With the 2017 British & Irish Lions Tour inching ever closer, we turn our attention to the Rugby Championship where the All Blacks travel to Sydney for a repeat of last year’s World Cup final.
Beauden Barrett is the name on everyone’s lips as the 2016 Rugby Championship begins with holders Australia welcoming New Zealand to Sydney’s ANZ Stadium.
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The Springboks get their campaign under way against Argentina at Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit and after a shock 37-25 loss in Durban last year, Allister Coetzee’s men will be out to make a statement.
Australia v New Zealand. ANZ Stadium, Sydney. Saturday August 20, 11.05 BST:
The Wallabies and New Zealand have had contrasting fates since they fought out a World Cup final at Twickenham last October.
Michael Cheika’s side were soundly beaten by Eddie Jones’ inspired England and the All Blacks clean swept Wales for a 3-0 Test series win.
Those differing fortunes will be ancient history as one of rugby’s great rivalries resumes and Australia aim to regain the Bledisloe Cup for the first time since 2002.
Barrett scored 26 points to inspire New Zealand to a 46-6 win in his last Test outing, while he was exceptional in the Hurricanes’ maiden Super Rugby title win and looks to have at-last usurped Aaron Cruden in the All Blacks pecking order.
Julian Savea has to settle for a place among the replacements, with Israel Dagg continuing at full-back and Ben Smith on the wing.
Sam Cane holds off Ardie Savea’s challenge for the openside jersey and despite initially being ruled out through injury, Dane Coles begins on the bench with Crusaders’ Codie Taylor starting at hooker alongside Wyatt Crockett and Owen Franks.
Steve Hansen made light of the decision to pick Barrett over Cruden at outside-half, insisting his performances had removed any doubt over who would don the coveted No.10 jersey.
"In the end, it was pretty easy, Beauden's performances over the last month have been outstanding, both for the All Blacks and for the Hurricanes, and he has just got to be on the park for 80 minutes," Hansen said.
"He has been able to control the games and we saw that on the big occasions — in the quarters, semis and final of Super Rugby. In really trying conditions, he controlled the tempo of the games.
"His kicking game was good, his running game was excellent. He has just matured and he's getting better all the time."
The Wallabies have now lost four consecutive Tests, but Australian captain Stephen Moore thinks the Bledisloe rivalry will inspire his side to turn their fortunes around.
Australia’s foreign contingent return, meaning 13 of their 15 World Cup final starting-XV will run out in Sydney, with Matt Giteau, Will Genia and Adam Ashley-Cooper among them and Scott Fardy relegated to the bench in favour of Ben McCalman.
"The importance of the game and this particular rivalry is why you keep turning up every year and wanting to play your part," said Moore.
"Just to see how much it still means to the senior players after playing 100-plus Tests and however many games against New Zealand shows how important this rivalry is.
"They're the No.1 team in the world so we know we have to go out there to play as well as we possibly can to win the game."
Australia: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Matt Giteau, 11 Dane Haylett-Petty, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Will Genia, 8 David Pocock, 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Ben McCalman, 5 Rob Simmons, 4 Kane Douglas, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 Scott Sio
Replacements: 16 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 17 James Slipper, 18 Allan Alaalatoa, 19 Dean Mumm, 20 Scott Fardy, 21 Nick Phipps, 22 Matt Toomua, 23 Rob Horne
New Zealand: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Ben Smith, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Waisake Naholo, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Sam Cane, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Wyatt Crockett
Replacements: 16 Dane Coles, 17 Kane Hames, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Liam Squire, 20 Ardie Savea, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Aaron Cruden, 23 Julian Savea
South Africa v Argentina, Saturday August 20, Mbombela Stadium, Nelspruit, 16.05 BST:
Argentina come calling for Coetzee’s first Rugby Championship game at the Springboks helm.
After a superb Super Rugby campaign with the Lions, Warren Whiteley starts at No.8, with Duane Vermeulen absent through injury.
Ruan Combrinck and Elton Jantjies are two more who shone for the Super Rugby finalists, with the latter turning an accomplished performance in South Africa’s final Test win over Ireland.
Lood de Jager joins Eben Etzebeth in the engine room, with Julian Redelinghuys, Adriaan Strauss and Tendai Mtawarira in the front-row.
Juan Martín Hernández and Nicolás Sánchez link up at fly-half and inside-centre and though they are missing Juan Imhoff – who was away on Olympic 7s duty – in Agustín Creevy, who will win his 50th cap, they have a man capable of troubling South Africa at scrum-time and on the floor.
South Africa: 15 Johan Goosen, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Elton Jantjies,9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley, 7 Teboho Mohoje, 6 Francois Louw, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Julian Redelinghuys, 2 Adriaan Strauss (c) , Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Vincent Koch, 19 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 20 Jaco Kriel, 21 Rudy Paige, 22 Juan de Jongh, 23 Jesse Kriel.
Argentina: 15 Joaquín Tuculet, 14 Santiago Cordero, 13 Matías Orlando, 12 Juan Martín Hernández, 11 Manuel Montero, 10 Nicolás Sánchez, 9 Martín Landajo, 8 Facundo Isa, 7 Juan Manuel Leguizamon, 6 Pablo Matera, 5 Tomas Lavanini, 4 Matías Alemanno, 3 Ramiro Herrera, 2 Agustín Creevy, 1 Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro.
Replacements: 16 Julián Montoya, 17 Felipe Arregui, 18 Enrique Pieretto, 19 Guido Petti, 20 Javier Ortega Desio, 21 Tomás Cubelli, 22 Santiago Gonzalez Iglesias, 23 Ramiro Moyano.