The Rugby Championship starts this weekend with Australia and South Africa both confident of their chances of beating New Zealand.
The third edition of the Rugby Championship kicks off this weekend with Australia and South Africa both confident of their chances of knocking New Zealand off their pedestal.
With Australia having enjoyed their best Super Rugby season in ages and Heyneke Meyer's Springboks continuing their upward curve, 2014 has the makings of an intriguing season.
Argentina too will have a part to play as they look to a new generation of players to make an impact.
Defeats for New Zealand in Jo'burg and Sydney are being talked about, but we've heard it all before. The All Blacks have been denied the southern hemisphere crown just twice in the last decade so they will rightly start as favourites for their 13th title 19 years of Tri-Nations/Rugby Championship action.
The tournament is still days away from kicking off yet the injury toll is already remarkably high, with a number of big-name absentees adding more uncertainty to what we can expect over the next two months.
Moore, Polota-Nau, Matfield, Du Preez, Carter, Woodcock…the list goes on and on. Each of the big contenders are without key players as the attritional nature of Super Rugby has left its mark, once again.
It's significant to note that, even considering the absence of Carter for the opening rounds, New Zealand have – as usual – been the least affected, underlining the success of their player management model.
It's not always easy to prove a link between Super Rugby franchise form and the fortunes of the respective national sides, but the Aussie press have been keen to remind everyone willing to listen that the last time the Wallabies won the tournament – in 2011 – an Australian franchise was also top of the Super Rugby pile.
Like the Reds back then, the Waratahs have supplied the core of the Wallaby team as the absence of Will Genia and Quade Cooper is no train smash considering the stellar form of the 'Tahs backline. Likewise David Pocock is hardly missed with Michael Hooper developing into a world-class flank and skipper.
The start of Ewen McKenzie's tenure in last year's Rugby Championship was a bit of a rough ride but his team have made massive strides forward over the past twelve months. Since losing to England at Twickenham in November, a winning streak of seven straight games has instilled an atmosphere confidence.
Saturday's Bledisloe Cup opener will go a long way to setting the tone for the rest of year. The Wallabies have won only two and drawn one of their past 20 Tests against the All Blacks but there is real belief that the time is right to set the record straight. Another loss could burst the bubble.
Australia have gone a long way to hardening up the infamous 'soft underbelly' of their pack but the absence of their two best hookers will open up an easy target – for the Boks and Pumas especially.
Ones to watch: Just how McKenzie uses Will Skelton will be interesting. A rampaging 140kg lock with great ball skills makes for the perfect impact player but it will be tempting to start the youngster. Kurtley Beale has been brilliant for the Waratahs with 12 on his back making McKenzie's decision to start him at fly-half the first surprise of the tournament.
Without a win in their first two years running with the big dogs, will 2014 see los Pumas get off the mark? Probably not.
A draw against the Boks in Mendoza was a reminder that they should not be taken lightly but this is now a team in somewhat of a rebuilding phase.
Gone are the old stalwarts that made the Pumas front-row such a fearsome unit in the past. The arrival of new coach Daniel Hourcade has naturally brought about a regeneration of the playing staff, as highlighted by the appointment of a new skipper in Agustin Creevy and the absence of a Patricio Albacete – Argentina's greatest ever lock, but by many accounts a poisonous influence within the squad.
They will, however, arrive well prepared and fresh. Unlike the other three, the Pumas will not be carrying bumps and bruises from months of Super Rugby toil.
Instead, they will sport bronze skins from their annual training camp in Florida. While most of the first-choice players were rested in June, the reinforcements were tested against Scotland and Ireland.
But the first XV won't be short of game time as a UAR made sure they would be battled hardened by flying out 51 players and staff members from the French club Grenoble for two warm-up games. Money well spent? Time will tell.
Ones to watch: 22-year-old Manuel Montero is a star in the making. Blessed with the gift of pure pace and attacking flair, he is the sort of player the Pumas have been missing. Great things are expected too of fly-half Nicolas Sanchez, who has helped make Bordeaux one of the most attractive sides to watch in the Top 14. It is time now to leave his mark a the Test arena.
Unbeaten in 17 Tests, Steve Hansen's troops can break the world Tier 1 record for most consecutive wins on Saturday, but their aura of invincibility took a severe knock when they were pushed very close by England in June.
It's crazy to think that being without the world's best-ever fly-half will not be considered a major setback given the quality of those lining up to take over. Aaron Cruden, Beauden Barrett and Colin Slade would all be easy selections for most other countries.
Hansen is equally spoilt for choice at 15, 13 and 7 but there is a worry up front where, like Australia, hookers are in short supply.
For the first time in his career, there are now question marks over 33-year-old Richie McCaw. A class player he remains, but a series of injuries have meant he is no longer the force that once made him the world's best. Referees too now seem more willing to penalise the All Black skipper.
The selectors were very bold in leaving out Matt Todd in favour of Sam Cane to be McCaw's understudy. Again, these are problem most coaches would wish for.
Ones to watch: Super Rugby sensation Malakai Fekitoa will ride pine behind Conrad Smith, but he is sure to set the field alight whenever given the opportunity. Thought by many to be the weak link in the pack, hooker Dane Coles had a fantastic season with the Hurricanes, but still needs to prove himself on the Test stage. June was unconvincing.
If last year's competition is anything to go by, then the Springboks will be New Zealand's toughest challengers. A dreadful Super Rugby season for four out of the five SA franchises may have fans worried but Meyer will not be overly concerned as most of his key players have been producing the goods.
The Boks still cop flak for their conservative style but that is slowly changing with Willie le Roux the joker in the mix that makes anything possible.
Everything will still revolve around the pack – led by Bismarck du Plessis – dominating