It is that time of the week again when 'Orrible Punt sits down in the Planet Rugby hot-seat to give his calls. Brace yourself for the Rugby Championship.
We arrive at the opening round of this inaugural four-team competition as, at long last, Argentina pulls up a regular chair at a top table. They play South Africa in Cape Town this weekend where sheets of rain have been pouring down for most of the week. The weather is expected to improve.
Competition holders Australia host New Zealand in the first fixture of the new format in what should be a grand opener which takes place in Sydney.
Remember you can contact Russ with all your comments and questions on Twitter - @rpetty80.
New Zealand have held the Bledisloe Cup since 2003, and with 50 wins in 72 matches and 10 competition wins out of 16 attempts, they have dominated the Tri Nations competition. The All Blacks go into the game on a run of 10 consecutive wins and have only conceded more than 20 points twice in that period. The reigning World Cup winners have been installed as 1.65 favourites to win the trophy and their media are certainly confident of their chances, mocking their opponents' ability in the scrum and some even going so far as to suggest their old foes Australia will win just one game. With 25 victories from 36 games (10 from 18 in Australia) they certainly hold the advantage in the head-to-head record in the competition. The Wallabies gave away plenty of scrum infringements in their June games and although Stephen Moore may not knock himself or others out using his head like current Aussie hooker, there is a strong case that the Brumbies man should be the one starting and in charge of their line-out duties.
It's fair to say the named Australian team hasn't been fully embraced by its fans, and with Quade Cooper out the squad and a 5/2 split on the bench it does all point towards a more direct style of play. There has also been much said about the strength of the Australian conference this year and with 8 Waratahs in the side, a poor performance is going to be jumped on by critics. Despite the calls for the Reds fly-half, Berrick Barnes did organise the team (minus several key players) to a series win over Wales and probably deserves his chance. Robbie Deans will no doubt have remembered Cooper's effort in the World Cup semi-final and the way his side was overpowered so it's no surprise he is looking to match the All Blacks up front. If Will Genia and especially Kurtley Beale get their hands on quick ball then they have the ability to unlock any defence but that of course relies on their pack.
They may be the strong favourites for this match (1.53 with Stan James) but New Zealand have lost their last two away games to Australia and are without Conrad Smith in the centre, he of the 90 per cent win ratio in an All Blacks shirt. 7 of the last 10 games in Australia have seen 5 point winning margins or less so it tends to be a close fixture. Rather than backing the outright win, I prefer taking the ABs to win by 1-12 points at 2.75 with Ladbrokes. The 1-5 margin is at 6.0 with Sky Bet for those who think that run of close games will continue.
For Wallabies backers, the handicap is set at +6 points (Sky Bet), which they have covered in 13 of 18 home games in the Tri Nations against New Zealand. They would have also covered the +3 point half-time handicap (also Sky Bet) in 14 of those 18 games. I can also see the 3.25 for them to win with Sporting Bet being quite popular with Australian fans.
There are a few All Black players that have decent try-scoring records against the Wallabies. Richie McCaw has 8 tries in 26 games against Australia and 3 in 5 at the ANZ and is available at 7.5 to score anytime. There has also been 6 back-row tries scored by New Zealand players in the last 6 games which may encourage you to back the skipper. Ma'a Nonu has 8 tries in 15 games (3.5 anytime scorer with Boylesports) and Tony Woodcock 5 in 21 (14's with Paddy Power). Australia have conceded a fair few tries down the left side in recent games so Cory Jane at 3.0 with Sky Bet may be worth a look or even 8.5 to score two or more. Australia have scored 5 tries from centres in their last 6 games so consider Rob Horne at 6.0 with Boylesports. Genia and Scott Higginbotham are at 6.0 with Sky Bet too.
Argentina achieved a third place finish in the 2007 World Cup, and with 23 wins in their last 40 games against the Six Nations teams and after plenty of negotiations, find themselves in the extended version of the Tri Nations competition. It's worth noting that Los Pumas have lost 42 of 48 games against their new opponents, by an average score of 15-35 so it's unsurprising that they are firm favourites to collect the wooden spoon in their first outing. I've a feeling the 125/1 for them to win the competition will be as popular as a Bryce Lawrence appearance in South Africa. The scrum holds a special association with Argentinian rugby, with the famed 'Bajada' eight man push that sees all the power directed at the hooker, probably their most famous contribution to the game. Whilst the veteran Mario Ledesma has retired, there is still great front row experience in Rodrigo Roncero and Marcos Ayerza and the pack contains established names like Patricio Albacete, and captain Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe. Providing they can all stay fit through the competition then the forwards should be able to cause problems for their rivals. The concern lies in the backline. With the iconic Agustin Pichot long retired and Felipe Contepomi on Top 14 duty, the pressure to produce creativity falls upon Juan Martin Hernandez - who is only just back from injury.
South Africa went try-less in their final two Tri Nations matches and Heyneke Meyer will look to improve upon a competition record that has seen just 28 wins in 72 matches. The Boks have kept pretty close to the same team that recorded a home series win over England (bar injuries) and the game plan may also remain relatively simple. There has been a definite attempt to select existing club units with the front and back-rows coming from the Sharks, while the locks are both Stormers. In the backline, the 9/10 duo are from the Bulls. If the strong Sharks pack did have a weakness this year, it was perhaps at the line-out so the inclusion of the towering Andries Bekker and Eben Etzebeth makes sense. The emphasis still seems to be for ball carriers rather than someone to force turnovers, but that may not be an issue until later in the series and it's worth remembering that this back-row did take the Sharks to a Super Rugby final. Argentina used the June period to test their squad depth, putting out what could be described as 2nd or even 3rd XV teams (only four players played then are in this current competition squad), which means the main team will be fully prepared and rested. The same can't be said of the Boks who have just finished Super Rugby, but whilst they have had a much shorter break - they are going to match-ready and have tournament experience.The visitors have lost all 13 games against South Africa and their record away is lost 6, by an average of 21-44. The bookies have the hosts comfortable favourites by between 13 and 16 points. I quite like the idea of taking Argentina with +16 handicap with or even + 19 at 1.73 (both Sky Bet). There isn't anything to suggest that South Africa are going to change drastically from their power game and Morne Steyn has endured several bad days in front of goal this season. If the Boks get side-tracked into that commentators favourite 'an arm-wrestle' then a 19-point cushion may be too many for them to overcome. There is a huge dollop of optimism going with that thinking though and many will feel that this match is going to be a sharp learning curve / horror show for the Pumas. If so then South Africa to win by 13+ points at 1.73 with Ladbrokes or even 40+ with Sporting Bet at 19's may tempt. The Boks not to trail in the match at 2.2 with Bet365 is also tempting.
Argentina would have covered the half-time handicap of +8 (Sky Bet) in three of their last five matches against South Africa. You would think that they will come out firing in their first game and the first half could easily be a prolonged forward clash with points at a premium. Again, this one for the 'glass is half full' brigade. Argentinian back-rowers have scored 4 tries in their last 4 games against top tier opposition, while South Africa have conceded 3 tries against scrum-halves in their last 3 games so if looking for a bit of value maybe Julio Farías Cabello at 13's (Sky Bet) and Nicolás Vergallo (14's with Paddy Power) appeal as anytime scorers. There aren't too many attractive prices for South African try-scorers, with Lwazi Mvovo at 3.0 and Keegan Daniel at 4.5 (both Boylesports) being ones that stand out.
Both sides have averaged a drop-goal every four games in their international history, and you tend to associate both with scoring them - but surprisingly since 2010 there have only been three in 26 games for SA and none in 22 for Argentina. It might be worth waiting therefore to see if the 2.1 for a drop-goal to occur can be bettered before having a bet.
I was expecting a whole deck of cards to be given out in the South Africa vs England series and yet surprisingly, only one card was issued. Steve Walsh officiated two of those games and is in charge again for this match. They say that familiarity breeds contempt and with two abrasive packs on display, I'm still expecting to see a card. The 1.57 for a yellow isn't that tasty, but perhaps an Argentinian to be booked first at 2.3 is a better option (Paddy Power).