Shortened Rugby Championship provides World Cup litmus test
The Rugby Championship may only be half as long this year but has huge importance in gauging the readiness of the southern hemisphere powerhouses ahead of the World Cup in France when they clash over the month of July for the coveted trophy.
New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa each have their own concerns ahead of the World Cup, but the boost of a Championship victory would send them jetting off to France with confirmation they are on the right track.
The fixture list has been cut from six games to three to allow for World Cup warm-up matches.
New Zealand are in Mendoza to play Argentina while South Africa host Australia in Pretoria in this weekend's opening rounds.
All Blacks coach Ian Foster endured a difficult 2022 despite lifting the Championship trophy and a poor run in the next three games will put him back under pressure, even if he will vacate his position come what may after the World Cup.
"We want to use these opportunities ahead of us to really test our combinations, to challenge ourselves," Foster told reporters.
"From a mindset perspective, we want to attack, we want to play well, and we really think it's important for us to do that to climb on that plane and go to France in the right state."
Australia play their first matches under returning coach Eddie Jones, never one to be shy of a word or a well-conceived plan.
What kind of evolution he can bring in their five games before the World Cup will become evident in the coming weeks.
"It's a new team. We want to play a different way. An Australian style of rugby. And the players have bought into it so we're looking forward to the challenge," Jones said.
The Australian way has been much talked about by a succession of Wallabies coaches, so it will be intriguing to see how Jones interprets it.
"Sometimes the sprint doesn't win the marathon," he added, making sure not to promise instant success.
The Springboks won the shortened Rugby Championship in 2019 on their way to lifting the World Cup in Japan and, as they did four years ago, will split their squad for the first two games.
They have selected a mixture of experience and newer players for the home test against Australia as another group of players left for New Zealand in order to acclimatise for their clash in Auckland on 15 July.
They have two huge injury concerns in captain Siya Kolisi and key first-five Handre Pollard. Both sit out the entire Championship.
"Our plan from the outset was to select a squad that we believe has what it takes to beat Australia while at the same time selecting a group of players that could travel to New Zealand to give us the best possible chance to do well in both matches," coach Jacques Nienaber said.
"Our last Rugby Championship match is in Johannesburg (against Argentina) and then we'll be able to select a squad from our full complement of players."
Argentina claimed a first ever win in New Zealand in last year's Championship and later beat Jones's England at Twickenham.
Coach Michael Cheika has gone for continuity with his squad selection, though he is without suspended flanker Marcos Kremer for the entire Championship campaign.
They are a side who can match anybody, but too often blow hot and cold and flatter to deceive.