Graham Henry's All Blacks open the defence of their Tri-Nations title against Australia this morning under intense scrutiny and facing opposition who are making rapid strides towards international consistency.
The All Blacks, who are without the injured Dan Carter, won the last four Tri-Nations, which also includes world champions South Africa, but have recently shared a series with France and struggled to victory over Italy.
The Wallabies will be attempting to mark openside flanker George Smith's 100th Test match with their first victory at Eden Park since 1986. They have shown steady improvement under coach Robbie Deans, whose plan is to build a team ahead of the 2011 World Cup and have them playing as consistently and ruthlessly as the Canterbury Crusaders sides he coached in Super 14 rugby. Australia beat Italy twice and ground out a victory against France last month.
While the Trans-Tasman rivals focus on today's opener, both will be acutely aware of the threat posed by Pieter de Villiers' world champion Springboks.
The South Africans have retained the players who battled to a 2-1 series victory over the British and Irish Lions. They will, however, be grateful for the three-week break before they entertain the All Blacks at Bloemfontein on 25 July.Reuse content