat; their No. 1 problem, however, is that they are unable to do it consistently. This year's Rugby Championship was the perfect example of that, as the Wallabies were excellent one week, then very poor the next; it virtually happened in each of the two-week blocks of the tournament.

Certainly Dave Rennie's group were hit hard by injury. The loss of Samu Kerevi before the tournament had begun was compounded by Quade Cooper's season-ending injury and Michael Hooper's withdrawal because of mental health issues. Concussions suffered by Hunter Paisami and Noah Lolesio followed, while Taniela Tupou also went down with a calf injury. This all came after the Wallabies had already seen a host of players head for the casualty ward in the 2-1 series loss to England.

The fly-half picture, as a result, remains as clouded as ever. Cooper's torn Achilles saw Bernard Foley earn a recall once Lolesio suffered his concussion, the young Brumbies 10 sidelined just when it appeared Rennie was prepared to give him some "continuity" in the role. There were however some silver linings in the swathe of Wallabies injuries, with each of Pete Samu, Fraser McReight and Lalakai Foketi impressing when given their opportunities to start, the latter unfortunately the final Wallaby to be hit by the team's injury curse.

Star performer: Rob Valetini

While Marika Koroibete grabbed the headlines earlier in the tournament, and Pete Samu finished with a bang, it was the consistent workrate of Valetini that made him Australia's most valuable player across the Rugby Championship.

Valetini fronted in every Test, throwing himself into defensive lines over and over again, a fact confirmed by his status as he finished the tournament with the most metres made [362] of any forward in the competition, and finished third [58] behind only Pablo Matera [60] and Ardie Savea [60] for total carries.

Remaining Tests: Scotland, France, Italy, Ireland, Wales

A five-Test tour awaits the Wallabies across October and November, the bookend matches against Scotland and Wales added in the search for exposure and clarity as Rennie struggles with the make-up of his best XV. Only Rob Valetini and Marika Koroibete have seemingly nailed down World Cup starting spots, and the Fijian winger won't head north next month as he instead returns to Japanese champions Panasonic Wild Knights.

Foley is tipped to tour, but Lolesio will likely return to the No. 10 jersey if he is fit; staying on the paddock, and the youngster's smaller frame, the chief concerns as to whether he can truly become a Test quality playmaker. Hooper is also expected to return, but he will be short on match fitness and a careful reintroduction from the bench looms as a distinct possibility.

Elsewhere, Rennie has the opportunity to genuinely learn something about each of Suliasi Vunivalu and the France-based Will Skelton, who only saw sparing minutes at the same juncture last year. Vunivalu will tour Japan with the Australia A squad alongside a host of other Wallabies while Skelton will likely come in and add depth at the troublesome lock position.

At 3-6 on the season, Rennie could really use some wins. While Rugby Australia chairman Hamish McLennan recently backed Rennie through to the World Cup, the losses are really starting to mount. This tour is no snack, however, and the Wallabies could very easily go 1-4.

ARGENTINA: Fourth

Grade: C

The Michael Cheika-era in Argentina is now well underway, and the Pumas have an historic first win over the All Blacks in New Zealand to show for it. That victory, in Christchurch, was a huge moment for Argentine rugby and one not to be forgotten anytime soon.

Despite that, you get the feeling the Pumas will be kicking themselves over a couple of tight defeats, particularly those in the closing weeks to South Africa when they had worked so hard to get back into the contest and give themselves the opportunity to win, only to then fade badly defensively and let their discipline slide.

But they are certainly a much-improved side to the one that went winless in last year's tournament, Cheika's ability to make an impact from the start of his tenure again evident. The Pumas were well served by their back-row, on both the attacking and defensive sides of the ball, while Emiliano Boffelli also had a fine tournament, the fullback finishing as the joint-highest points scorer [71] alongside Richie Mo'unga. The Pumas also showed they can play in different styles, using a high-ball assault to pick apart Australia and then backing their defence and work at the tackle to upset New Zealand.

Argentina's discipline was however a huge concern over the closing weeks of the tournament. Having been strong in that department earlier in the tournament, they then conceded 18 and 22 penalties against the Springboks in Rounds 5 & 6.

Star performer: Juan Martin Gonzalez

The Pumas have had some fine back-rowers over the years and they appear to have unearthed another in Gonzalez. Cut from the same cloth as Pablo Matera, Gonzalez was responsible for two of the big highlight plays in the tournament; firstly catching the kick-off and sprinting 25 metres to score and sink the All Blacks, before on the weekend he made a complete fool of Willie le Roux with a step and shimmy the fullback himself would have been proud of.

Remaining Tests: England, Wales, Scotland

While the momentum of their series win over Scotland, and then victories over the Wallabies and All Blacks, has taken a serious hit, Cheika's Pumas will head to the United Kingdom in a far better position than this time last year.

The Australian largely has a settled squad at his disposal, while veteran fly-half Nicolas Sanchez is also likely to return having missed the bulk of the Rugby Championship with injury.

Rediscovering the defensive mettle they showed in Christchurch will be key to the Pumas having success in the U.K, with Boffelli able to accumulate points from the kicking tee right back to and beyond the halfway line. Toeing a safer line with the referees, too, will be vital.

But Argentina have shown enough to suggest they will be a genuine test for both Scotland and Wales, while a mental blow ahead of their World Cup showdown is on offer with England at Twickenham.