PREVIEW: Australia v South Africa
There are many questions that need answers as the Wallabies and Springboks kick off their international seasons in the Rugby Championship in Brisbane on Saturday.
Will Matt Giteau be able to keep up with the pace of southern hemisphere rugby? Is Jesse Kriel a Test level centre? Who is Australia's best openside? Are South Africa's props over the hill? Who are Australia's best half-backs? Do the Boks have a balanced back row? How about depth in the second row? The list goes on and on.
Having ended their November tours of Europe in defeat at the hands of England and Wales respectively, a positive start in the build-up to the Rugby World Cup is vital for both sides.
Getting back to winning ways is especially important for the Wallabies, who are looking to turn around their worst run of form since 2009, having bagged just one win in their last seven games.
The Wallabies have lost four of the last five clashes with the Springboks. Their one win in that run came the last time these sides met on Australian soil in a game they probably should have lost, were it not for Morne Steyn failing to find touch in the dying moments. (Steyn has not worn the green and gold since).
Big moment for @stevemoore83! @LFC Captain Jordan Henderson a big fan of the #Wallabies #StrongerAsOne— Wallabies (@Wallabies)
Nevertheless, the hosts have a fabulous side - on paper at least. Michael Cheika's first game on home soil as head coach brings with it renewed belief as Giteau returns from the international wilderness and David Pocock comes back into a revamped matchday squad.
Giteau's experience and game management outside the playmaking skills of Quade Cooper and Will Genia make for a potent attacking combination. Whether they gel remains to be seen however and the Boks will certainly ask a lot of questions of that lightweight 9-10-12 combination's defence, even if the Wallabies look to shift Cooper out of that channel when not in possession.
Pocock's return is also significant, albeit from the bench, as the Wallabies now have two world-class breakdown operators in their ranks. The Boks will not have forgotten Pocock's ball-poaching performance of the 2011 World Cup quarter-final.
SA coach Heyneke Meyer has long made a priority of the breakdown and has picked a very combative back row that will look to match Australia's mobility and strength on the deck. Schalk Burger will bring some muscle as he is tested at number eight in the absence of Duane Vermeulen while Marcell Coetzee is given another go at blindside, meaning South Africa have a loose trio of three players who could all start at openside.
For all their attacking prowess, the Aussies have not managed to score more than two tries in their last eight games against a Bok team that, for all their talk of playing a more expansive game, still focuses heavily on a strong defence.
The Boks have shown signs that they too can threaten with ball in hand though. The result of last week's run out against a World XV side in mid-vacation should be taken with a pinch of salt but their positive approach and willingness to have a go from their own half should have opposition coaches sitting up and taking notice.
The Springboks put boot to ball more than any team in last year's competition - at an average of 28 kicks from hand per game - but Meyer has promised a more enterprising approach and they have a few youngsters with the ability to cause real problems.
It's shaping up to be a intriguing Test that could potentially set the winners up for silverware down the line.
Great to meet Rickie Lambert of @LFC - @Doogz @13LionelMapoe14 @LooD_Jager and @JJ_Fredericks are fans! Thks @LFCANZ— South African Rugby (@Springboks)
Team news: Cheika has given the Wallaby backline a makeover with four changes to the team that lost to England as Brumbies centre Tevita Kuridrani returns at outside centre to join Cooper, Genia and Giteau in the starting XV. There is only one change to the Springbok starting side that played at Newlands last week with Burger replacing Warren Whiteley. There are four changes on the bench, where props Heinke van der Merwe and Frans Malherbe, as well as Lood de Jager (lock) and Lwazi Mvovo (wing) have been included.
Players to watch:
For Australia: Back in the pivot role, the spotlight will be on Quade Cooper as he and Will Genia form the Wallaby half-back axis in their home stadium. The Reds duo will enjoy some time behind a more abrasive pack than the during the Super Rugby season and will be hoping to rekindle the same kind of magic that saw them lead the Wallabies to the Tri-Nations title in 2011 - which just happens to be the last time the Wallabies won their opening match of the southern hemisphere championship. Overlooking incumbent fly-half Bernard Foley would not have been an easy decision for Cheika, who knows what he has to fall back on if Cooper doesn't fire. Cooper must prove he is not a liability on defence.
For South Africa: With two young, in-form props pushing for a place in the starting XV, it's time for Jannie du Plessis to buck up. There is a lot of value in having experienced players on the park in big games, but there must be a limit to the cost of missed tackles and unnecessary penalties. The Sharks veteran has hardly shone at scrum time this year either, in stark contrast to the two Stormers tightheads waiting in the wings. South Africa's victory on their last visit to Brisbane had a lot to do with their domination at scrum time and if the Boks aren't on top in the set-piece, fans will be crying out for Frans Malherbe to be thrown into the mix early.
Head-to-head: Two new-look midfields face off with Kriel making his Test debut as Springbok #867. His attacking flair is clear but there are question marks around his aptitude in a tricky defensive position. One of the world's best 13s, Kuridrani, will give him a stern examination. Inside them, veteran campaigner Giteau takes on South Africa's hottest young gun, Damian de Allende. If the Toulon star is half a step off the best, Super Rugby's top tackle-beater will expose him.— Wallabies (@Wallabies)
2014: South Africa won 28-8 in Cape Town
2014: Australia won 24-23 in Perth
2013: South Africa won 28-8 in Cape Town
2013: South Africa won 38-12 in Brisbane
2012: South Africa won 31-8 in Pretoria
2012: Australia won 26-19 in Perth
2011: Australia won 11-9 in Wellington
2011: Australia won 14-9 in Durban
2011: Australia won 39-20 in Sydney
2010: Australia won 41-39 in Bloemfontein
2010: South Africa won 44-31 in Pretoria