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By Sports Desk June 14, 2019

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  • Rugby Championship: How the four nations measure up ahead of 2019 tournament Rugby Championship: How the four nations measure up ahead of 2019 tournament

    The Rugby Championship begins this weekend, with the four nations keen to find form ahead of the upcoming Rugby World Cup in Japan.

    New Zealand have won the tournament in each of the past three years and the All Blacks are favourites to once again finish above Australia, Argentina and South Africa.

    We run the rule over the quartet ahead of the start of the Rugby Championship, where teams will only face each other once in a World Cup year.

    NEW ZEALAND

    The All Blacks are chasing more than just a fourth successive title and third consecutive World Cup in the coming months, with a slice of history also on the line. No team has ever won the Rugby Championship - or the Tri-Nations, as it was previously known - and also lifted that year's World Cup.

    New Zealand were beaten by South Africa in Wellington during last year's Rugby Championship - the first time in nine years the Springboks had won an away game against the All Blacks - while a 16-9 defeat to Ireland in November will have given the rest of the rugby world further encouragement.

    Sonny Bill Williams, who will not feature against Argentina on Saturday, has had an injury-hit Super Rugby season and Kieran Read and Sam Whitelock will be rested for the Pumas clash. However, this is a star-studded team regardless - one that contains 2016 and 2017 World Rugby Player of the Year Beauden Barrett - and they remain the gold standard.

    SOUTH AFRICA

    The Springboks were runners-up last year and might have finished top of the pile had they not thrown away a 30-13 lead against New Zealand in Pretoria after beating them in their own backyard. They ended the year with seven wins from 14 games so consistency will be the key.

    A home Test series success over England was a sign South Africa could be a team to fear under Rassie Erasmus, whose decision to relax the rules on selecting European-based players has paid dividends.

    Fly-half Handre Pollard was brilliant during the Super Rugby season, finishing as the league's leading point scorer, though he will be rested against the Wallabies in the opener and Aphiwe Dyantyi is sidelined by a hamstring problem.

    AUSTRALIA

    The Wallabies endured a horrendous 2018, losing nine of their 13 Tests. They suffered three heavy defeats to the All Blacks and were beaten by both Argentina and South Africa.

    Australia slipped to their lowest-ever ranking of seventh following their first loss to the Pumas on home soil since 1983 and then lost two of their three November internationals, against Wales and England. They have not played a game in 2019 but former star full-back Israel Folau has already been making headlines, having been sacked by Rugby Australia following a controversial social-media post in which he wrote "hell awaits…drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters".

    Coach Michael Cheika, who has left Quade Cooper out of his squad, made clear he will walk away if Australia do not lift the World Cup in Japan, so this competition should give an indication to his long-term future. Cancer survivor Christian Lealiifano could make his first appearance in three years at this tournament, though he will miss the South Africa clash with a shoulder problem.

    ARGENTINA

    The Pumas' 2018 did not start well - two home defeats to Wales preceding a 44-15 thrashing at the hands of Scotland in Resistencia - and coach Daniel Hourcade vacated his post, replaced by Mario Ledesma.

    Having never won more than once in a single Rugby Championship campaign before, Argentina claimed two victories in 2018 by overcoming South Africa 32-19 in Mendoza and then beating the Wallabies on Australian soil, but they were winless in November Tests against Ireland, France and Scotland.

    The Jaguares, who provide the bulk of this Argentina squad, reached their first ever Super Rugby final this year, only to be beaten by the Crusaders, but translating that club success on the international stage is an altogether different challenge.

  • This Week in US Sports: Paul sticking around, MLB pitchers keep throwing at batters This Week in US Sports: Paul sticking around, MLB pitchers keep throwing at batters

    Chris Paul did not get what he wanted, but he is apparently not too mad about it.

    In the meantime in MLB, batters really need to start watching their heads.

    And in the NHL a ton is happening, and yet, nothing actually is.

     

    1. Paul staying with Thunder

    The Oklahoma City Thunder had hoped to move Paul quickly after acquiring him in a package for Russell Westbrook last week, but that is apparently not going to happen.

    Paul is likely to start the season in Oklahoma City, according to ESPN, and could play out a good portion of the campaign, or even longer, there.

    Oklahoma City reportedly tried to move Paul to the Heat, but their proposals were not to the liking of Miami, so Paul, and his three years and more than $100million left on his contract, will stay with the Thunder.

    Fortunately, both Paul and the Thunder reportedly see value in him sticking around, so it is not a total loss for either party.

    2. Plunk wars

    It is that time of year. Baseball players are throwing at each other again and two pitchers were suspended for their actions on Wednesday after throwing at the heads of opponents a day earlier.

    Philadelphia Phillies reliever Hector Neris was mad at himself so he threw at David Freese.

    Then, Los Angeles Angels reliever Noe Ramirez threw at Jake Marisnick for breaking his catcher's nose and giving him a concussion.

    Both players were suspended for three games. Both men will appeal.

     

    3. NHL has oddly eventful week

    For some reason there was a lot going on in the NHL this week. There were several signings and a somewhat notable trade.

    - The Chicago Blackhawks traded Artem Anisimov to the Ottawa Senators for Zack Smith.
    - Minnesota Wild re-signed Ryan Donato to a two-year deal after he excelled following his trade there for Charlie Coyle at the deadline.
    - The Washington Capitals re-signed Jakub Vrana to a two-year deal.
    - Colorado Avalanche signed J.T. Compher to a four-year deal but still have not given Mikko Rantanen an offer.

    Rantanen remains unsigned as do other restricted free agent stars such as Patrick Laine (Winnipeg Jets), Matthew Tkachuk (Calgary Flames), Brayden Point (Tampa Bay Lightning) and Mitch Marner (Toronto Maple Leafs).

    All of these men face holdouts if they do not get the deals they want, but with all of the contracts already handed out teams simply might not have enough money to give especially with a lower salary cap than many anticipated. There could be a lot of disappointed young players this offseason.

     

    4. Falcons, Deion Jones agree to four-year, $57m deal

    This is how much Deion Jones means to the Atlanta Falcons defense.

    After going down early in the season to injury, Jones was still given a four-year, $57m deal on Wednesday. Jones played in just six games in 2018, but Atlanta clearly have no concern about his long-term health and locked him up accordingly.

    The Falcons are due for a bounce-back season if they are healthy and Jones will be a big part of it.

  • GM Ainge unsurprised by Irving's decision to leave Celtics GM Ainge unsurprised by Irving's decision to leave Celtics

    Kyrie Irving's decision to leave Boston and sign with the Brooklyn Nets in free agency did not come as a surprise to Celtics general manager Danny Ainge.

    During an interview with 98.5 The Sports Hub's Toucher and Rich, Ainge opened up about some of the conversations he had with the six-time All-Star in the months leading up to his free agency.

    "He did express to me on a couple of occasions between March and the end of [the season] that he really wanted to go home," Ainge said about Irving, who grew up in New Jersey.

    "I got the impression at that point that he wanted to go play in Brooklyn more than he wanted to play in New York or Boston."

    Irving had mentioned at one point that he planned to re-sign with the Celtics, but Ainge revealed he never had that conversation with him.

    "He told everyone else, but I never had that conversation with him," Ainge said. "I asked him point blank in the conversations that I had with him, 'Would you consider returning to Boston?' And he was always 'Yes'. He was always in that frame of mind. I don't think he was out the door for sure by then. I think he was contemplating all his options."

    Ainge went on to defend Irving and said he wanted to take the blame away from the veteran.

    The Celtics finished the season with a 49-33 record and many questioned Irving's leadership.

    "A lot of people put a lot of heat on Kyrie of being the guy that's supposed to be this great leader and it was his responsibility to lead everybody," Ainge said.

    "I continually tried to remove that pressure from Kyrie and [tell him to] just be yourself, just go play, just have fun, find joy in the game ... I think he did feel that burden, that he had to be too much, and wasn't able to do that.

    "I don't like the fact that it's all the blame on [Irving]. I'd like everybody to take responsibility for that. I feel like the Kyrie bashing is unfair, that's all."

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