Building towards the Rugby World Cup in 2015 is part of the subtext to this year's competition, writes Greg Stutchbury. Plus Paul Radley's four players to watch
Changing tempo for competing quartet in Rugby Championship
It would be a stretch to describe this year's Rugby Championship as merely a testing ground for the World Cup, but with all four teams undergoing some form of transition, their performance in the southern hemisphere's annual tournament will be an indicator of their progress ahead of rugby's global showcase in 2015.
Defending champions New Zealand are infusing new blood into their core of grizzled veterans and will again be favourites for the trophy they won in such convincing style last year, while Australia are in the midst of a major overhaul, Argentina may be set for a coaching change and South Africa are coming to terms with the impact of rugby's global labour market on their selection policy.
The biggest issue for the All Blacks is the fitness of captain Richie McCaw, who has barely played after returning from a six-month sabbatical.
Coach Steve Hansen told reporters last week that he had no concerns over McCaw's fitness, having watched the open-side flanker get through the 2011 World Cup with virtually no training due to a broken foot.
Hansen's goal for the side is to continue to play at a higher pace than anyone else, having lifted the game to a new tempo last year, which meant dumping World Cup-winning scrum-half Piri Weepu, when was deemed not fast enough to play their style.
Integrating exciting and aggressive youngsters into a team of tried and tested veterans has been key to Hansen's goal of playing the high-tempo game and 20 of the 33 players used at the last World Cup are no longer in the national set-up.
Amid concerns about a lack of domestic depth, Springboks coach Heyneke Meyer has had to select eight players who are either plying their trade offshore or are set to take up contracts overseas.
South Africa lost a large chunk of their 2007 World Cup winning-side after the last tournament in New Zealand, while several others are nearing the end of their careers and looking for big paychecks offshore.
The fact that Meyer had to bring back Fourie du Preez from Japanese club rugby highlighted the dearth of talent at scrum-half, while retaining the metronomic Morne Steyn at fly-half suggests he wants a dual kicking option close to the ruck.
That conservative game plan may stymie the attacking talents of a backline that includes young fullback Willie le Roux and evergreen winger Bryan Habana, who at 30 is still one of the most dangerous strike weapons in world rugby.
Argentina provided a massive boost to the competition in their debut last year and impressed with their performances, where they drew with the Springboks and narrowly lost to the Wallabies twice.
The Pumas will no longer have the element of surprise they had last year, though their 26-12 victory over Wales in Cardiff last November showed the benefit of competing in the tournament.
For much of last year's season, they were a "60-minute team", falling away in the final quarter, the Wales victory demonstrated they can now play to the end.
But while the Pumas make steady progress, they may have to deal with a change at the top with local media suggesting coach Santiago Phelan will step down at the end of this year.
"What's important is that the Argentine team is on the right track, improving," Phelan said after his side beat a touring New South Wales team in two warm-up matches.
"The team is growing in confidence and ... the task is never done, there are always things to improve."
But it is Australia who are undergoing the most sweeping changes, with new coach Ewen McKenzie likely to implement a more adventurous style of play after taking over from Robbie Deans last month.
McKenzie has virtually no honeymoon period in which to bed himself in and will be thrust straight into the Rugby Championship with no build-up, hoping to turn a young side into legitimate World Cup contenders with just two years to narrow down his selections.
The 1991 World Cup winner, probably mindful that time was running out to make wholesale changes to the squad, introduced eight new caps and ditched veteran prop Benn Robinson.
However, he did not want to throw Deans's baby out with the bath water and said he would maintain the positive aspects of his predecessor's five years in charge.
"You arrive at this time and it's not a matter of chucking everything out the window," he said.
"You have to accept that there were things going on that were quite good and world-class, so we'll only be interested in changing things where we think we can get a benefit, I guess, from a base game."
FOUR TO WATCH
Felipe Contepomi (Argentina)
While their Sanzar rivals have plenty of scope for experimenting with youth, Argentina are still relying on veteran campaigners to nurse them through their embryonic exchanges in this competition. They do not come much more experienced than Contepomi. The seasoned centre has already retired from European club rugby, but at 35, he will be making his debut in this competition as captain against South Africa.
Matt Toomua (Australia)
Piloted the revival of the Brumbies as a genuine force in Super Rugby this season, and the fly-half has been rewarded with a debut for Australia. Handed the No 10 shirt for the first Test of Ewen McKenzie’s reign as coach, Toomua will be hoping it is not as poisoned as his predecessors seemed to intimate. The woeful James O’Connor experiment ended with the departure of Robbie Deans, while Quade Cooper remains on the fringe.
Conrad Smith (New Zealand)
When does an underrated player get termed underrated so often that he actually becomes quite well-rated? In Smith’s case, at least 20 Test matches ago. Everyone has noticed by now that the Huricanes centre is the trellis that binds the stars of the All Blacks backline. They may be shorn of Daniel Carter, but his understudy, Aaron Cruden, knows he has plenty of rugby savvy to call upon outside him.
Eben Etzebeth (South Africa)
Still only 21, despite having debuted in Test rugby over a year ago in the boiler-room of the second row. South Africa might have feared for the coming years when the two warrior lock-forwards, Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha, grew old together and made for the sunset. The future could be even brighter now Etzebeth has the world at his feet.