Rugby Championship: Key Players to Watch Part 1
The All Blacks start as firm favourites and will expect to continue the momentum gained from three wins over France early this summer, while Australia will hope to bounce back from a demoralising series defeat to the Lions and start building under their new coaching setup.
South Africa failed to impress in last year's inaugural tournament and need to start showing that they are developing a squad capable of winning the next World Cup, while Argentina need to recover from two heavy defeats to England and prove again that they can provide serious competition to the big three.
In the first of three reviews, we take a look at a number of players that will be key to their teams' chances:
Will Genia, Australia
Perhaps the only player in the Wallabies squad that would walk into a World XV, Will Genia is crucial to Australia's chances. Genia is the best scrum-half playing the game and the fulcrum of the Wallabies' game.
Although a brilliant attacking player—as he showed in the first Test with the Lions—Britain and Ireland's finest also managed to shackle the Queensland halfback, so he was less effective in the remaining games.
Such is his reputation, Genia will need to perform under similar attention from the All Blacks', Springboks' and Pumas' back-rows and unleash a partnership with the returning Quade Cooper that has the potential to be the most exciting in the tournament.
Marcos Ayerza, Argentina
Argentina have always based their game around their pack and have good reason to be proud of their reputation as a strong scrummaging side. Pumas teams over the years may have lacked speed and skill out wide, but opponents always know they have been in a game due to the power of their forwards.
The Pumas were short of players for the summer series against England and were found wanting up front in two heavy defeats. It may have been a second-choice pack, but their first-choice scrum will be determined to lay down a marker in their opening game with South Africa.
Marcos Ayerza is as crucial to their chances of setting a foundation up front as he was to Leicester when they finished champions of England last season.
With his superb all-round game, the Tigers loosehead needs to prove he is back to his best after suffering a shoulder injury in the quarter-final of the Heineken Cup, when he felt the full force of Toulon giant Bakkies Botha. Ouch!
Fourie Du Preez, South Africa
The Boks were disappointing in last year's tournament and lacked direction and composure at halfback. Francois Hougaard started the tournament at No. 9 before he was moved to the wing, and Ruan Pienaar took over scrum-half duties.
Ulster's Pienaar is a fine player, but divides his time between the two halfback positions. He lacks the finesse and attacking threat of the Boks' World Cup-winning scrum-half Fourie du Preez, who returns to the South African squad for the first time since 2011.
Du Preez has been plying his trade in Japan and the Boks will hope he can rediscover the international form that made him one of the finest players at the 2007 World Cup.
Israel Dagg, New Zealand
New Zealand have attacking threats all over the park, but increasingly their cutting edge comes from full-back and the Crusaders' in-form Israel Dagg.
A key member of the All Blacks team that won the 2012 World Cup, Dagg has established himself as arguably the finest full-back in world rugby, as this superb try in the semi-final of this year's Super 15 shows.
New Zealand thrive on turnover balls and are never more threatening than when the likes of Dagg break from deep and take advantage of vulnerable defences.