All Blacks out to prove they are the best

The All Blacks prepare for the Haka

The fifth edition of The Rugby Championship gets underway this weekend with players and fans wondering if New Zealand can still be the world’s No 1 team as Australia, South Africa or Argentina try reel them in.

The four Rugby World Cup 2015 semifinalists come together as Championship returns to its full-blown, home and away format.

Last year’s truncated competition was won by Australia, only their second title in the last 13 years, and Michael Cheika’s charges begin their title defence at home to New Zealand in Sydney on Saturday in the traditional Bledisloe Cup match.

With many of the class of 2015 now retired, including captain and talisman Richie McCaw and record points scorer Dan Carter, and injuries depriving them of the likes of Sonny Bill Williams, the All Blacks could be vulnerable to an opening round upset.

Will Genia starts his first game of rugby since January, having spent the last six months recuperating from knee surgery, in what is a near-identical starting side to the one beaten by the All Blacks in the RWC 2015 final.

Scrumhalf Genia is one of three France-based veterans included in the starting XV after they missed the England series, joining inside-centre Matt Giteau and winger Adam Ashley-Cooper.

Dane Haylett-Petty’s inclusion is the only change to the RWC final backline, while No 8 Ben McCalman is preferred to Scott Fardy in the pack.

Super Rugby match-winner Beauden Barrett has been handed the responsibility of taking over from Dan Carter in the All Blacks’ No 10 jersey. Chiefs prop Kane Hames could make his All Blacks debut off the bench.

Meanwhile Test centurion Adam Ashley-Cooper is set to surpass the great David Campese as Australia’s most-capped Bledisloe Cup combatant in his 29th match in the annual trans-Tasman series.

Australia have lost their last four Tests in a row and have not lost five on the bounce since a run of seven consecutive defeats in 2005. The fifth defeat in that sequence came against New Zealand.

Australia were the last team to beat New Zealand – 27-19 this time last year in Sydney. But they haven’t held the Bledisloe Cup since 2002.

With 96.10 rating points – over six more than second-placed England –New Zealand hold an unassailable cushion at the top of the World Rugby Rankings.

The All Blacks will improve their rating by a mere 0.13 of a point with victory in Sydney. Third place is potentially within Australia’s reach if they beat the All Blacks, with as many as 2.8 points on offer depending on the margin of victory.

The All Blacks are 2/7 to win the Rugby Championship.

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