Following on from last year's New Zealand triumph, the forces of Australia, South Africa and Argentina are once again mounting an assault on the Rugby Championship with 2014 glory in their sights.
The All Blacks face a tough test in retaining their title, but after going unbeaten in 2013, Steven Hansen's line-up looks to be in as glittering a form as ever.
The next six rounds of Rugby Championship competition will test just who of the Southern Hemisphere's giants currently reigns supreme, with a barrage of world-class fixtures on the schedule.
This year's contest is especially significant in providing another look at whose 2015 Rugby World Cup preparations are coming along smoothly and where those who are lacking need to improve.
|Australia vs. New Zealand||August 16||11:05 a.m. BST/6:05 a.m. ET||ANZ Stadium, Sydney||New Zealand by 5|
|South Africa vs. Argentina||August 16||4:05 p.m. BST/11:05 a.m. ET||Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria||South Africa by 20|
|New Zealand vs. Australia||August 23||8:35 a.m. BST/3:35 a.m. ET||Eden Park, Auckland||New Zealand by 10|
|Argentina vs. South Africa||August 23||8:40 p.m. BST/3:40 p.m. ET||Estadio Padre Ernesto Martearena, Salta||South Africa by 5|
|New Zealand vs. Argentina||September 6||8:35 a.m. BST/3:35 a.m. ET||McLean Park, Napier||New Zealand by 30|
|Australia vs. South Africa||September 6||11:05 a.m. BST/6:05 a.m. ET||Patersons Stadium, Perth||South Africa by 5|
|New Zealand vs. South Africa||September 13||8:35 a.m. BST/3:35 a.m. ET||Westpac Stadium, Wellington||New Zealand by 10|
|Australia vs. Argentina||September 13||11:05 a.m. BST/6:05 a.m. ET||Cbus Super Stadium, Gold Coast||Australia by 25|
|South Africa vs. Australia||September 27||4:05 p.m. BST/11:05 a.m. ET||Newlands, Cape Town||Australia by 5|
|Argentina vs. New Zealand||September 27||11:40 p.m. BST/6:40 p.m. ET||Estadio Ciudad de La Plata, La Plata||New Zealand by 15|
|South Africa vs. New Zealand||October 4||4:05 p.m. BST/11:05 a.m. ET||Ellis Park, Johannesburg||New Zealand by 5|
|Argentina vs. Australia||October 4||11:10 p.m. BST/6:10 p.m. ET||Estadio Malvinas Argentinas, Mendoza||Australia by 10|
August 16, Australia vs. New Zealand
The opening fixture will see Australia and New Zealand stage their own homage to this year's Super Rugby grand final, where it was New South Wales' Waratahs who triumphed over Christchurch contenders the Crusaders.
Home fans at Sydney's ANZ Stadium can look forward to seeing a raft of in-form talents make up Ewen McKenzie's new-look side, which features Kurtley Beale at No. 10 and Nic White at scrum-half.
Those two will deputise for absent Queensland Reds pair Quade Cooper and Will Genia, respectively, but by all rights, Beale has made the top playmaker role his own of late. Former 'Tahs attack coach Brian Melrose is quoted by the Sydney Morning Herald's Georgina Robinson as saying:
I watched him come through colts and first grade and now he's won the Super Rugby title. I only just said to a guy the other day that he will probably kick the winning goal in the World Cup next year, and we'll realise he's actually Dan Carter. He is a really good, all-round No.10, a quality player."
Beale's impact up against Aaron Cruden—Dan Carter is injured for the tournament's start—will be a major factor in the opening clash, but McKenzie also has other weapons burgeoning among his ranks.
Nick Cummins' move to Japanese rugby means that Pat McCabe reclaims his place on the wing and Rob Horne occupying the other flank, while young Michael Hooper prepares to lead as captain once again.
This match will, of course, be of vital significance in deciding the trajectory of the remainder of the campaign, but New Zealand's squad, which hasn't changed much, if any, since last year's pristine record, will be a stubborn challenge to say the least.
Prediction: New Zealand by 5
September 6, Australia vs. South Africa
Last year, this fixture looked like little more than a dead-rubber between two sides competing for second place, but neutrals can only hope that there's more on the line for Australia and South Africa this time around.
In the build-up to the competition, one of Heyneke Meyer's major concerns has been his midfield make-up, with JJ Engelbrecht omitted, Jaque Fourie injured and JP Pietersen having returned to Japan already.
The Score claims Jean de Villiers has given his coach a ray of hope, however, and it's just as well considering Damian de Allende and Jan Serfontein will need all the help their less-experienced minds can get:
Even with that enigma in the centres, however, the Springboks are notoriously well drilled in the work they do best, and the Wallabies' pack will be frustrated by a lack of ball at times.
This is an Australian team of extreme talents but still piecing its way together, and although South Africa aren't in their strongest light right now, their team discipline could make for a tight victory at Patersons Stadium.
Prediction: South Africa by 5
October 4, South Africa vs. New Zealand
For good reason, the general population took to calling last year's rendition of this fixture simply as "The Match," and it didn't disappoint in terms of quality, excitement or frustration, depending on where one's allegiances lie.
The Springboks needed a very specific method of points victory at Ellis Park in order to prevent New Zealand from winning the 2013 Rugby Championship but a 38-27 victory left Hansen's men elated with their well-deserved success.
Again, injuries unaccounted for, the All Blacks will surely come to Johannesburg as favourites to take the points, with Dan Carter likely to have made his comeback from a calf bone injury at this point.
Even without their talismanic No. 10, however, Cruden wouldn't exactly be deemed as lacking in talent by any coach's standards, a depth that's become a trademark of Hansen's squad down the years.
And that's what will ease New Zealand over the line, their ability to not only formulate a devastating XV, but to go entire tournaments with incredibly gifted line-ups that has each participant possessing the same desire for victory as the one before him.
Meyer is testing out some less experienced members of his roster this summer, and although the likes of Handre Pollard, De Allende and Cobus Reinach may be national stars in years to come, 2014 will not be theirs.
Prediction: New Zealand by 10