Make no mistake, the toughest Rugby Championship we have seen for a number of years will play out over the next two months.
South Africa and Australia have improved while Argentina have brought in Mario Ledesma to coach, and with a Rugby World Cup on the horizon every player needs to put their hand up to be considered for selection. The core of each respective side will be pencilled in by the end of this Championship, just 12 months out from rugby's showpiece event.
We've seen a slight resurgence in Australian rugby over the past 12 months. Going into the Super Rugby season, Australia's provincial sides were taunted over their inability to beat New Zealand teams but they finally turned that around this year to get that off their back. The Waratahs led the way with how they finished the campaign.
The Wallabies will be strong, and we know that any Bledisloe Cup game is going to be a tough battle. The reality is, however -- and we say it every year -- if they can't get up for the first game then the Bledisloe Cup is going to stay in New Zealand for the 16th consecutive year.
There has been a lot of talk from the Australians about how important this first game is because it lays the marker for the whole series. The Wallabies have to win to keep their hopes alive for either the return game in New Zealand next week, or the possible decider in Yokohama at the end of October.
Australia's choice to play a trial game, which was apparently very successful, is an interesting step. You do have to keep playing, especially if your sides are not involved in the playoffs, and it will have given their combinations a chance to work together and develop cohesion.
That has been one of the benefits of reducing Australia's Super Rugby teams from five to four. Instead of being scattered all over the country, they play together more often and then top it off with a trial before the main event. That can only make their national side better.
The Wallabies will also benefit from having David Pocock back in the mix. We all know he's a world-class player, and no matter which team he plays against he is going to give them trouble.
Like any seven, he walks a fine line. In the era of Richie McCaw Pocock was the one player who pushed McCaw and came close to claiming the best in the world title at No.7, although he was only close. He was never on Richie.
Pocock is someone the All Blacks will have to be wary of. They'll want to protect the ball at the breakdown and make sure they keep him away. The combination of him and Michael Hooper will ensure the breakdown is really competitive.
Sam Cane will undoubtedly be up for that challenge. His physicality is pretty important. He's matured nicely and although he hasn't had the most stand out Super Rugby campaign you know what he's capable of in the All Blacks jersey. From a spectator's point of view you can't always measure the power he brings to the game, but he is very, very strong over the ball. Physically he's a big guy and he'll hurt some people.
That's what they'll need, especially the way this All Blacks side is transforming. If you look at the last couple of years the players who have moved on -- the Kainos and the McCaws -- with Kieran Read, Cane and Liam Squire, it is a new look side but they'll be up for the challenge against the Wallabies.
There have been a few comments that people can't see the All Blacks winning the competition with a clean sweep this year, and you would have to think if the All Blacks were to do that they would had to have played to a very high level.
It's going to be tough. South Africa especially have really improved, and Australia have timed it perfectly for their national side to come right. It's going to be a tough championship, the toughest we have seen for years.
It's great to see Sam Whitelock will join the 100 Tests club. He's been a great servant to New Zealand rugby. He's the sort of player that rolls up his sleeves and gets stuck in, week in, week out. He's become a great go-to man in the lineouts. He's clever and, like any lineout technician, knows it's not just a matter of standing there, jumping and getting a good lift.
Ian Jones once used the comment, "a lineout is never an even competition. If you make it an even competition you're going to lose. You've got to do what they're not expecting you to do, whether that's speed, deception or whatever".
Sam Whitelock is a master at that. He'll do what the opposition isn't expecting. Whether that is speed or deception you must be quick on your feet with a couple of really good lifters, which the All Blacks have.
Looking at the Springboks and the Pumas in their opening game, it is a case of round two from the Super Rugby quarterfinal between the Lions and the Jaguares. Both teams have really stepped up. I've been impressed with the South African resurgence this year, especially against England, and I think Super Rugby has been fantastic for Argentina in allowing them to get their core players together and developing them.
Mario Ledesma is a well-respected coach who has been there and done that. As a forward coach it is not how smart you are, but your expectation of hard work. Ledesma is a classic example of that. He will expect hard work from his players and he will go well.
In addition to the Rugby Championship, this coming weekend also marks the start of the Mitre 10 Cup competition in New Zealand. It is always an exciting time and is the breeding ground of the New Zealand game.
There're some good squads -- Canterbury, North Harbour and Wellington -- and some average ones, but overall it is the unknown. We'll know more after the first few weeks about what teams should be there at the end. As always I think if you have a bunch of young men with real talent the best thing you can do by the end of the competition is have them pushing for Super Rugby contracts.
That's the most exciting thing for me to watch, seeing the next generation come through.