SYDNEY: The New Zealand juggernaut rumbles into the Rugby Championship on the back of a 17-match winning streak and realistic hopes in South Africa, Australia and Argentina will be of hindering its progress rather than bringing it to a halt.
Victory over Australia in their opener on Saturday would give the All Blacks a top-tier record for consecutive wins and few would be surprised if the world champions extended the run to 23 matches to clinch a third successive title unbeaten.
Even if it was not utterly anathema to their culture, the proximity of their World Cup defence in England next year ensures there will be no complacency in the All Blacks camp.
Coach Steve Hansen has carefully managed an overhaul of his squad over his three seasons in charge, retaining the ageing core of the 2011 World Cup-winning side while nursing younger talent to increase depth.
Even the absence for at least the first two tests of injured flyhalf Dan Carter, the highest points scorer of all time in test rugby, should not therefore result in exploitable weakness in the side.
Aaron Cruden ably led the backline in the 3-0 sweep over a spirited England side in June while Carter was enjoying a sabbatical and many international coaches would envy Hansen’s third and fourth options, Beauden Barrett and Colin Slade. In mobile number eight Kieran Read, the 2013 World Player of the Year, New Zealand have not only a formidable back row operator but a leader-in-waiting should injury deprive them of totemic flanker Richie McCaw.
New Zealand’s first two matches are clashes with trans-Tasman rivals Australia but it is perhaps the power of an improving South Africa they fear most - if fear is the right word.
The Springboks, who open their campaign against the Pumas in Pretoria on Saturday, played a full part in one of the great test matches of any era against the All Blacks at Ellis Park last year, only wilting towards the end to succumb 38-27.
Coach Heyneke Meyer has targeted conditioning as one of the areas where he would like to see improvement in his squad this year and centre Jean de Villiers returns to skipper the side after missing the June victories over Wales and Scotland.
Meyer probably has to deal with the biggest injury list of the top three sides in the competition - he lost lock Victor Matfield after naming his squad - as he bids to end South Africa’s five-year wait for a fourth southern hemisphere title.
Like many, Meyer is expecting a much bigger challenge from Australia than the Wallabies presented last year after the morale-sapping defeat to the British and Irish Lions had led to the departure of coach Robbie Deans.
Ewen McKenzie’s first Rugby Championship campaign was over before it really started after back-to-back defeats to the All Blacks in the first two matches but he brings a far more settled side to the competition this year.
The former test prop is too canny an operator to publicly read anything into the New South Wales Waratahs’ victory over an All Blacks-laden Canterbury Crusaders side in the Super Rugby final.
He must, however, have enjoyed the physicality shown by the likes of number eight Wycliff Palu and young lock Will Skelton during the campaign, although the absence of Australia’s top two hookers, Stephen Moore and Tatafu Polota-Nau, is a big blow.
In fullback Israel Folau, who has scored 13 tries in 18 tests, Australia has the kind of potent attacking weapon that Argentina would dearly love to unleash in their third year at the top table.
Their campaign will again be about the quest to turn promising performances and near-misses into the maiden victory that would truly announce their arrival in the toughest of international competitions outside the World Cup.
The Pumas have a new coach in Daniel Hourcade, who has selected fewer overseas-based players and will therefore hope to benefit more from the long period he has been able to work with the squad in a pre-competition camp.
Their best chance of a win is likely to be at home, where they held the Springboks to a draw in 2012, but they took Australia close on the Gold Coast and could provide an upset if they can maintain their intensity.