After an epic first round, the abbreviated Rugby Championship heads into Round two, with New Zealand to host a blockbuster clash against South Africa at Westpac Stadium in Wellington, before Argentina face off against Australia at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane.
Read on for a complete preview of the weekend's games.
New Zealand vs. South Africa, Westpac Stadium, Wellington (7.35 a.m. GMT / 3.35 a.m. EDT / 9.35 a.m. CAT 5.35 p.m. AEST, 7.35 p.m NZT Saturday)
The All Blacks' and Springboks' selectors have each ensured the Rugby Championship Test in Wellington is must-see drama. They've each picked what seems to be a stunningly strong XV, but still there's also enough experimentation and testing with an eye towards the Rugby World Cup in Japan.
How else to describe New Zealand's selection of a back-row featuring Shannon Frizell, Matt Todd and Kieran Read; it's a solid unit but you can likely count on one hand the number of pundits or fans in New Zealand who would have picked that trio selected. And is this Sonny Bill Williams' single chance to prove his current worth after an injury-plagued campaign that prompted Steve Hansen to say recently that selectors were concerned about the player's "durability"? Williams possibly doesn't have to "prove himself" again, given his back currency, but he'll need to stand tall and stay on the pitch given that Ngani Laumape is likely to get another chance in a "First XV" after his efforts in Buenos Aires last week.
And what about the New Zealand selection of Richie Mo'unga and Beauden Barrett in the same team, as twin playmakers at fly-half and fullback? The prospect is certainly one to savour, perhaps even for Springboks fans. It's the headline attraction of the night.
Rassie Erasmus' team perhaps looks to feature less sense of experimentation, having sent a party of key players in advance of the remainder of the tour party. His selection of those players in his starting XV was no surprise, and his team is likely something closer than Hansen's to his first choice although the choice of Kwagga Smith in the No. 6 jumper hints at a desire to see something slightly different in his back-row.
Given the substantial changes made to both New Zealand and South Africa teams after their victories last week, over Argentina in Buenos Aires and Australia in Johannesburg respectively, the value of those performances is mostly meaningless as a reference point for this fixture other than having registered a W on the ledger.
You'd think each team wants another 'W', especially given the fixture ahead in Yokohama, but one wonders how much the coaching teams might play a little bluff and counterbluff ahead of their Rugby World Cup opener on September 29. Remember the lineout move in Johannesburg four years ago that was supposed to remain under wraps?
This all adds up to a tantalising contest.
What the All Blacks will want out of this ...
Steve Hansen ideally wants answers out of Sonny Bill Williams, Shannon Frizell, Richie Mo'unga and Beauden Barrett:
The injury-hit Ryan Crotty means he is searching for a No. 12. Laumape wasn't utterly convincing last week, despite the stats, and the New Zealand way traditionally is to go with the blokes who've done the job before. SBW has runs on the board as a two-time Rugby World Cup winner, but his injury problems have seen his appearances and performances diminished since that latter victory. Hansen said this week: "We want to see him stay on the park. If he comes off it's because he's run out of energy as opposed to injury. We know he can play to a high level so it's his durability at the moment that's been affecting him getting on the park. We just want to see him put some minutes together then assess it from there." You get the feeling that question marks will remain even if he just runs out of energy.
No. 6 remains a question mark for Hansen, with doubts remaining about Liam Squire after the player said he wasn't ready to return to the international stage after a horror run with injuries. Vaea Fifita bombed his audition in Buenos Aires so now we're looking at Shannon Frizell, who impressed in four starts last season but whose form slipped in the latter stages of the Highlanders' Super Rugby campaign. He's certainly going to get a workout in the Windy City.
And so we come to the headline selections, that of Barrett and Mo'unga in the same side. Hansen said he's been looking at the combination for "quite a while", and certainly both deserve a chance to start. But is Mo'unga better than Barrett at No. 10? Barrett is a fine player whatever the number on his back, and the thought of him running in broken field again is a mouth-watering prospect, but is he better than the other options - Ben Smith and Jordie Barrett at 15? Better to "experiment" now.
What the Springboks will want out of this ...
Simple! The Boks want the win. They might be talking about steps towards the Rugby World Cup, but Rassie Erasmus has prioritised this game, and, much as you wouldn't say he's put all his eggs in one basket, you get the impression he needs the win. Bar a couple of players, this looks like his First XV; and bar the injured Siya Kolisi and Aphiwe Dyantyi, the other couple of players look to be on the bench. It's not Win or Bust, but it's not far off given the selections.
All Blacks: Beauden Barrett, Ben Smith, Jack Goodhue, Sonny Bill Williams, Rieko Ioane, Richie Mo'unga, TJ Perenara, Kieran Read, Matt Todd, Shannon Frizell, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Owen Franks, Codie Taylor, Joe Moody. Replacements: Dane Coles, Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Angus Ta'avao, Vaea Fifita, Dalton Papali'i, Aaron Smith, Anton Lienert-Brown, George Bridge.
Springboks: Steven Kitschoff, Malcolm Marx, Frans Malherbe, Eben Etzebeth, Franco Mostert, Kwagga Smith, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Duane Vermeulen, Faf de Klerk, Handre Pollard, Makazole Mapimpi, Dammian de Allende, Lukhanyo Am, Cheslin Kolbe, Willie le Roux. Replacements: Bongi Mbonambi, Tendai Mtawarira, Trevor Nyakane, RG Synman, Francois Louw, Herschel Jantjies, Frans Steyn, Jesse Kriel.
Key positional match-up: Kwagga Smith vs. Matt Todd
Rassie Erasmus is looking for options in the No.6 jumper with Kolisi injured, and he learned last week against the Wallabies that Rynhard Elstardt is not the answer. Kwagga Smith was always likely to start this fixture, having been sent in the advance party, but he is not a stereotypical South African openside. He's great over the ball as a jackal, of course, but you get the impression he's been selected more for the "sevens skills" and link play with which he has excelled for the Lions in Super Rugby as Duane Vermeulen and Malcolm Marx are maybe more likely to provide the power and breakdown threat. Succeed and he offers a veritable different option in the Boks' game plan. Todd offers Hansen more of stereotypical openside, who perhaps represents more threat at the breakdown, but he, too, is likely no best than "third-best" option in his team. Both need to press their claims for Japan, and this might just be the only game either gets to do so.
Andrew Withers says: Can the Springboks repeat the dose at the venue where they stunned the All Blacks last year? They can, yes, with a team that seems to be more for the here and now. The Boks seem to be on an upwards curve, and much as they have to improve they might not have to do so as much as everyone thinks "you have to do" against the All Blacks. The bench may be key, as it seems stronger as a unit and possibly more likely to "finish" the game. Big call, yes. South Africa by 5.
Australia vs. Argentina, (9.45 a.m. GMT / 5.45 a.m. EDT / 11.45 a.m. CAT, 7.45 p.m. AEST, 9.45 p.m NZT Saturday)
Suncorp Stadium is the scene for the first of three home Tests for the Wallabies before the World Cup, and given the predicament they find themselves there could not be a better venue. Australia's record at the Brisbane ground is far superior to any other for the Wallabies in recent times, and includes victories over the All Blacks, Ireland and Springboks over the last two years. Having dropped four of their last five Tests, Michael Cheika's side are in dire need of a victory; but there was just enough in last week's defeat in Johannesburg to suggest they may not be too far away from an elusive 'W'. They need it, too, given back-to-back Tests against New Zealand follow when Cheika will want to be settling on what his first-choice XV.
Argentina return to Australia full of belief they can again take down the Wallabies away from home. Last year's triumph on the Gold Coast was memorable and thoroughly deserved, and epitomised by the final tackle on Israel Folau who ignored an unmarked teammate outside him only to be promptly smashed by two covering Pumas defenders. When poised to complete a sweep of the Wallabies back at home in Argentina three weeks later, the Pumas, unfortunately, fell apart in the second half and were run down by Australia in dramatic fashion. But that defeat served as a learning for the Pumas, so, too, last week's narrow loss to the All Blacks; buoyed by the strong Super season of the Jaguares - who completed a 4-0 sweep of the Australian opponents - confidence is high in what is perhaps the most talented squad Argentina have assembled since the 2007 World Cup.
What the Wallabies will want out of this
To put it simply, a win, but perhaps just as important for the Wallabies and Michael Cheika, will be an uplift in execution and discipline. Last weekend's game against a 'B-side' Springboks was considered one of the Wallabies' best chances to end their eight-year drought in South Africa, instead a Taniela Tupou yellow card and two bombed tries dissolved any hopes. While Cheika fumed over the Tupou yellow, the Wallabies' discipline, and execution, has been a sticking point for some time and with millions of eyes set to focus on the World Cup, now's the time the issue was sorted. Turn overs should be treated as precious and must be capitalized on, while Cheika must insist on calm-heads - soft cards are inexcusable.
Cheika has made one change to the starting forward pack with Scott Sio set to lift the Wallabies at scrum-time and build upon the lineout from last week, but it's the selectors' changes in the backline that should see the biggest impact. Christian Leali'ifano makes his return to the Wallabies to cap off his remarkable journey, and if he steps up he gives Cheika a real second choice fly-half behind Bernard Foley, and perhaps will even push his claim for the No.10 jersey. Kurtley Beale, meanwhile, gets his chance to pitch his case to Cheika for the fullback position in Israel Folau's absence. In his preferred position, Beale has proven throughout the Super Rugby season, and at Test level previously, that he looks stronger behind the line with more time to read the defence and make his move. Whether Beale can cut it in the last line of defence will be interesting as the Pumas outside backs are brilliant finishers when they breach the backfield.
What the Pumas will want out of this
Argentina came heartbreakingly close to securing their first win over the All Blacks, but will be ruing their impatience and lack of composure in the All Blacks' 22. Now their focus turns to Australia where they shocked the Wallabies and secured their first Rugby Championship win on Australian soil last year. Coach Mario Ledesma will be disappointed with the loss of stalwart Agustin Creevy, but he still brings a side brimming with talent ready to make up for last week's loss. Making five changes, Ledesma has brought in even more European-based talent in a bid to give some of his Jaguares stars a rest and test his combinations. With just three more Tests ahead of the World Cup, Julian Montoya, Facunda Isa and Tomas Lezana will get a real opportunity to mount a case for a spot on the plane if they make an impact up front and test a struggling Wallabies scrum.
Wallabies: Kurtley Beale, Reece Hodge, Tevita Kuridrani, Samu Kerevi, Marika Koroibete, Christian Lealiifano, Will Genia, Isi Naisarani, Michael Hooper, Lukhan Salakai-Loto, Rory Arnold, Izack Rodda, Sekope Kepu, Folau Fainga'a, Scot Sio. Replacements: Tolu Latu, James Slipper, Taniela Tupou, Rob Simmons, Luke Jones, Nic White, Matt Toomua, James O'Connor.
Pumas: Joaquin Tuculet, Santiago Cordero, Matias Moroni, Jeronimo De la Fuente, Ramiro Moyano, Nicolas Sanchez,Tomas Cubelli, Facundo Isa, Tomas Lezana, Pablo Matera, Tomas Lavanini, Guido Petti, Juan Figallo, Julian Montoya, Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro. Replacements: Santiago Socini, Mayco Vivas, Ramiro Herrera, Matias Alemanno, Juan Manuel Leguizamon, Felipe Ezcurra, Joaquin Diaz Bonilla, Matias Orlando
Positional battle to watch: Christian Lealiifano vs Nicolas Sanchez
Questions have surrounded the reliability of Cheika's first-choice fly-half Bernard Foley for some time. Once solid from the kicking tee, and impressive with ball in hand, Foley has been found out at international level multiple times and his accuracy from the tee has fallen away dramatically. Called up for his first Test in three years, Christian Leali'ifano has capped off his remarkable journey back to the gold jersey and has been given the perfect opportunity to present his case for a World Cup spot. After a strong season with the Brumbies, Leali'ifano has proven a cool head in the playmaking role and will need to bring his patience and consistency to the Wallabies. Not one for flair a la Quade Cooper, Lealiifano provides sure hands and the ability to put his ball-runners into holes; whether he can connect with Kurtley Beale the way Foley does will be something Cheika will be watching for. A proven leader as a pivot, Nicolas Sanchez's importance to the Pumas was evident in Buenos Aires last week. A certain starter for the World Cup, Sanchez can both chance his arm and play a more reserved style of game; he also takes the heat off scrum-half Tomas Cubelli. Surely lamenting a poor missed penalty late on last week, look for Sanchez to really take control of this contest.
Brittany Mitchell says: Argentina came within a whisker of taking out their first win over the world champions last weekend in an epic second-half fightback, but errors of their own in attack and a lack of patience saw an opportunity lost. No doubt the loss will put a fire in the Pumas' bellies, and will definitely have grabbed Cheika's attention; but the new look Wallabies side shouldn't be underestimated. With 10 changes, including Leali'ifano making his return after a huge year in Super Rugby and Kurtley Beale earning a recall to the starting line-up in his favoured fullback position, the odds are with the Wallabies to again emerge triumphant at what is their favourite hunting ground. Wallabies by 8