It’s the one we’ve all been looking forward to since the fixtures were announced: New Zealand vs South Africa.
These giants of world rugby renew their historic rivalry on the sport’s greatest stages, playing out their seismic Rugby World Cup Pool B opener at Yokohama on Saturday.
It promises to be a match full of drama and intrigue, with the winner inevitably set to go on and top the group.
Here’s a look at three key talking points.
South Africa rolled out their starting XV on Wednesday morning, while New Zealand are set to name their team on Thursday.
The Springboks side is unchanged from the team which thrashed Japan in their final warm-up match two weeks ago, and a team that only features one change from the side that drew 16-16 with New Zealand last month when captain Siya Kolisi was injured.
Both teams could potentially meet in the final depending on how they fare in the knock-out stages.
If New Zealand top the group they will have to face Scotland and England on their path to the final.
If the Boks finish second, they will face Ireland in the quarters and Wales in the semis.
There is no easy passage to advance to a World Cup final, but an early win will certainly set the tone for their respective tournament prospects.
HANSEN’S DUAL STARS
Whether Steve Hansen opts for Richie Mo’unga or Beauden Barrett at fly-half remains to be seen, but it he does select both playmakers in his starting XV, then it’ll be enthralling to watch.
Although many fans prefer to see Barrett’s creativity at 10, he is still a class act at full-back, eyeing gaps from deep that other players can’t normally see and using all his skill and intelligence to put his wingers into formidable attacking positions.
He also pairs well with Mo’unga, a player who hasn’t put a foot wrong in his last three games for the All Blacks.
The Crusaders man may not be the same fizzing presence as Barrett, but his accurate kicking and ability to control the game is getting better as each match passes.
If New Zealand are to topple the Springboks, Mo’unga and Barrett will be chief conductors to the orchestra.
While the forward battle is set to be a thunderous duel, it’s the aerial battle that could prove decisive in Yokohama.
Against Japan two weeks ago, Faf de Klerk and Handre Pollard employed the kicking option all afternoon so the Boks could rehearse their defensive lines ahead of the long periods of attack they expect from the All Blacks.
An elusive outside trio of Cheslin Kolbe, Willie le Roux and Makazole Mapimpi possess enough pace and footwork to match whoever the All Blacks name in their back three.
On the New Zealand side, George Bridge and Seevu Reece are the form wingers, but Hansen may recall Rieko Ioane – with 23 tries in 26 matches – because of his safety under the high and solidity in defence. Barrett should start 15.
Kicking is key to most contests, but one of the other crunch areas is going to be how Rassie Erasmus’ bigger forward pack handle the breakdown in the humidity of Japan.
The All Blacks always find a way to grind out victory, and Hansen will want his most trusted lieutenants on the filed as he bids to earn his first win on the way to a potential third successive Webb Ellis trophy.
February in Krasnoyarsk and the temperature dial on the car is locked at an unholy minus 38 degrees Celsius.
If you take a step outside the car this morning, the driving wind possesses enough strength to peel a bucket of potatoes such is its brute force.
It seems like a different world but this is normal life for the people of Siberia. Nobody complains about the weather and life goes on.
It has been the home of Russia captain and Krasny Yar Krasnoyarsk superstar Vasily Artemyev for five years now and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
The 32-year-old has the ice cold assassin’s touch on the field, being the record scorer for the national team and among the game’s most influential figures.
He may have started playing rugby in his native Russia many years ago but the journey was heavily shaped 7,627 kilometres away in Ireland.
It’s just over thirteen years since Artemyev cemented his reputation as one of Irish rugby’s most devastating wingers after graduating from Blackrock College in Dublin following a glittering four-year stint that saw him win one Junior Cup and two Senior Cups.
But, how did a young talented player from the small town of Zelenograd outside of Moscow end up at one of Ireland’s most prestigious rugby schools?
When he was 16-years-old, his parents wanted him to learn English abroad. There were a few options around Europe. But Artemyev had one big requirement for the agency that was helping them: a school where he could play rugby.
“We had a choice of some different English speaking countries. I mentioned I played rugby to the agents who were helping us find a school and that I wanted to continue playing,” he recalls, speaking to Sport360 earlier this week.
“They pointed out Blackrock in Ireland so I said I’d go there. I’d never heard of it before that, especially growing up in Russia and this was 15 or 16 years ago when the internet wasn’t as big as it is now.
“When I arrived in Dublin shortly after, I realised that I was in the main alma rugby of school’s rugby in Ireland. I was very impressed.”
It was at Blackrock that he experienced first-hand the competitiveness and allure of the Leinster Schools Cup.
It meant everything to the people who played, and combined with large attendances at each game, this was the pinnacle for any 16-18-year-old growing up around Dublin.
And, being standard bearers of Leinster Schools rugby, it’s no coincidence either, how Artemyev fell into the same year group at Blackrock as some of the most seasoned names to grace the schools game. He went on to play in four successive finals, winning 15 out of his 16 cup games.
Lining up in a back-line speckled with talent, he shone alongside future professionals Ian Madigan (Leinster, Bordeaux and Bristol), Niall Morris (Leinster and Leicester), Dave Moore (Harlequins and Connacht) and Luke Fitzgerald (Leinster and Ireland).
With this group of players, he developed into one of the most prolific finishers, earning the nickname the ‘Moscow Flyer’, and going on to represent Ireland at schools level on numerous occasions.
He even played alongside prop Cian Healy, now capped 90 times for Ireland, and a player he will come up against when Russia take on the Men in Green in their Rugby World Cup Pool A clash on October 3 in Kobe.
“Playing rugby did everything for me. It allowed me to stay and continue my education in Ireland. It allowed me to meet hundreds of people along the way. I’ve met so many good friends through sport. It played a huge role in growing up. It enabled me to do the thing I love the most,” adds Artemyev.
“I do owe a lot to the sport and I do want to give back as well, whichever way I can when I stop playing. I want to continue growing the sport in Russia and it will give me a huge amount of satisfaction.”
After a spell in the Leinster academy, he returned to Russia to play for the national sevens team before representing his country in the XVs game at the 2011 World Cup – the first time Russia qualified for rugby’s global showpiece.
“When I came into the national team, we were just starting our qualification for the 2011 World Cup. By the time I finished my law degree in Dublin I was already playing international rugby for five or six months. It wasn’t easy balancing both my final year exams and rugby at the time,” he says.
“During that time, you could see a big growth in the interest in rugby in 2010 and 2011. It was the first time we qualified and everyone was hyped up about the possibilities for future growth.”
Memorably, he scored four tries in the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand, including one against Ireland in the pool stages.
A two-year spell in the Gallagher Premiership with Northampton followed, before joining Krasny Yar Krasnoyarsk in 2014, one of Russia’s top teams, where he continues to play today.
At 32, the Russia skipper still has plenty of playing time on his side but one of his main goals is to get rugby to penetrate the mainstream sporting landscape in Russia, which is a tough task given its current place in the pecking order.
As it stands rugby is probably the tenth most popular sport behind the likes of ice hockey, football, basketball and volleyball.
“I think the professional league didn’t get as many benefits after 2011 as we would have liked,” added the 6ft, 83kg flyer. “The interest from the public instead was reflected in the growth of the amateur game. The union at the time didn’t have the same abilities as it does now. For several years after 2011, there was a period of stagnation.
“But over the last two years, there has been a change in the governing body and a change of the president of the rugby union of Russia. It’s been constantly improving since and the Russian league has grown to eight teams now. It’s looking like there will be ten teams in the top division next year for the first time too.”
Artemyev has come a long way since his days donning the blue and white of Blackrock and has gone on to earn 88 caps for Russia since making his debut over a decade ago.
He still keeps in contact with old friends from Ireland but, for now, life is in Krasnoyarsk. During the off season, when the weather cools down, he returns to Moscow with his wife Sofya and his young daughter.
His additional role on the player’s council in Russia helps to pad out his downtime, giving him an overview of the recent growth of the sport which he hopes is well-positioned to further increase awareness on the back of this World Cup.
With a law degree in the bag, he has plenty of opportunities to explore when he finally brings down the curtain on his glittering career in the future.
“I transferred my diploma from Ireland to Russia so I have the equivalent in Russia,” he adds. “I could potentially continue in that pathway if I wanted to. Of course, I would need some further education in order to practice as a lawyer. But my background in law does help a huge amount in my work with the player’s council which I created one year ago.
“We are officially working as a recommendation body within the rugby union structure. There’s a player from each professional club on it, plus myself and the chairman. We raise a lot of player welfare rights and the interests of professional rugby players. We make some recommendations and queries for the governing body.”
Russia’s preparation for the World Cup has included a heaviest ever Test defeat to Italy (85-15) and losses at home to English club side Jersey (35-22) and Irish province Connacht (42-14).
But even if their miserable warm-ups suggest otherwise, nothing can dampen the prospect of walking out in front of 50,000 people at Tokyo Stadium on Friday for their World Cup opener against hosts Japan.
“It’s a massive honour, to not just be a part of the World Cup, but to be part of the opening match and the opening ceremony,” said the Russia skipper. “It’ll be nothing like we’ve experienced before. It’s going to be massive. We haven’t had much exposure on the international stage.
“There’s a huge opportunity for young, ambitious players to make a statement and to show their ambitions. I know a lot of guys on the team want to be playing rugby at the best possible level. They deserve to be playing in European club competitions and this will give them a great opportunity to show their ambitions.”
New Zealand trained in Tokyo on Tuesday, continuing preparations for the defence of their Rugby World Cup title.
Steve Hansen’s side begin their campaign with a tasty Group B meeting against South Africa in Yokohama on Saturday.
The two Southern Hemisphere superpowers clashed recently in the Rugby Championship, drawing 16-16 in Wellington, while the Springboks have also tasted victory over the world champions in the last 12 months.
The All Blacks are bidding for an historic third successive World Cup triumph, with Hansen having played a part in the previous two.
Hansen, who will be stepping down from his role following the conclusion of the tournament, was an assistant to Graham Henry at the 2011 World Cup before taking the head coach role following victory on home soil.