All Blacks lead the way as north meets south

NICK MULVENNEY
Last updated 15:15 07/11/2012
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TOGETHER: The All Blacks are remain a strong team despite several changes.

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New Zealand, Australia and South Africa bestride the world rankings and will be confident of showing once again over the next month that the North-South divide in world rugby is very much alive and kicking.

The long southern hemisphere season has taken its toll in injury, however, and several big names will be absent from the sides that look to storm the citadels of European rugby over four weekends from this weekend.

The exception are the All Blacks, who showed no signs of a World Cup hangover while running rampant through the inaugural Rugby Championship and only faltered in a 18-18 draw with the Wallabies in their last outing.

Coach Steve Hansen's stated goal is to improve each week and while it is obvious the world champions are far from a finished product, there have been enough glimpses of a 'perfect performance' in the making to set alarm bells ringing in Europe.

Hansen's desire to avoid having a side dominated by players in their mid-30s by the next World Cup in 2015 was also evident in the nine new caps he brought in this year, two of which are likely to be introduced on the tour.

Uncapped hooker Dane Coles has been given his chance to prove his credentials as Hansen contemplates the transition from the era of Keven Mealamu and Andrew Hore.

Scrumhalf Piri Weepu will also be under pressure after being surpassed by the electric Aaron Smith earlier this year with Tawera Kerr-Barlow the other uncapped player in the squad for tests against Scotland, Italy, Wales and England.

Flyhalf Beauden Barrett could also use the tour to challenge Aaron Cruden as the long-term replacement for 30-year-old Daniel Carter.

While Cruden grabbed the understudy role on the back of a superb Super Rugby season for the title-winning Chiefs, Hansen will be looking closely for signs of hesitancy under pressure and whether he can temper his instinct to run as a first option.

Barrett appears to have a tactical game more like Carter's and Hansen's decision on his back-up at the Millennium Stadium and Twickenham could be strong indicators for the future.

AUSSIE 'CARNAGE'

In an ideal world, Wallabies coach Robbie Deans would be using the November tests to cast an eye over the players likely to provide the opposition for next year's British and Irish Lions tour and perhaps blood a few youngsters.

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This season has been anything but ideal for Deans, however, and a lengthy injury list - or "carnage" as the New Zealander described it - means his squad will continue to participate in what has largely been a damage limitation exercise.

Defeat to Scotland in a Newcastle gale and two close calls against Argentina in the Rugby Championship showed Australia's vulnerability but a three-test whitewash of Wales in June amply illustrated a strength of character that runs through the side.

In the absence of Quade Cooper and James O'Connor and with Berrick Barnes having moved to fullback, Kurtley Beale is likely to be handed the task of firing an inexperienced backline from flyhalf against France, England, Italy and Wales.

Lock James Horwill and brilliant scrumhalf Will Genia, two recent captains, will also miss the trip leaving combative second rower Nathan Sharpe to skipper the team in his swansong after twice postponing his retirement.

Openside flanker David Pocock, another recent captain, will tour but is doubtful for the opening match in Paris and so European fans will get a first proper look at his impressive understudy Michael Hooper.

SPRINGBOK INJURIES

Springboks coach Heyneke Meyer has much the same problem with winger Bryan Habana, centre Frans Steyn, hooker Bismark du Plessis as well as loose forwards Schalk Burger, Pierre Spies, Juan Smith and Heinrich Brussow all among those unavailable.

Meyer's problems have been compounded by the plummeting form of flyhalf Morne Steyn and absence of his likely long-term replacement Johan Goosen through injury.

That leaves Pat Lambie and regular back-up Elton Jantjies as the most likely to fill the pivotal number 10 jersey and Meyer, more by accident than by design, looking to the tests as long-term preparation for the 2015 World Cup in England.

Five uncapped players have been called up to the Springbok squad for the matches against Ireland, Scotland and England with centre Jean de Villiers captaining the side after recovering from a hamstring injury of his own.

Their displays this year indicated there will be little change to the Springbok pattern of building huge pressure in the tight before exploiting defensive gaps with pace out wide, where winger JP Pietersen could shine in Habana's absence.

Argentina joined the southern hemisphere's big three in the Rugby Championship this year and were buoyed by how much they belied their reputation as poor travellers, even if they never quite got across the line to claim a win.

Coach Santiago Phelan's sides are never anything but well-prepared and Wales, France and Ireland will know they have been in a test match the morning after the contests.

The recall of 35-year-old centre Felipe Contepomi, however, starkly illustrates the lack of depth in the Pumas squad - outside the front row of course - and a win in any of their matches would be considered a shock.

- Reuters

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