James Gemmell sums up what Ireland, Wales and England can expect from their summer tours.
Last Updated: 07/06/12 2:43pm
It's easy to look at a tour of the Southern Hemisphere with trepidation and doubt, indeed it's almost commonplace.
The three top-ranked teams in world rugby, winners of six of the seven World Cups, in their own backyard? What's not to worry about?
The stats don't lie, but they also don't tell the whole truth. Ireland, Wales and England should look at each of their opening assignments with some degree of hope, not only because of their own strengths, but because of current unknowns within their opposition.
Let's start as we will each Saturday morning this month, with world champions New Zealand.
Of the northern challengers, Ireland has been given the slimmest chance of success. The first test is at Eden Park, the scene of the All Blacks' World Cup triumph in October, and a ground where the hosts have not been beaten since 1994.
But following the huge success of last year, new questions have been raised. How will the team respond now that weight of expectation has been lifted? How will Steve Hansen and his new lieutenants take to their roles?
Their first selection suggests they will be bold and reward form, which of course in itself brings some risk. New test caps go to the deserving lock Brodie Retallick and Julian Savea, a winger of devastating potential whose progress has been fast-tracked through injuries to others.
Lightning quick scrumhalf Aaron Smith of the Highlanders is the bolter, as it were. He's commanded attention with his play this year, but to leapfrog all three of the World Cup scrumhalves is some promotion, and in such a crucial position. He becomes the centre of the axis between Kieran Read and Dan Carter, two men around whom the All Blacks base much of their play.
The All Blacks are strong favourites with good reason, but the class of 2012 is yet to be tested, and as recently as 2009 an off-colour first up performance saw the men in black downed by a weakened France in Dunedin.
For most, Wales represent the best chance of an opening weekend victory, and if so, a series win. Six Nations champions versus Tri-Nations champions is a tasty prospect, and if you've followed the fortunes of the Welsh national team since their impressive World Cup, you'll know they carry form, class and confidence throughout.
Now consider the issues within the Australian camp as well, and the argument in favour of the visitors strengthens.
Tuesday's calamitous result against Scotland - albeit with a reshuffled side - suggests the Wallaby woes in Super Rugby cannot simply be dismissed when the players don the green and gold.
The Brumbies aside, results have been poor in the Australian conference, and the fact the other four teams sit in the bottom half of the table during this June break highlights their troubles.
Perhaps more worrying for Robbie Deans than the results have been the performances. A Waratahs team with plenty of recent and current international experience were miserable in the last round against the Hurricanes, and the Reds have only just begun rebuilding their season after a horror start. These two sides provide the majority of Saturday's starting Wallaby team.
Injuries have cursed the Australians this season as well, and their issues at fly half are well documented. Quade Cooper is on the comeback, but not yet ready for international rugby, James O'Connor is out for the month, and Kurtley Beale is another recently cobbled.
This leaves Berrick Barnes to run the ship, a man of vast experience and skill, but by far the most defensive of this list, and the least "Australian" when it comes to number ten play. He epitomised the Waratahs' woeful form in Sydney last week, and Saturday will be his third match in eight days after playing against Scotland as well.
The Wallabies are under huge pressure already, and Wales will look to capitalise.
And finally to Durban on Saturday afternoon, where England begin what most consider as tough a tour as it gets - a month in South Africa.
It's a daunting task, of that there is no doubt, but like New Zealand and Australia before them, South Africa have their concerns.
The World Cup cleanout has seen new faces for the Boks, and in the box, where Heyneke Meyer takes charge. A Bulls man through and through, can he replicate the success they enjoyed without men like Fourie du Preez, Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha?
In those positions on Saturday start Francois Hougaard, a man who has spent much of his career to date on the wing, Eben Etzebeth and Juandre Kruger. A second row on debut must surely put pressure on the traditional Springbok game plan. Add to the mix new man Marcell Coetzee in the loose, and suddenly the pack - on paper at least - possesses a little less of the famous South African fear factor.
The uncertainty continues further out. With Frans Steyn, skipper Jean de Villiers, Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen all starting, you have four men who've played most of their recent rugby in the midfield. How that will impact their approach on both attack and defence remains to be seen.
They are without their inspirational leader John Smit now as well, and a Bok captain in the backline is about as rare as a Northern Hemisphere win down there.
The Springboks are under pressure to turn their back on the disappointment of New Zealand, and in a first up test, at sea level, against a relatively young side, England must consider themselves a chance.