The abbreviated Rugby Championship kicks off in Johannesburg, where South Africa will host Australia at Emirates Airline Park, before Argentina face off against New Zealand at Estadio Jose Amalfitano in Buenos Aires.
Read on for a complete preview of the weekend's games.
South Africa vs. Australia, Emirates Airline Park, Johannesburg, (3.05 p.m. GMT / 11.05 a.m. EDT / 5.05 p.m. CAT Saturday / 2.05 a.m. AEST, 4.05 a.m NZT Sunday)
The four teams this year each are after victories, but more importantly they want key questions answered ahead of the Rugby World Cup; as is the case every four years, the Rugby Championship represents merely a series of stepping stones towards the big show, and results are not the be all and end all if answers are gained and lessons learned.
In seeking to learn those lessons, the management teams are looking after their players, managing workloads and minimising travel, and Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus said more than a week ahead of kick-off that he would "split resources" for the Tests against Australia this weekend and New Zealand next.
"Can you play Australia here, get on a plane, arrive on Monday or Tuesday and think you have a realistic chance of beating New Zealand in New Zealand," Erasmus said, noting that 15 players would be sent to Wellington early to prepare for the All Blacks.
With Erasmus having openly prioritised the All Blacks fixture in Wellington next week -- as he did last year when he 'sacrificed' the Wallabies Test in Brisbane in order to have a fresh 'First XV' to face New Zealand at Westpac Stadium, where the Boks claimed a famous victory -- this match-up, in theory, represents a fine chance for the Wallabies to claim their first Test victory over South Africa in Johannesburg since 1963. But no one should consider the Springboks team named to host Australia to be 'weakened' or 'second string'. Their A- rather than B-team, perhaps, with a combined 488 Tests' worth of experience in the squad -- including 394 caps among the forwards.
Erasmus may have prioritised the All Blacks fixture, but he'll still be keen -- and most likely confident -- to get the season off the a winning start.
What the Springboks will want out of this
The 23-man squad features three uncapped players -- Herschel Jantjies, Rynhardt Elstadt and Lizo Gqoboka -- with Elstadt named alongside Vincent Koch, Marcell Coetzee, Cobus Reinach and Frans Steyn as Europe-based players; Erasmus will be looking for each to produce a compelling case to go to Japan.
Erasmus will want answers, in particular, from his scrum-halves, fly-half and No.6.
Jantjies and Reinach are key names as Erasmus has so far not been happy with the depth of scrum-halves behind his No. 1, Faf de Klerk. Jantjies excelled with the Stormers in Super Rugby, with great service from the scrum base and a running threat around the fringes, while Reinach was sensational for Northampton Saints in England, being named his club's player of the season and nominated for both RPA and Gallagher Premiership Player of the Year awards. Is either a better back-up option? Can either or both push de Klerk? We'll start to know after Saturday.
Elton Jantjies starts the game at No. 10, and for all his attacking talents he remains an enigma at Test level; can he genuinely manage a game at this level, or is he "just" a Plan B option when Plan A isn't working. Erasmus has spoken highly of Steyn's impact on training having called him into the squad to win his first Test cap since the 2017 series against France, and there's no doubt he offers great versatility across No. 10, 12 and 15 from the bench; can he prove himself to be a more viable option than Jantjies at 10?
The Boks potentially have an opening at No. 6 with the continued injury-enforced absence of captain Siya Kolisi; much as Kwagga Smith is seemingly the preferred 'replacement' given he is going to New Zealand early, it's interesting that Elstadt has been selected to start ahead of Marcell Coetzee. Elstadt plays in the No. 7 jumper for Toulouse in France, but he is by no means an "openside" and his selection either indicates a more physical game plan or a desire to see more of him than Coetzee. It's certainly interesting that Erasmus has picked players who are at home in the second row on both sides of the scrum.
For all those questions, and whatever answers he gets, Erasmus will perhaps be most keen to see Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager in the second row both get meaningful game time given the injuries they have suffered in Super Rugby this season; they may well be Erasmus' preferred locking option for Japan.
What the Wallabies will want out of this
Wallabies coach Michael Cheika, perhaps more than anyone, will be grateful this tournament is more about experimentation and planning than results given his side lost nine of 13 Tests last season; he'll likely be happy also to open his campaign against someone other than New Zealand. In terms of his starting side, which features just five players from Australia's last outing -- their 37-18 defeat by England at Twickenham in November -- he'll likely be looking most closely at the performances of Tom Banks, Nic White and Test debutant Isi Naisarani.
Banks' selection ahead of Kurtley Beale as fullback for the Wallabies' first post-Israel Folau Test caused more than a few raised eyebrows in Australia, but it surely reflects more that Cheika knows Beale's capabilities at this level and wants to see more of the Brumbies' custodian, who has just three caps off the bench. Banks starred for the Brumbies as they became Australia's only team in the Super Rugby finals, and no one can say he doesn't deserve his chance to impress the coach.
White's selection ahead of Will Genia also represents a nod towards needing to know more; White has 22 caps, of course, but none since August 2015, after which he moved to the United Kingdom to play with Exeter Chiefs in the Gallagher Premiership. This represents a chance for Cheika to evaluate more fully the worth of the player's European club form. Cheika knows exactly what he has in Genia; like Erasmus, he wants to know what he has behind his first-choice scrum-half.
The selection of Fiji-born Naisarani at the first opportunity after he moved to Australia just five years ago is perhaps the most interesting. The Melbourne Rebels' Player of the Year offers the kind of powerful ball running from the back of the scrum for which the Wallabies have looked, and failed to find, since Toutai Kefu last played in 2003, and Cheika will be looking for him to get the side on the front foot.
Springboks: Warrick Gelant, Sbu Nkosi, Jesse Kriel, André Esterhuizen, Makazole Mapimpi, Elton Jantjies, Herschel Jantjies, Francois Louw, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Rynhardt Elstadt, Lood de Jager, Eben Etzebeth (captain), Trevor Nyakane, Bongi Mbonambi, Tendai Mtawarira. Replacements: Schalk Brits, Lizo Gqoboka, Vincent Koch, Marvin Orie, Marcell Coetzee, Cobus Reinach, Frans Steyn, Dillyn Leyds.
Wallabies: Tom Banks, Dane Haylett-Petty, Tevita Kuridrani, Samu Kerevi, Reece Hodge, Bernard Foley, Nic White, Isi Naisarani, Michael Hooper (captain), Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Rory Arnold, Izack Rodda, Sekope Kepu, Folau Fainga'a, James Slipper. Replacements: Jordan Uelese, Harry Johnson-Holmes, Taniela Tupou, Rob Simmons, Jack Dempsey, Will Genia, Matt To'omua, Kurtley Beale.
Positional battle to watch
Rynhard Elstadt vs. Michael Hooper
The Springboks debutant vs. the Wallabies captain with 91 caps: Elstadt has been wearing No. 7 for Toulouse but he's not an openside in what has become the modern pilfering sense of the position, while Hooper has developed from that definition into a player who features a little wider and who made more tackles than any other player in Super Rugby this season; this shapes as being key to the game, if not pivotal, as the Springboks team seems to have been selected to run through and overpower the Wallabies up front. Elstadt would likely have been as comfortable either on the other flank or in the second row, and his selection also gives the Boks an extra lineout option.
Andy Withers says: The Springboks are overwhelming favourites to win this Test, despite having prioritised the All Blacks next week. Their non-first XV looks stronger than the Wallabies almost across the park, and they have history on their side having not lost to Australia at home since 2011 and in Joburg since 1963. South Africa are strong fancies to win, with the margin uncertain only because of untested combinations in the backrow, halves and backline. South Africa by 15.
Argentina vs. New Zealand, Estadio Jose Amalfitano, Buenos Aires (6.05 p.m. GMT / 2.05 p.m. EDT / 8.05 p.m. CAT Saturday / 4.05 a.m. AEST, 6.05 a.m NZT Sunday)
Argentine rugby is riding a wave of momentum not seen since the 2015 World Cup. Fortunately, the country has rediscovered its rugby mojo just in time for another staging of the game's global showpiece. The Pumas head into this weekend's Rugby Championship opener having had the Jaguares make it all the way to the Super Rugby final. The Jaguares' progress in Super Rugby was evident year-on-year since their 2016 bow and while the Argentines came up short in Christchurch, the Crusaders knew they were in a contest that required Test-match intensity.
The trick now is for the Pumas to build on that again, with a few added reinforcements from Europe, and advance Jaguares' game to genuine Test-match contenders; the Pumas have enjoyed some impressive performances on the world stage since 2015, but not at any great consistency. Coach Mario Ledesma has four Tests to prepare his side for a tough World Cup pool that also features England and France; the coming weeks are critical if the Pumas are to get out of that group, let alone match their 2015 semifinal. And there can be no better gauge than a Test against the All Blacks, despite the world champions being without several first-choice players. The hosts must make a fast start at the Estadio Jose Amalfitani, as too often they have let New Zealand ease out to an early lead and set up what has been at the very least an 18-point victory in Argentina.
New Zealand arrived in South America last weekend without eight key Crusaders players who were given extra time to recover from yet another Super Rugby triumph. Steve Hansen knows the value of sparing veterans Kieran Read, Owen Franks and Sam Whitelock the arduous trip to South America, and giving youngsters like Jack Goodhue and Codie Taylor the chance to freshen up mentally. A huge contest awaits next week, too, against the Springboks in Wellington; South Africa beat the All Blacks at that very venue last year and with the two great rugby nations to meet on the second day of the World Cup, a strong performance in Round 2 of the Rugby Championship takes on extra significance.
But back to this week when Hansen will get an understanding on just how deep his talent stocks run. The All Blacks coach has a few positions still to be decided with the midfield and back-three uncertain, so too No. 6. The players involved in those positions this weekend have a huge opportunity, but one married to significant responsibility. The All Blacks aren't the same side they were four years ago, but a dominant first up showing, while down a few troops, will send a strong message around the world regardless.
What the Pumas will want out of this ...
A maiden win over the All Blacks is not beyond Argentina and exactly what they will be shooting for, but there would be positives in a narrower margin than their 18-point marker at home to date. And they can go about achieving that through a resolute set-piece and nailing the opportunities that do come their way. Those twin problems were on show in the Super Rugby final when the Jaguares struggled at scrum time throughout and also blew two genuine try-scoring chances that could have otherwise generated a different result. The All Blacks may take some time to adjust to new defensive structures, giving the Pumas the chance to get into the backfield. From there, they need to ice the final pass or put-down. At scrum time, it's all about rediscovering "la bajadita" and reclaiming their place among the best eight-man shoves in rugby.
What the All Blacks will want out of this ...
The All Blacks have taken weakened teams to Argentina during the Rugby Championship previously, but perhaps never quite as green as this. There is still plenty of first-rate quality on show - see Beauden Barrett, Sam Cane, Ben Smith et al - but it is not the team that will run out in Japan on September 21. The team won't struggle for fluidity, given Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett reprise their halves partnership, but there is a real opportunity for the likes of Vaea Fifita, Ngani Laumape and Angus Ta'avao to mount a case for World Cup selection with a strong game. Hansen will otherwise be after continuity, a reliable lineout and a greater defensive focus that can sometimes take time to settle into after the open spaces of Super Rugby.
Key positional match-up: Juan Figallo vs. Ofa Tu'ungafasi
Argentina's scrum authority was once the envy of the rugby world but in the chase for a more complete playing style, something the Pumas have achieved over the last few seasons, the key set-piece is no longer held up as rugby's benchmark. Ledesma is cognisant of that and has set about making it a priority in the run to the World Cup. As such, Juan Figallo is one of the players Ledesma has recalled from Europe. The tighthead prop faces a stern challenge of his scrummaging mettle against the powerful Ofa Tu'ungafasi this weekend. Figallo must steady the Pumas scrum and help provide a platform a talented backline, one boosted by the return of Nicolas Sanchez, can express itself from. Tu'ungafasi, meanwhile, has the opportunity to stake a World Cup claim by driving through Figallo and earning the favour of referee Angus Gardner.
Pumas: Emiliano Boffelli, Matias Moroni, Matias Orlando, Jeronimo de la Fuente, Ramiro Moyano, Nicolas Sanchez, Tomas Cubelli, Javier Ortega Desio, Marcos Kremer, Pablo Matera (capt), Tomas Lavanini, Guido Petti, Juan Figallo, Agustin Creevy, Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro. Replacements: Julian Montoya, Mayco Vivas, Santiago Medrano, Matias Alemanno, Tomas Lezana, Felipe Ezcurra, Joaquin Diaz Bonilla, Joaquin Tuculet.
All Blacks: Ben Smith, Sevu Reece, Anton Lienert-Brown, Ngani Laumape, Jordie Barrett, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith, Ardie Savea, Sam Cane (capt), Vaea Fifita, Patrick Tuipulotu, Brodie Retallick, Angus Ta'avao, Dane Coles, Ofa Tu'ungafasi. Replacements: Liam Coltman, Atu Moli, Nepol Laulala, Jackson Hemopo, Luke Jacobson, Brad Weber, Josh Ioane, Braydon Ennor.
Sam Bruce says: A lot has been made about this being Argentina's best chance for a first victory over the All Blacks, but this is still a very strong New Zealand line-up. In Dane Coles, Sam Cane, Brodie Retallick, Aaron Smith and Ben Smith, the All Blacks almost have their first-choice spine. Meanwhile, this is pretty much the Jaguares team that was beaten in the Super Rugby final. Playing at home will make some difference, but not 16 points' worth. New Zealand by 9.