Round 1 of the Rugby Championship begins in the familiar territory of ANZ Stadium, though it may be the last Bledisloe Cup contest at the Sydney venue for some time with renovations in the works.
The ground holds few gremlins for the All Blacks while the Wallabies have become accustomed to a steadily shrinking crowd attendance. Win on Saturday night, though, and suddenly things might begin to turn around for Australia.
Later on Saturday, the Springboks welcome the Pumas to Durban, the hosts looking to continue the momentum of their 2-1 series win over England earlier this year.
Australia vs. New Zealand, ANZ Stadium, Sydney, 8.05pm (AEST) Saturday
Michael Cheika's pursuit of the Bledisloe Cup enters its fourth year on Saturday, but this appears to be his best chance of ending the All Blacks' 15-year stranglehold on the famous trophy. It's true the Wallabies were beaten 2-1 by Ireland in June and rounded out 2017 with comprehensive losses to both England and Scotland, but the coach does have a near full-strength squad at his disposal with key players Kurtley Beale, Israel Folau and David Pocock all in impressive form. Perhaps the biggest hurdle will be the mental scars of the Wallabies' last two games in Sydney, where they were blown off the paddock inside the first half-hour. If they can settle into the contest, make their tackles early on, then the contest should at least be alive at the break.
Completely dominant in Sydney in the past two years, the All Blacks aren't taking anything for granted as they look for a hat-trick of triumphs at ANZ Stadium. Coach Steve Hansen has been effusive in his praise of the Wallabies -- read into that what you will -- and knows they are travelling better than this time last year. The All Blacks mentor says Australia have prepared in a more appropriate fashion after mimicking New Zealand's pre-tournament hit-out, while somewhat incredibly he has had to defend his selection of both Waisake Naholo and Beauden Barrett. The All Blacks were far too classy for France in June, in winning 3-0, but Hansen knows they must go up a couple more gears if their successful run in Sydney is to continue. He is sure to have plans for the Hooper-Pocock breakdown threat and how best to unseat rookie outside centre Reece Hodge.
How the Wallabies win it
The past two years in Sydney, the Wallabies have missed 30 (2016) and 40 tackles (2017), giving up four and five tries before halftime. Defence has clearly been a problem, but an issue they might finally be on top of -- using the Ireland series as a reference point anyway; the Wallabies conceded only four tries in three Tests against the world's No.2-ranked side. If Cheika's men can navigate the early All Blacks onslaught with their line intact, the next challenge is to win the contact area. The All Blacks have been far too dominant through the middle of the field in recent times, placing a huge responsibility on Izack Rodda, Adam Coleman and Lukhan Tui. If they can get enough go-forward, Will Genia, Israel Folau and Kurtley Beale are immediately in the game; so, too, the Wallabies.
How the All Blacks win it
While Hansen has acknowledged Reece Hodge as a player with plenty of talent, he and backs coach Ian Foster are sure to have a number of strategies to isolate the outside centre first-timer in defence. But don't be surprised if that is playing anywhere but down his channel, either. A few years back, the All Blacks travelled to Sydney pumping up Sonny Bill Williams' midfield threat. But when it came to the actual game, they pulled the double bluff and played behind him all night. So tuned in to Williams as their defensive focus, the Wallabies were unable to adapt and were exposed wider out all night. The All Blacks will otherwise look to assert their set-piece dominance and work off the back off Brodie Retallick, Kieran Read and Liam Squire through the middle. Get the Wallabies going backwards, and Rieko Ioane and Waisake Naholo will do the rest.
Positional battle to watch
Bernard Foley vs. Beauden Barrett
One of the Wallabies' major concerns in recent times has been the lack of depth at No.10, and while that remains the case Foley at last has someone who can keep him on his toes in Matt Toomua. The Rebels-bound playmaker may be more suited to No. 12 but his ability to play 10, and defend competently, should not be forgotten. Foley, meanwhile, was a bit hit and miss with the Waratahs through the Super Rugby season, and he failed to unlock Ireland's defensive wall in June. He is a proven Test performer, who can deliver under pressure, yet there is a growing disenchantment with his play of late. Foley needs a big game against Barrett who, believe it or not, is under a fair bit of pressure himself.
You'd have to have been living under a rock the size of Aotearoa itself not to have heard the Barrett vs. Mo'unga debate. But it was one the Crusaders star must surely have known wasn't going to fall his way, no matter how superb his Super Rugby form had been. What Mo'unga's play has done, however, is put Barrett on notice; just as he himself did to Aaron Cruden in 2016. We all know what happened there, too. The big difference for Barrett this week will be playing off Aaron Smith's slick service, which is just that little bit quicker than that of Hurricanes rival TJ Perenara, and behind a pack that will generate time and space for him instead of having to conjure that himself as was the case at times during Super Rugby this season.
Australia: Israel Folau, Dane Haylett-Petty, Reece Hodge, Kurtley Beale, Marika Koroibete, Bernard Foley, Will Genia, David Pocock, Michael Hooper (capt), Lukhan Tui, Adam Coleman, Izack Rodda, Sekope Kepu, Tatafu Polota-Nau, Tom Robertson. Reserves: Tolu Latu, Allan Alaalatoa, Taniela Tupou, Rob Simmons, Pete Samu, Nick Phipps, Matt Toomua, Jack Maddocks.
New Zealand: Ben Smith, Waisake Naholo, Jack Goodhue, Ryan Crotty, Rieko Ioane, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith, Kieran Read (capt), Sam Cane, Liam Squire, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Owen Franks, Codie Taylor, Joe Moody. Res: Nathan Harris, Karl Tu'inukuafe, Ofa Tuungafasi, Scott Barrett, Ardie Savea, TJ Perenara, Damian McKenzie, Anton Lienert-Brown.
Sam Bruce says: This looms as a far tighter contest than the past two Sydney Bledisloe encounters, but the All Blacks remain just that little bit ahead of the Wallabies. Starved of Test rugby recently through both through injury and personal circumstances, Brodie Retallick is back for the All Blacks. That is huge, and will help drive New Zealand to a seven-point victory.
South Africa vs. Argentina, Kings Park, Durban, 1.05am (AEST) Sunday
The last time Argentina visited the warm waters of Durban then-Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer ended up making a public apology before losing his job a few months later. It was the start of a turbulent period for Springbok rugby, with results on the field and a lack of transformation of the team leading to widespread criticism and unhappiness.
But three years later there is a lot more optimism around the Boks after new boss Rassie Erasmus saw off England in his first series in charge with a team representative of the country's demographic. However, the Rugby Championship will be a true gauge of where the Boks find themselves with just over a year to go before the World Cup in Japan.
Many supporters expect the Springboks to down Argentina on Saturday, as that 2015 win at Kings Park was their first and only victory over the South Africans in the Republic. However, the Pumas are going through their renaissance. Argentina have appointed former prop Mario Ledesma as their head coach after he took the Jaguares to the Super Rugby playoffs for the first time in their history. Ledesma's no-frills approach seemed to galvanise the team and it looks like they will be returning to their traditional forward-based game heading into the Rugby Championship. This is not an encounter that the Boks can take lightly.
How the Springboks can win it ...
The Springboks need to start well against the feisty Pumas and try to impose themselves physically. The scrum is going to be a great battle, and one that could be an important factor in the territory armwrestling, as there are likely to be many penalties. The Lions hammered the Jaguares at maul time, but the Springboks will have to improve in this department from the June Tests. The Springboks took their chances brilliantly against England, and they will have to do the same against an Argentina side that may be vulnerable in the wider channels.
How Argentina can win it ...
In their 2015 win in Durban the Pumas disrupted the Springboks' rhythm by flooding the breakdown and playing a spoiling game. They managed to turn the ball over on a number of occasions before hitting Meyer's team hard on thecounter-attack. Pumas need to try and do this again, but they also have to be wary of keeping their discipline, which more often than not lets them down in Test matches. They will be a force in the scrum, and if they can win that battle it will be easier for them to stop the Springboks' big runners from getting any sort of momentum.
Positional battle to watch
Malcolm Marx vs Augustine Crévy
Marx is the currently the world's best hooker, with his blockbusting runs, aggressive tackling and immense ability at the breakdown key to the Springboks' fortunes. His lineout throwing has also improved a lot over the last few years and he is also a mighty figure in the middle of the scrum.
Crévy is an experienced member of the team and a player with a lot of stature. He is a vital cog in the Argentina pack, as he not only provides the leadership but also dependable play in the tight loose. Crevy isn't quite as explosive as Marx, but he is a brilliant set-piece operator and more than useful with ball in hand.
South Africa: Willie le Roux, Makazole Mapimpi, Lukhanyo Am, André Esterhuizen, Aphiwe Dyantyi, Handré Pollard, Faf de Klerk, Warren Whiteley, Siya Kolisi (c), Francois Louw, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Eben Etzebeth, Frans Malherbe, Malcolm Marx, Beast Mtawarira. Reserves: Bongi Mbonambi, Steven Kitshoff, Thomas du Toit, Marvin Orie, Marco van Staden, Embrose Papier, Lionel Mapoe, Damian Willemse.
Argentina: Emiliano Boffelli, Bautista Delguy, Matías Moroni, Bautista Ezcurra, Ramiro Moyano, Nicolás Sanchez, Gonzalo Bertanou, Javier Ortego Desio, Marcos Kremer, Pablo Matera, Matías Alemanno, Guido Petti, Juan Figallo, Augustin Creevy, Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro. Rerserves: Diego Fortuny, Santiago Garcia Botta, Santiago Medrano, Tomás Lavanini, Tomás Lezana, Martín Landajo, Santiago González Iglesias, Juan Cruz Mallia.
John Goliath says: The Springboks are growing as a team and they have prepared really well for this Test. They are always tough to be beat home, but Argentina will be a different kettle of fish under Ledesma. Still, the Boks will win by 10 or more.