By Nick Mulvenney
SYDNEY (Reuters) - Three months late and one team down in the absence of the Springboks, the southern hemisphere's annual test championship finally gets underway in Sydney on Saturday when Australia face New Zealand in front of a crowd of up to 40,000.
The withdrawal of the world champions over player welfare concerns has certainly diminished the tournament, which has been rechristened the Tri-Nations in a nod to the predecessor of the Rugby Championship before Argentina joined.
After being forced to tear up their match schedule at least three times and settling on Australia as host nation after fractious negotiations, however, governing body SANZAAR will be happy just to see tests played in the COVID-19-disrupted season.
New Zealand will start as favourites, as they usually do, although Australia will approach the tournament with renewed confidence after the first two Bledisloe Cup tests against the All Blacks earlier this month.
The Wallabies, who bowed out of the World Cup in the quarter-finals last year, looked to have a harder edge both in attack and defence under new coach Dave Rennie in the 16-16 draw in Wellington and the first half of the 27-7 loss at Eden Park.
As it is every year, the Bledisloe Cup will be a keenly contested competition within a competition and regaining the symbol of trans-Tasman Sea rugby supremacy for the first time since 2003 would be a huge boost for the Australian game.
Five years of struggle off and on the pitch have taken a big toll on the game and Rugby Australia will be hoping fans turn out in big numbers for the six tests to help fill their coffers, which took another hit when the reigning champions withdrew.
New Zealand, who arrived in Sydney on Monday, only need to draw one of the tests they play against the Wallabies in the first two weeks -- the second is in Brisbane -- to win the Bledisloe Cup for an 18th straight season.
Also under a new coach in Ian Foster, the notoriously slow-starting All Blacks really hit their straps with three tries in 15 minutes to open the second half against the Wallabies two weeks ago in Auckland.
Caleb Clarke made a big impression in his first test start in that match and the rampaging 21-year-old winger looks set to become one of the most feared attacking weapons in world rugby.
Argentina have no shortage of quality outside backs but might struggle to be competitive in what will be their first tests since the disappointment of last year's World Cup, where they went out in the pool stage.
While the Australian and New Zealand squads have had the benefit of playing domestic Super Rugby seasons and two tests, only those Pumas attached to European clubs have seen any action this year at all.
Coach Mario Ledesma was among a slew of players and staff who contracted COVID-19 during their pre-tournament training camp and, even with former Wallabies coach Michael Cheika helping out, anything close to a win will be a considerable achievement.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)