With the inaugural Rugby Championship to start this week, Gregor Paul poses his First XV of questions ahead of the new competition.
1. Will it be a two-horse race between New Zealand and South Africa?
It's hard to see it being anything else, with Argentina's inexperience and lack of creative talent counting against them and Australia's lack of crunch in the forwards, particularly at the scrum, counting against them. The All Blacks have the all-round game, while the Boks have enough physical clout and aggression to bludgeon their way to victories. It may come down to the final game in Johannesburg to determine the winner.
2. How much influence can Richie McCaw wield?
These days, McCaw probably rates as the best captain and best referee in world rugby. Officials let him have his say and seem to be eager to give him what he wants. None of the other captains in the Rugby Championship have his standing or influence and the All Blacks may be able to manipulate some good fortune for themselves on the back of McCaw's strength of personality and reputation.
When things get tight, that could be crucial.
3. Will Owen Franks come to life?
The Crusaders tighthead hasn't been at his frothing best so far in 2012. There have been bursts of his old self but the All Black scrumtook a bit of a pounding in the second test against Ireland and the Crusaders' set piece never quite dominated as much as they have in recent seasons. Franks has been subdued; presumably the thrill of smashing the Wallabies will perk him up?
4. Can SBWand Ma'a Nonu work as a combination?
When these two paired up at Twickenham in 2010, it was massively underwhelming. They didn't work as a pairing-not helped by the fact Williams was at 13 and on debut.
He's a different player now and Nonu could slip in at centre and be lethal running on to Williams' offloads. There is obvious potential to that pairing now, as long as there is some craft and subtlety to their angles, timing and distribution.
5. Can Dan Carter find his running game?
Carter flicked a switch in the series against Ireland. Having been quiet and lacking confidence in Super Rugby after his late return, he was suddenly composed and impressive in the series. His kicking and control were exemplary and his decisionmaking under pressure was immaculate as always. But he didn't cut loose himself-he was content to push the ball wide and play others into space. When he's at his best, feeling good, he backs himself and splits defences with his footwork and acceleration. The All Blacks will be exceptionally tough to beat if Carter's running game springs to life.
6. Will David Pocock be a disaster as Wallaby captain?
In recent seasons, Pocock has lost his cool when playing against the All Blacks. McCaw and others have been able to goad him and leave him venting at officials and losing his focus. As captain, Pocock can't let that happen but does he have the self-control to stay calm? Can he rise above his own frustrations and lead by appropriate example? If the skipper loses his discipline, the Wallabies will be in big trouble.
7. Can Victor Vito become the new Jerome Kaino?
Test matches against South Africa, Australia and Argentina need big men to make a big impression. The All Blacks need a hard man; they have lost Brad Thorn and Kaino
and lack an edge without them. Vito has the potential to be destructive, intimidating and bruising. That's what the All Blacks want from him and now, in his third year as a test player, there is a feeling it's time for him to step up.
8. Will the Boks persist with Morne Steyn?
There is significant playmaking talent in the Boks' squad. Pat Lambie has vision, Elton Jantjies can run and pull strings and even Frans Steyn can slip into No 10 and get the backline moving. South Africa coach Heyneke Meyer is a big believer in Morne Steyn, though, and has belief that the Bulls first five is the right man for the job. Steyn is a brilliant goal-kicker, great punter and an excellent but limited tactical navigator. He delivers the basic game the Boks revel in but they will never really hurt teams with him running the show. If they want to score more tries, pose more of a threat out wide, they need to select Lambie or Jantjies at No 10. But will they be that bold?
9. Is Brodie Retallick going to hit the wall?
The Chiefs lock has been the most impressive player in New Zealand rugby this year. Barely 21 and in his first Super Rugby campaign, he's hit thousands of rucks, won lineout ball and got himself about the field. SamWhitelock was impressive in his rookie season - Retallick has been more so. Even those who knew he had potential to be a test player have been amazed at just how well Retallick has played. But he's young and already endured a heavy workload and the physicality of the Rugby Championship will be a step up again. Can he retain his energy and impact or will he suddenly fade?
10. Can the Pumas win a game?
The answer to that is yes but it might only be one.They will be competitive in all six outings because their pack is outstanding, they hold the ball superbly and they scramble on defence, even if they don't score many tries. They are one of the toughest sides in the world to break down and take so few risks with the ball. That's unlikely to be enough at this level to win tests regularly, especially away from home. But when they play in Argentina, with hostile and deafening crowds crammed into intimidating venues, they can pick up one-off wins. Australia look vulnerable to an ambush on the final weekend-the Pumas pack are more than capable of getting on top and scrummaging
and mauling their way to a tight win.
11. Can Piri Weepu justify the faith?
Weepu made the squad in June when he really didn't deserve his place. But Hansen was confident the Blues halfback would come right and deliver as he has so often done. Weepu certainly looked trimmer and livelier in June and in the last few games he played for the Blues. Hansen is reluctant to carry two young, inexperienced No 9s, which is partly why Weepu is in the mix. But Tawera Kerr-Barlow is hammering at the door and, as much as Hansen wants experience, he knows that youth and form inevitably become irresistible and Weepu will have to make an obvious and worthy impact from the bench.
12. Is Pierre Spies in awe of Kieran Read?
In 2009, when the Springboks moved to No 1 in the IRB rankings, Pierre Spies was probably the best No 8 in world rugby. He pretty much said so himself, whether he was asked for his opinion or not. But in July 2010, Read, as part of an All Black side hungry for revenge, destroyed South Africa in consecutive weeks and then broke their hearts in the third encounter with a late win. It was Read who shone - not Spies; it was Read who smashed the hard yards, cut men in two and cornerflagged. Spies was lost and every time those two have met since, be it at international or Super Rugby level, Read has dominated. The Boks have been on the decline since 2009 - the heights they
reached beyond them and much of that is due to the lack of impact from Spies.
13. Is Cory Jane the best wing in world rugby?
There were heroes throughout the All Black World Cup squad but no one did more
in those final three games than Cory Jane. He was a rock - taking endless high balls, launching counter attacks and generally pulling off the impossible. He's an enigma - not massive, not insanely quick either, but somehow lethal - a footballer with the priceless ability to beat people, find space and make things happen. He was sorely missed in June and by late September, it will be a surprise if Jane hasn't reminded everyone that his claim to be the best wing in the world is strong.
14. Will the officials improve their performances?
Super Rugby was marred by some fairly disappointing work by the officials. The last few weeks especially saw some bizarre callsmadeby various TMOs, while too much detail was
missed by many of the officials. Little things began to grate - the offside line was pushed in the final; there were runners in front of kickoffs almost every week and scrum engagements were poor. The game needs strong and accurate refereeing and with the odd exception, most of the so-called best officials need to sharpen their game.
15. Will the All Blacks top the drop goal count?
From having a serious aversion to dropping goals, the All Blacks have slowly embraced the idea that they can sneak three points every now and again. Carter has become alive to the opportunity-and has nailed four in the past year. The drop goal has become a valid weapon for the All Blacks and the tightness of games in the Rugby Championship will no doubt see Carter strike a few to try to keep the pressure on. The Boks and Pumas love their drop goals as well and have a longer history of using them, so it will be a fascinating statistic if the All Blacks end the competition having dropped the most goals.