Spicy edge to opening fixture
There’s been little time to draw breath and rest tired bodies between the end of the Super Rugby competition and the start of the inaugural Rugby Championship, especially for the players from the Chiefs and Sharks.
Whether this provides scope for an upset or two in the early going, only time will tell, but teams will have to hit the ground running or risk giving up a head start.
Australia, need I remind you, are defending champions of the Sanzar competition, and they have the somewhat ironical advantage of not having had any of their players involved in the last two weekends of Super Rugby. Besides, Super Rugby form has very rarely correlated into international success.
The Wallabies will be at home this weekend in Sydney where they have a pretty good record against the All Blacks, and have the benefit of a better preparation for the championship opener, which also doubles as the first of three Bledisloe Cup tests.
Last year the All Blacks set out their priorities as Rugby World Cup first and Bledisloe Cup second. Like the Springboks they wanted to mix up their Tri-Nations lineups a bit with a view to the World Cup, and focused on putting out their best for the home tests alone.
Not taking anything away from Australia's win – they turned on a rip-snorting performance in the first 40 in the deciding Tri-Nats test in Brisbane versus the ABs and that was enough to secure the title.
But the All Blacks' coaching staff were adamant they wanted to keep Aussie hands off the Bledisloe and take their chances with the Tri-Nations.
The atmosphere might be quite spicy too this weekend.
For a start there is no love lost between coaches Robbie Deans and Steve Hansen. They were once a winning combination at the Crusaders and with a very successful New Zealand A team, but they have not been on good terms for some time, while Deans has also lost the respect of some of the players who were once under his charge.
It has been interesting to learn in Graham Henry's recently published book, of how the mutual respect between the All Blacks and Springboks has developed into a more amiable relationship off the field. Henry has spoken in glowing terms about John Smit and Victor Matfield in particular, and how they rejuvenated the old tradition of visiting each other’s changing rooms for a post-match drink in recent years.
However when the All Blacks invited the Wallabies to do the same they got a firm “thanks but no thanks”, which only heightened tensions between the sides.
Add to that the fact that for a large part of the London Olympics, New Zealand occupied a higher spot on the medal table than the Aussies with their mega million budgets, and while Australia got ahead in the end, Kiwis weren’t going to miss the opportunity for a bit of “razzing” when it was there. The Ockers might sense a chance for some payback.
No-one will be at full strength. The biggest loss for Australia is James Horwill, who has been like a steel rod in an otherwise suspect forward pack.
New Zealand will be without Conrad Smith for the first couple of tests, and this too is a big loss. He is the master decision maker, leads the defensive line and is an expert at setting up his wingers. Sonny Bill Williams and Ma’a Nonu are outstanding players, but both are natural inside centres, so the question is, how will they gel?
It will be fascinating to see how Argentina go. Away from home I wouldn’t expect them to win, but they have twice in the last 10 years come within an ace of toppling the All Blacks in Buenos Aires. Take them lightly at your peril. They are especially hard to beat when playing “up country” in places like Tucaman and Rosario.
Although Felipe Contepomi has retired (which should at least give the Puma backs a bit more ball to play with than he was prepared to allow at the World Cup), they have some quality players, with No 8 Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, and flyhalf Juan Martin Hernandez world class, while Lucas Gonzalez Amorosino scored one of the best solo tries at RWC 2011.
I would expect the Boks to win comfortably in Cape Town, but it might be tougher a week later.
I think having four teams will be great. It might take the Pumas a while to find their feet, but it is a much needed opportunity for a nation that has been left out of the major annual action for too long.
And having a fourth team will help iron out some of the travel inequities of the past, where the draw always seemed to favour one team more than the others each year.