The rugby powers of the Southern Hemisphere will once again duel for dominance as the 2014 Rugby Championship gets underway on Saturday.
The first round of action will see New Zealand begin their title defence with a trip to Australia, while Argentina journey to Pretoria in search of a maiden victory over South Africa.
A long seven weeks lies ahead before a 2014 champion emerges, but Week 1 will serve as a barometer in strength for those four participants, with fixture details and predictions detailed ahead.
|Australia vs. New Zealand||August 16||11:05 a.m. BST/6:05 a.m. ET||Sky Go (UK, subscription required), SuperSport (RSA, subscription required)||New Zealand by 5|
|South Africa vs. Argentina||August 16||4:05 p.m. BST/11:05 a.m. ET||Sky Go (UK, subscription required), SuperSport (RSA, subscription required)||South Africa by 20|
Australia vs. New Zealand
The Wallabies come into this year's competition with well-placed aspirations to improve upon their 2013 campaign, with Ewen McKenzie now having just over a year under his belt as coach and developing a roster of in-form strength.
Among Australia's strongest assets sits Waratahs Kurtley Beale, Michael Hooper, Wycliff Palu, Israel Folau, Adam Ashley-Cooper and others, all of whom will be buoyed by their recent Super Rugby triumph.
However, Steve Hansen's side can never be counted out when the stakes are this high, even in foreign territory, with OptaJason revealing why this Bledisloe Cup clash is a special occasion:
As Rugby World's Paul Williams pointed out, Conrad Smith's absence will be a disappointment for the team, but then being able to summon a player of Malakai Fekitoa's quality at No. 13 is testament to the depth Hansen has at his disposal:
Smith missing is clearly a blow for the All Blacks. But I'm looking forward to seeing Fekitoa have another run out.— Paul Williams (@thepaulwilliams) August 15, 2014
And in the end, that is the separating factor between these two sides. While McKenzie's stars might make for a fearsome first wave boasting flavour-of-the-month credentials, New Zealand have vast resources in every position, vital over 80 minutes and even more so across an entire tournament.
Prediction: New Zealand by 5
South Africa vs. Argentina
Not only are Argentina yet to claim a win in their previous two Rugby Championship campaigns, but the Pumas have a particularly bad record against their foes from South Africa, whom they're yet to beat in 17 meetings.
Daniel Hourcade's men suffered disappointment in their summer defeats to Ireland, but the coach has since drafted in more of his European-based stars, making for a tighter contest in Pretoria this Saturday.
That being said, the Springboks are being eyed once again as the team who will most likely challenge New Zealand for championship honours, and for all the Pumas' roar, they simply lack the bite to triumph at Loftus Versfeld.
Speaking to Jon Cardinelli of SA Rugby magazine, coach Heyneke Meyer has given his full backing to starlet fly-half Handre Pollard, who is experiencing his first major international tournament this summer:
Handre has impressed me, not just in that game against Scotland, but in the way he had conducted himself in training these past few weeks. He ticks a lot of boxes physically, but on top of all that is that thing that I look for, that composure and leadership quality.
You need that kind of player [at flyhalf], somebody who the other players can follow. He’s very cool under pressure and has an unbelievable running game. His goal-kicking has been brilliant in the Super Rugby competition, and the only thing that needs to improve is his tactical kicking game.
The thing with Handre is that I really believe he can be a great tactical kicker. I believe he will have a good kicking and running game. There aren’t many international flyhalves who tick both those boxes. I feel Handre is going to be a world-class player.
At just 20 years of age, the Bulls maestro takes on an immense burden this summer, but Argentina are about the best opposition he could have hoped for with a transition in mind, with his first outing against Wales earlier this year being one of major encouragement.
Prediction: South Africa by 20