New Zealand begin the defence of their Tri-Nations crown against a below-strength South African side in Wellington on Saturday.
A clash between the All Blacks and the Springboks has long been the pinnacle of Test rugby, but a number of sub-plots this weekend have extended the intrigue beyond just the numbers on the scoreboard.
As predicted in our tournament preview, an awful lot of ink has flowed over team selections. Injured (some more than others) Springboks, accusations of secret training camps, the All Blacks unashamedly resting players... there has been no lack of highly-debatable topics this week.
Considering the amount of the wailing and gnashing of teeth that accompanied the announcement of the South African touring party, it was somewhat surprising to note the relative silence from the South African press when Graham Henry and co. sent Kieren Reid, Brad Thorn, Owen Franks and Keven Mealamu home for some R&R.
It seems completely reasonable though to give those workhorses a break, as does the South Africans' insistence that the players in Rustenburg are following rehabilitation programs and are not engaged in some covert training operation. Of course, whether we should believe everything we're told is another issue altogether.
Back to the game at hand.
Springbok skipper John Smit is unlikely to forget the day these teams last met. With the match that marked his 100th cap hanging in the balance in the dying moments, Smit was left clasping Ma'a Nonu's boot, watching in agony as Israel Dagg scored the winning try. It was enough to make a grown man cry - and a few nearly did.
While his leadership skills are beyond question, voices of dissent are growing against the captain back in the Republic as history's most-capped Test skipper struggles to convince certain sectors of the public that he is still the player he once was.
Yet it's unlikely Smit will taste revenge this weekend because, however you look at it, this Springbok side is seriously lacking in firepower. In fact, there are just two Boks in this week's starting XV that took the field that day in Jo'burg last year - Smit and Morne Steyn.
Eleven of Saturday's run-on side have played fewer than eight Tests. It would have seemed unthinkable not long ago but there is particular concern over the second row, where Gerhard Mostert will make his debut alongside Alistair Hargreaves, who has just three caps.
For all coach Peter de Villiers' talk of the potential of some of the rookies (and no one can deny the talent of Patrick Lambie), if nothing else this tour could be used as an exercise in eliminating those who are not up to scratch for Test rugby. Deon Stegmann - who was conspicuous by his invisibility last week - springs to mind. Ashley Johnson however can feel a little aggrieved to have been relegated to the bench.
A lot of knives have been out for Bryan Habana over the last year or so, but after last week's defensive nightmare if you went out onto the streets in South Africa and asked just about anyone if they'd rather see a Habana-Frans Steyn-Pietersen back three or a Basson-Aplon-Mvovo combination it shouldn't take long to get a straight answer.
Considering that Henry has picked a near full-strength side, anything less than a big win for the hosts will surely be a morale-booster for the PdV's men.
Indeed, the All Blacks will be under pressure to lay down a marker ahead of the World Cup. The win against Fiji was less-than-brilliant and another stuttering performance could spell bad news for certain players as competition for spots in the starting XV is hotter than ever.
What impact will Sonny Bill Williams have off the bench? How much time will Jimmy Cowan be given before Piri Weepu is sent on? Can Cory Jane use this chance to sneak back into the favoured 30? Ditto for Wyatt Crockett.
So an easy win for the All Blacks then? No doubt the hosts are clear favourites, but there is no such thing as an 'easy' win against the any team in green and gold. We should certainly expect an improvement on last week's shambles from the tourists.
The All Blacks and Springboks have played each other 81 times, with 45 wins to New Zealand, 33 to South Africa and three draws. This week however the interest will not only lie in the final result, but how that result is achieved and the implications it has for a certain tournament now just 41 days away.
Players to watch:
For New Zealand: There was a small surprise in the All Blacks team announcement when Adam Thomson's name appeared at number eight. There had been speculation that Richie McCaw would move to eight for the first time in his 95 Tests after training there this week, and he might well still get time there in the latter stages. Graham Henry says Thomson's selection at the back of the scrum was part of a project to develop more versatility among his players ahead of the World Cup, when squad size restrictions could limit options. Thomson was simply brilliant for the Highlanders in Super Rugby, finding his way over the tryline more than most of the competition's best backs. It's no easy task breaking into the Kiwi starting back row considering that Kieren Read is in such awesome form, but a big performance from Thomson could see him put the heat on Jerome Kaino.
For South Africa: He's the next great hope for South African rugby. Patrick Lambie will make his first Test start at fly-half rather than at full-back after a late switch with Morne Steyn, who moves to the 15 jersey. Lambie's instinctive attacking ability with ball in hand is exactly what critics suggest is missing from Steyn's game. Irrespective of the number on his back, expect Lambie to play a decisive role. With Butch James, Morne and Francois Steyn in his plans, PdV faces the dilemma of finding a place for Lambie in his first-choice team. Another impressive showing from the Sharks youngster will only make it harder to leave him out.
Head-to-head: Expect the Boks to be breathing fire at the breakdown after the grilling received from their captain and coaches this week following their below-par effort in Sydney. The All Blacks are certainly not a team to shirk a physical challenge so the battle of the back rows should be ferocious. The opposing blindsides (Kaino and Jean Deysel) certainly know how it put in a big hit...look out!
2010: New Zealand won 29-22 at FNB Stadium, Johannesburg
2010: New Zealand won 31-17 at Westpac Stadium, Wellington
2010: New Zealand won 32-12 at Eden Park, Auckland
2009: South Africa won 32-29 at Rugby Park, Hamilton
2009: South Africa won 31-19 at Absa Stadium, Durban
2009: South Africa won 28-19 at Vodacom Park, Bloemfontein
2008: New Zealand won 19-0 at Newlands
2008: South Africa won 30-28 at Carisbrook, Dunedin
2008: New Zealand won 19-8 at Westpac Stadium, Wellington
2007: New Zealand won 33-6 at Jade Stadium, Christchurch
2007: New Zealand won 26-21 at Absa Stadium, Durban
2006: South Africa won 21-20 at Royal Bafokeng Stadium, Rustenburg
2006: New Zealand won 45-26 at Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
Prediction: New Zealand have not lost a Tri-Nations match since 2009 and look set to extend their winning streak in the competition to eight Tests. New Zealand by 17 points.
New Zealand: 15 Mils Muliaina, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Zac Guildford, 10 Daniel Carter, 9 Jimmy Cowan, 8 Adam Thomson, 7 Richie McCaw (C), 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Ali Williams, 4 Samuel Whitelock, 3 Ben Franks, 2 Andrew Hore, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements:16 Corey Flynn, 17 John Afoa, 18 Jarrad Hoeata, 19 Liam Messam, 20 Piri Weepu, 21 Colin Slade, 22 Sonny Bill Williams.
South Africa: 15 Morne Steyn, 14 Bjorn Basson, 13 Adi Jacobs, 12 Juan de Jongh, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Pat Lambie, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Danie Rossouw, 7 Jean Deysel, 6 Deon Stegmann, 5 Alistair Hargreaves, 4 Gerhard Mostert, 3 Werner Kruger, 2 John Smit (c), 1 Dean Greyling.
Replacements: 16 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 17 CJ van der Linde, 18 Ryan Kankowski, 19 Ashley Johnson, 20 Charl McLeod, 21 Wynand Olivier, 22 Odwa Ndungane.
Date: Saturday, July 30
Venue: Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Kick-off: 19.35 (07.35 GMT ; 09.35 SA)
Weather: 6-11°C. Occasional showers
Referee:Alain Rolland (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Stuart Dickinson (Australia), James Leckie (Australia)
Television match officials:Garratt Williamson (New Zealand)
Assessor: Tappe Henning
By Ross Hastie