Australian sides fuelled up on World Cup fervour
The depth of Australia's rugby union strength will be put to the test from Friday when the World Cup-winning country's top sides clash with the best from New Zealand and South Africa in the Super 12 Series.
Australia is pushing for a fourth team in next year's series but they will first have to put an end to an All Black stranglehold which has never relaxed in the first four years of the competition .
Fly-half Stephen Larkham, whose first ever drop goal in an international put paid to South Africa in last year's World Cup semi-final at Twickenham, and master organiser scrum-half George Gregan lead the ACT Brumbies against a resurgent Auckland Blues in Canberra.
The Blues, who won in 1996 and 1997, shutting down Rod Macqueen's Brumbies in the latter final, claim their awful 1999 season was all about rebuilding.
Blues coach Gordon Hunter is wary that the selection of rugby league convert Andrew Walker at fullback for ACT ahead of Joe Roff gives the Brumbies an extra dimension.
ACT coach Eddie Jones put Roff in his Australian position on the wing
rather than his preferred No.15 jumper.
"The Brumbies are a confident side, they've got a confident coach and this will be a challenging game for us, but we feel we've done what we can, we've prepared well and I think we're ready to go."
Prop Craig Dowd will lead Auckland with captain and All Black lock Robin Brooke out with a hamstring strain.
The Queensland Reds, with a fully fit Wallaby captain John Eales but World Cup star centre Tim Horan injured, will be looking to do better than last year's semi-finals.
They get a quick check-up at Dunedin on Saturday when they play last year's losing finalists Otago Highlanders, led by All Black captain Taine Randell.
Randell is wary of the Reds who reached the semi-finals in 1996 and last year.
"The Reds topped the pool last year," Randell said. "They have a number of Wallabies in the team and are as strong as anyone."
Following the Blues domination of the first two years, the Canterbury
Crusaders have since made the series their own.
With the invaluable asset of All Black fly-half Andrew Mehrtens, the most prolific scorer in Super 12 rugby last year, the Crusaders mount their bid for a third successive title against the Waikato Chiefs in Hamilton on Sunday.
The Waratahs have it all in front of them this season and have the toughest of starts to the season with two away games in South Africa.
They encounter the Stormers first up on Saturday night.
Stormers were last year's semi-finalists whereas the Waratahs are backing up from an inconsistent 1999 with a new coach in Ian Kennedy and skipper in Jason Little.
They have already been rocked by an injury to Wallaby Nathan Grey and are starting afresh with a team brimming with youth.
But the Stormers have also had their share of problems.
Their key man, No 8 Bobby Skinstad is out with a lingering leg injury, a legacy of the car crash last April which deprived the Stormers of their cutting edge for the two final rounds and the semi-final -- the latter being further blighted by a threatened pay strike by the players.
It will be an intesting first up clash for all the Australian teams who after the World Cup victory last year have reputations to uphold.