AUSTRALIA v NEW ZEALAND
When: Saturday August 18, 8.05pm (10.05pm NZT)
Where: ANZ Stadium, Sydney
Referee: Alain Rolland (Ireland)
Head-to-Head: Played 143, All Blacks 97, Wallabies 41, Drawn 5
In Sydney: Played 50, All Blacks 29, Wallabies 19, Drawn 2
Last match: October 16, 2011: All Blacks beat Wallabies 20-6 at Eden Park, Auckland (RWC semifinal)
THE MOMENT of truth arrives very early in the piece for the Wallabies.
There are all sorts of ructions and hand-wringing going on in Australian rugby at the moment.
The 2011 Tri Nations champs did beat Wales 3-0 in June, but many of their leading players have been either injured or were out of form for their struggling Super Rugby franchises, with the Reds flying the lone playoffs flag.
But they have been training in earnest for a few weeks, plotting the All Blacks’ downfall.
They know it is vital for their Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship hopes to draw first blood in Sydney this weekend. Interest in this match has been heightened with a publicity blitz – the inaugural Bledisloe Festival.
The Wallabies will know that they allowed the All Blacks to scrape to the win in the last two outings on this ground (in 2009 and 2010). Equally they will know that a full 80-minute effort is required against their trans-Tasman foes. Both sides, however, might show signs of rustiness after having not played since June 23.
If we go off their very last test, then the All Blacks would enter this as hot-hot favourites, having dispatched Ireland 60-0 in Hamilton with a display of speed rugby that will have had Robbie Deans himself clutching the worry beads.
So he will have to hope that his pack mark up in the set-pieces, if we accept that David Pocock will command his fair share of ball on the ground. Midfielder Pat McCabe was ruled out through injury, as is James O’Connor for the first two games at least. Will Genia gets the chance to face Aaron Smith for the first time at international level.
The All Blacks gathered just last Friday, so have had a far tighter preparation. They had hitouts that night in Pukekohe against both Auckland and Counties Manukau, but in playing Victor Vito and Owen Franks at lock, and Keven Mealamu at openside flanker, they hardly revealed their hand ahead of this tournament.
Happily for them, Kieran Read is back from injury and Sonny Bill Williams has been released by his Japanese club Panasonic Wild Knights. He did not train early in the Auckland camp, but will combine with Ma’a Nonu in midfield. The latter has not played for the All Blacks since the Rugby World Cup final.
As usual, the phoney war has started early. Saia Faingaa was reported as saying the All Blacks are under pressure because they are favourites and Bledisloe Cup holders. It could just as easily be argued that the Wallabies are under pressure and need a breakthrough win here to spice up the Bledisloe contest and give the Rugby Championship an almighty boost.
The media has already lit a match under the supposed Steve Hansen-Deans rivalry. But it really doesn’t matter whether the rival coaches like each other. Graham Henry and Deans were hardly bosom buddies, either. The game is won out on the field.
Prepare for fire and brimstone.
SOUTH AFRICA v ARGENTINA
When: Saturday August 18, 5.00pm (3.00pm NZT, August 19)
Where: Newlands, Cape Town
Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia)
Head-to-Head: Played 13, South Africa 13, Argentina 0
In Cape Town: N/A
Last match: August 9, 2008: South Africa beat Argentina 63-9 at Ellis Park, Johannesburg
THE PUMAS will get their biggest moment in the sun since the Rugby World Cup with their debut in this extended competition.
Also making its first appearance is the new trophy itself, an imposing 5kg and 56cm tall symbol of supremacy made of gold and stainless steel. It’s apparently been polished to within an inch of its life and looks the part.
Argentina will be hoping to forget some scratchy lead-in form, losing to French club Stade Français, and the Pumas flew into South Africa on Monday.
Their side features the return from a three-year injury absence due to injuries of flyhalf Juan Martin Hernandez, one of 14 players in the starting XV who ply their trade in Europe. The side will be captained by Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, who takes over from centre Filipe Contepomi.
Heyneke Meyer will seek an early Springboks statement, but how he re-integrates some of his travel-weary Sharks will be fascinating.
Still, an upset Pumas’ win would set this tournament alight.
This weekend throws up another set of games which could go either way.
Which player was unlucky not to make the Wallabies’ preliminary squad for the British and Irish Lions series?