The time has come after a long Super Rugby season to see the All Blacks get down to business in the Rugby Championship. The RC clearly doesn't quite hold the same meaning this year as there's that World Cup beast lurking on the horizon and with all due respect to the RC, most of the teams and especially the All Blacks, will be looking to suss out their best team, combinations and those wider squad positions.
Tomorrow night the All Blacks will face Argentina which is going a nice match up for the first game of the RC. Not because Argentina are perceived to be the weakest team in the RC, but their strength is their forward pack and how damn ruthless they are considering their position in world rugby - one of the better second tier teams. With the World Cup to be played in England where conditions will be more suited to tight rugby with the opportunity to razzle if you've earned that right, the All Blacks need to make the most of these contests.
Christchurch on a Friday night against Argentina is about as close as you can get to replicating a World Cup in England. With that being said, the All Blacks will roll out a near full strength forward pack with the only really Dane Coles, Charlie Faumunia and Sam Whitelock able to make cases to be a part of a full strength side.
The front row of Tony Woodcock, Kevin Mealamu and Owen Franks get to work on their bread and butter against an Argentinian side who will be out to make a point at set-piece time. There's no real dramas here and a poor performance probably won't count for much as Mealamu knows his role going forward while Franks and Woodcock won't face any dramatic action. The intrigue will come when Nepo Laulala and Cody Taylor enter the game, shoudl they be given that opportunity, which I would do if I were Shag.
Waisake Naholo gets a start on wing, the first chance for him to stake his claim to start on the right wing with Julian Savea locked in on the left. Much of the talk has centred on the selection of Israel Dagg and whether he deserves it, simply put - yeah he does. Battling injuries and struggling to make an impact in any form of rugby this year, Dagg has earned the right over his All Blacks career to be given the opportunity to defend his spot. This whole 'last chance' stuff though is a bit dramatic, there's plenty of time to figure out who is the best option.
The issue for Dagg though is that his biggest competition comes in the form of Ben Smith, who is the man. Regardless, this is the start of Dagg's defence of the 15 jersey.
Overall, we still can't read too much into this squad as there's still guys like the Smith's (x3) who will walk into the starting side. Blokes with the most to play for are Dagg, Naholo, Sonny Bill Williams and Charles Piutau who are all in the midst of selection battles.
We don't need to worry about halfback with TJ Perenara getting the start this week, he'll be second in line to Aaron Smith and games like these allow Perenara to get crucial game time.
The Greats will also be in for an interesting game with Richie McCaw in for another brutal encounter against the Argie forward pack, but my attention will be on Dan Carter. Carter will be playing at home at a ground he knows well and I don't imagine the cold, evening and possibly wet conditions will allow him to fully express himself on attack. Carter has said this week that he needs and wants to run the ball more, but I'm not sure if he'll be allowed that luxury and we're going to get to see if Carter can still control a Test from the pocket.
A lot of this does depend on how the All Blacks go in the line-out and in scrums, but Carter's left boot will be crucial in keeping Argentina stuck down their end.
Well, Argentina are a complete unknown to me so we'll have to touch base with regards to them once I see them play.
Australia and South Africa will also go up against each other this weekend, which is shaping as a biggun' in terms of the start of the international rugby period. South Africa offer a similar prospect as Argentina, as we don't really know how they are going to look until we get to see a few games and can start to put the pieces together. The ever-beastly Schalk Burger returns to the back of the scrum as South African coach Heyneke Meyer continues to give a range of players a chance to impress.
South Africa: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Schalk Burger, 7 Marcell Coetzee, 6 Francois Louw, 5 Victor Matfield (captain), 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: 16 Adriaan Strauss, 17 Heinke van der Merwe, 18 Frans Malherbe, 19 Lodewyk de Jager, 20 Teboho Mohoje, 21 Cobus Reinach, 22 Pat Lambie, 23 Lwazi Mvovo.
The Wallabies squad for Saturday night's game in Brisbane features both Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell who have made the most of the change in selection policies. Giteau will play at centre with Quade Cooper given the first chance to impress at first five, ahead of Waratah Bernard Foley while Rob Horne starts outside Cooper. You would expect Wallabies coach Michael Cheika to give Foley a chance to run things in the 10 jersey at some stage in the RC, but he's going to have to wait his turn.
Mitchell will come off the bench as Tevita Kuridrani and Adam Ashley-Cooper start on the wings with Israel Folau at fullback. Michael Hooper has edged out David Pocock to start at seven, but this will be a similar situation to Cooper/Foley as they look to nail the best line up.
Wallabies (1-15): James Slipper, Stephen Moore (c), Sekope Kepu, Rob Simmons, Will Skelton, Scott Fardy, Michael Hooper, Scott Higginbotham, Will Genia, Quade Cooper, Rob Horne, Matt Giteau, Tevita Kuridrani, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Israel Folau
Reserves: Tatafu Polota-Nau, Scott Sio, Greg Holmes, James Horwill, David Pocock, Nick Phipps, Matt Toomua, Drew Mitchell.
Shoutout to Highlanders flanker John Hardie who has been called up to Scotland's extended squad ahead of the World Cup. Because you asked, here's Scotland's squad...
Mike Cusack (Glasgow Warriors) – Uncapped
Allan Dell (Edinburgh Rugby) – uncapped
Alasdair Dickinson (Edinburgh Rugby) – 44 caps; 4 RWC appearances (2007 and 2011)
Ryan Grant (Glasgow Warriors) – 22 caps
Willem Nel (Edinburgh Rugby) – Uncapped
Gordon Reid (Glasgow Warriors) – 8 caps
Jon Welsh (Newcastle Falcons) – 4 caps
Fraser Brown (Glasgow Warriors) – 8 caps
Ross Ford (Edinburgh Rugby) – 85 caps; 8 RWC appearances (2007 and 2011)
Stuart McInally (Edinburgh Rugby) – Uncapped
Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh Rugby) – 8 caps
Jonny Gray (Glasgow Warriors) – 13 caps
Richie Gray (Castres) – 44 caps
Jim Hamilton (Saracens) – 61 caps; 6 RWC appearances (2007 and 2011)
Robert Harley (Glasgow Warriors) – 15 caps
Tim Swinson (Glasgow Warriors) – 12 caps
Adam Ashe (Glasgow Warriors) – 5 caps
John Barclay (Scarlets) – 43 caps; 4 RWC appearances (2007 and 2011)
Hugh Blake (Glasgow Warriors) – Uncapped
Blair Cowan (London Irish) – 11 caps
David Denton (Edinburgh Rugby) – 25 caps
Josh Strauss (Glasgow Warriors) – Uncapped
Alasdair Strokosch (Perpignan) – 44 caps; 3 RWC appearances (2011)
Ryan Wilson (Glasgow Warriors) – 9 caps
Hamish Watson (Edinburgh Rugby) – 1 cap
Chris Cusiter (Sale Sharks) – 70 caps; 6 RWC appearances (2007 and 2011)
Sam Hidalgo-Clyne (Edinburgh Rugby) – 5 caps
Greig Laidlaw (Gloucester) – 39 caps
Henry Pyrgos (Glasgow Warriors) – 13 caps
Ruaridh Jackson (Wasps) – 25 caps; 3 RWC appearances (2011)
Finn Russell (Glasgow Warriors) – 9 caps
Duncan Weir (Glasgow Warriors) – 18 caps
Mark Bennett (Glasgow Warriors) – 7 caps
Alex Dunbar (Glasgow Warriors) – 14 caps
Peter Horne (Glasgow Warriors) – 7 caps
Matt Scott (Edinburgh Rugby) – 25 caps
Duncan Taylor (Saracens) – 12 caps
Richie Vernon (Glasgow Warriors) – 20 caps; 3 RWC appearances (2011)
Stuart Hogg (Glasgow Warriors) – 32 caps
Damien Hoyland (Edinburgh Rugby) – Uncapped
Rory Hughes (Glasgow Warriors) – Uncapped
Sean Lamont (Glasgow Warriors) – 93 caps; 8 RWC appearances (2007 and 2011)
Sean Maitland (London Irish) – 15 caps
Tommy Seymour (Glasgow Warriors) – 17 caps
Greig Tonks (Edinburgh Rugby) – 4 caps
Tim Visser (Harlequins) – 18 caps