After the second travel bye of The Rugby Championship in 2014, the action resumes with the All Blacks and Wallabies travelling to Argentina and South Africa respectively to kick off the penultimate week of the tournament.
A bonus point victory will secure the title for New Zealand for the third straight year.
But failure to record a four try bonus point against Los Pumas, coupled with an impressive win for the Springboks or Wallabies, could result in the title being decided in the sixth and final round.
Are the All Blacks human?
The disruption cannot be denied, Cruden-gate coupled with Dane Coles departure and the absence of midfield rock Ma’a Nonu will alter the dynamic of the team.
However one thing the All Blacks have proven consistently in recent years is that the jersey and team ethos is at a level where new face can seamlessly enter the environment and perform like a world beater.
The rugby community will be watching to see if arguably the best impact number ten in the game – Barrett – can sustain his performance over 80 minutes and kick pressure goals if required, while Malakai Fekitoa, a diamond in the rough if there ever was one, will be tasked filling the immense shoes of the dreadlocked menace Nonu.
If it is business as usual and the All Blacks are triumphant, one will have to wonder what disruptions could cause ill effects for the best team on the planet – they proved at the 2011 Rugby World Cup they could afford to lose players and remain consistent regardless of the pressure levels – and it seems this trend has continued.
What do the Wallabies need to do?
Winning games and playing attacking rugby doesn’t seem to be enough, but a victory in the Gold Coast would become quite insignificant if the Wallabies can break a 22-year drought at Newlands this weekend.
If one thing is for sure, Australia is still far from the finished product, and as an increasing number of former Wallabies point out, the team may be unfairly judged and compared to their great rivals across the ditch.
We are in an era witnessing one of the dominant All Blacks teams, and it seems that Ewen McKenzie’s team has done the world few favours with Richie McCaw admitting this week that the draw is Sydney was a “massive wake up call” for his troops.
Yet some might suggest the men in gold did not feel the same when defeated at Eden Park, preferring to put that match in the ‘anomaly’ category.
Confidence and the “talk up” are part of the psyche of successful Australian sport’s teams, but when considering how the All Blacks are almost ridiculously humble at times, the way forward for the Wallabies might be to become harsher internal critics.
Risk for Los Pumas despite development
Under Daniel Hourcade Argentina is certainly prepared to chance their arm, with wingers selected for the attacking prowess as opposed to their defensive mettle, while those same players are holding their positions strictly to assist with playing a wide game.
While this is happening, Los Pumas are often stationing big forwards out wide, yet at the same time they have upped their breakdown work recognising how important the speed of their recycling is for a potent offence.
But as much as the team has evolved, they haven’t forgotten their strengths with their scrum as imposing as ever.
The warning is that the All Blacks have relished a Test on a potential dry and fast track in La Plata, and on home soil Argentina have often been drawn into New Zealand’s style of play and been unable to keep pace.
They won’t want to forget that they can tie up the ball in a scrum battle that they will back themselves to win. All Blacks teams often grin like demons when they see sides playing expansive rugby as it is the sort of contest the players thrive on.
Springboks will be happy to get on the field
It has been an interesting and colourful couple of weeks for the South Africans, with Frans Steyn admitting he would unlikely don the Springbok jersey again; Francois Louw was ruled out for the season; the spectre of quota selection was again raised with the selection of Teboho “Oupa” Mohoje, before the astonishing claim from local media.
Suggesting that the Wallabies shouldn’t even be on the same field as the Springboks clearly went down like a lead balloon in the local’s camp – with Jean de Villiers looking visibly frustrated and annoyed when asked about the comment late this week.
For the team, they will just want to get the boot’s laced up and onto the field, playing a Test match is an ideal way to put distractions aside.
Tactically, the selection of Mohoje will give the Springboks more mobility around the field but they will lose some ballast when it comes to clearing out the rucks – even though Heyneke Meyer has selected one of the most experienced benches (314 caps) in South African history.
Attention shifts to finales and new opponents
If the tournament could follow a dream script, then Argentina will record a famous victory over the All Blacks, ensuring that the champion would not be decided until the final weekend.
However whether or not that happens remains to be seen as the world’s number one ranked team aren’t the sort to write fairy tales for others.
Yet even if New Zealand do clinch the title, the sixth round still promises so much, with All Blacks v Springboks clashes in the Republic often special affairs – some would suggest the games of the year – while Los Pumas may have targeted their game against the Wallabies in Mendoza as being eminently winnable.
And then, the cream of the Southern Hemisphere head to Europe for the last major tours before the 2015 Rugby World Cup.