With the Tri-Nations kicking off this weekend, Stuart Peel uncovers how each nation needs to find itself as RWC2011 glimmers ahead.
Over the past couple of years the Tri-Nations has been indisputably the unofficial annual World Championship of rugby. Regardless of the rankings, the winner can rightfully claim to be the best team in the world. When the rugby calendar cranks round to the point at which we are only 14 months from the start of the real World Cup, the tournament takes on extra importance as the top teams benchmark themselves against each other to measure their progress.
That is not to take anything away from the tournament in its own right. It grates when the importance of every international match seems to be judged in terms of its bearing on the World Cup. But for the gamblers and stargazers among us, this year’s Tri-Nations does have significant relevance to the ‘big picture’ that is the quadrennial global tournament.
The 2010 Tri-Nations promises to be fascinating: the power and experience of the Springboks, the depth and belief of the All Blacks and the youth and talent of the Wallabies. We have had some chance to gauge the state of each team from the Super 14 and the June tests but these should be taken with a pinch of salt given the paucity of the Northern Hemisphere opposition in most cases. But we can still use them to gauge the mood and expectation which each team might be carrying into this tournament.
Australian teams excelled themselves in the Super 14. While they only provided one semi-finalist, they had 3 of the top 6 teams and in the Reds probably the most stylish team on show. They have a crop of youngsters coming through whom many believe could present a serious challenge in New Zealand in 2011. But they have had a troubled month with injuries and lack of consistency hindering them. Their 2 tests against England have shown that they still lack any sort of depth on the front row. Their first choice props are as good as they have had in a long while but the demolition of their understudies at the hands of a largely second string England front row showed how fragile they are there.
But elsewhere they have plenty of room for optimism. Players like Quade Cooper, Digby Ioane, David Pocock and Will Genia will be stars of the international scene for years to come. Not many teams containing Matt Giteau would have had the courage to entrust the playmaking reins to such a rare and mercurial talent as Cooper and it is to the credit of Robbie Deans that he has been prepared to do this. In tandem with Genia, Cooper ensures Australia play at a real tempo and in Drew Mitchell and the outrageously gifted James O’Connor, they have the cutting edge to take advantage. Their struggles in June may have as much to do with the lack of form of their experienced stalwarts Giteau and skipper Rocky Elsom but once they come good and the injuries subside, the Wallabies could be a force to be reckoned with. This Tri Nations could come too early for them but they are my bet for the next World Cup.
South Africa provided both finalists in the Super 14 for the second time in 3 years. They then hammered 6 Nations Grand Slam winners France. France had a weakened team and were, well, France so it’s hard to know what store to set by that result. However it is no secret that South African rugby is in rude health at present and they are probably marginal favourites to retain the trophy. In terms of the ‘big picture’ however, there is a feeling that they might just be on their way down from their peak. Players such as Jean De Villiers, John Smit, Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha and Bryan Habana have shown signs that their best days are behind them. But they have time to evolve before the World Cup and youngsters such as Zane Kirchner and Heinrich Broussow might be about to burst.
In Fourie Du Preez they have one of the outstanding players in the world game, Jaque Fourie is on fire and in Ruan Piennar and Morne Steyn better options at 10 than for some years. We would need to see a little more from South Africa before judging whether they can maintain the current standard for another year and a half. They do the basics very well but their rivals have far more capacity to improve than they do at present unless we see a new dimension from them. They will be very much in the mix in this tournament but there are questions over their longer term prospects.
New Zealand meanwhile struggled in the Super 14 unusually providing only one semi-finalist but then wiped the floor with Wales and Ireland, although both those nations produced disappointing efforts in the main. It is hard to know what to make of New Zealand. They have used a huge number of players in the past year or two but have such a depth of talent that you can hardly tell the difference. They’re approach at this stage seems similar to the lead up to the last World Cup with Graham Henry establishing a deep pool of players who are more or less interchangeable. No matter who they put on the pitch even in a ‘rebuilding’ phase, they are always serious contenders unlike some.
They have already unearthed some potentially outstanding new talent this season in Tom Donnelly, Israel Dagg and Richard Kahui as well as decent back up to Dan Carter in the form of Aaron Cruden. Their top names such as Carter, Richie McCaw and Mils Muliaina have struggled for form and/or fitness this season but there is no chance that will last and Carter was back to his mesmeric best against Wales. There is some heat on Henry though due to what are perceived as some strange selections. He has returned to Jo Rokocoko, whose scintillating best days seem to be behind him, at the expense of in form young bolters Zac Guildford and Hosea Gear who scored a hatrick against England for the New Zealand Maoris. Adam Thomson and Luke Mcallister also find themselves o the outside. Henry needs a good tournament after losing the title last year and all 3 tests to South Africa. His team have not quite clicked for some time and the pressure is building.
It promises to be a fascinating tournament, kicking off with South Africa’s visit to Auckland. The Springboks start with 3 consecutive games on the road and if they come away from that with more than 1 win, they will be in pretty good shape.
What do you think? Are NZ balancing the old and new to be ready? Are Australia promoting false belief in themselves? Are South Africa quiet but confident? Let’s hear your views below.