Tri-Nations: Size up the teams

By Pierre de Villiers In June 2007 Jake White took what was perhaps the biggest gamble of his career. Evoking the ire of rugby fans and administrators the then Springbok coach decided against sending over 20 of his best players to New Zealand and Australia on the away leg of the Tri-Nations. While on-field results were predictably disappointing – and the backlash severe – White’s decision ensured that the core of his team was fresh enough to bring home the World Cup at the end of that year. It is a bit of rugby history that underlines the dilemma facing the coaches of South Africa, New Zealand and Australia when it comes to the Tri-Nations tournament in a World Cup year.

Not exposing your stars to the white-hot intensity of the Tri-Nations clearly has benefits but it could also lead to players being undercooked when the battle for the Webb Ellis trophy commences.

Then there’s the mental toll of winning the Tri-Nations that has to be taken into account. As Bok captain John Smit recently pointed out – no team has ever won the Tri-Nations and the World Cup in the same year. Such is the sense of achievement and euphoria that surrounds winning the Tri-Nations that a team could find itself peaking too soon. On the other hand the Springboks and Wallabies could seriously dent the confidence of the All Blacks (and boost their own) ahead of the World Cup were they to beat the tournament favourites in their own back yard.

With so much to consider, this year’s shortened Tri-Nations promises to be more fascinating than ever before as coaches rotate players, tweak game-plans and try to get an inside lane heading into the World Cup. So, will New Zealand win their 11th title, South Africa their fourth or Australia their third? Here’s how the teams are shaping up:


Why they could win: Experience. Bags of it. Collectively, captain John Smit and vice captain Victor Matfield have played 207 Tests and, between them, can handle any leadership challenges. In Jean de Villiers and Jaque Fourie the Springboks have a seasoned and very intelligent midfield combination that should be able to create opportunities for the fastest man on a rugby field at the moment, Bjorn Basson and the most elusive, Gio Aplon. For sheer physicality, no-one in the world can match the Boks and the likes of Willem Alberts, Schalk Burger and Tendai ‘The Beast’ Mtawarira will be landing hits that will rattle the ancestors of their opponents. South Africa also have a ridiculous amount of depth with the emergence of Patrick Lambie, Lwazi Mvovo, Coenie Oosthuizen and Sarel Pretorius set to further bolster the Bok ranks.

Why they could fall short: A kick-and-chase gameplan that’s past its sell-by date. Last year’s disastrous Tri-Nations campaign showed that the Wallabies and All Blacks have adapted to the new law changes much better than the Boks. Coach Peter de Villiers continues to stubbornly defend an antiquated strategy, even though kicking away possession will seriously hurt his team. De Villiers must also be having sleepless nights over the loss of form of some senior players like Pierre Spies and Bryan Habana.

Key player: Fourie du Preez. If one man can get mileage out of South Africa’s dodgy game plan, it’s the Bulls scrum-half with his pinpoint kicks and clever passes.

Prediction: Wooden spoon. A tough schedule (the Boks’ first two matches are in Sydney and Wellington and their home games are at sea level) and muddled thinking by the coaching staff will result in another poor Tri-Nations.


Why they could win: Consistency. The All Blacks rarely have a bad game and to beat the number one team in the world you have to force them into making mistakes. That’s easier said than done with Richie McCaw and Daniel Carter keeping the players around them calm and collected. In centre Sonny Bill Williams the All Blacks also have the most dangerous attacking player in the world, a man whose offloads in the tackle are already legendary.

Why they could fall short: Pressure. Mentally, this is a tough time for the All Blacks as expectation starts to grow in New Zealand ahead of the World Cup. A loss to the Boks or Wallabies, especially at home, could result in some crippling pressure. The All Blacks are also overly depended on Dan Carter. With no obvious replacement waiting in the wings, an injury to the fly-half will be disastrous for New Zealand. Carter breaking down is not coach Graham Henry’s only injury concern with Super Rugby taking its toll on rising stars like Israel Dagg and Sean Maitland.

Key player: Richie McCaw. The All Blacks captain can single-handedly destroy teams with his skill at the breakdown.

Prediction: Winner. If McCaw, Carter and Williams have a half decent Tri-Nations the All Blacks will storm to an 11th title.


Why they could win: An exciting free-flowing style of play. With Quade Cooper, Kurtley Beale and James O’Connor on the team sheet, the Wallabies can score from anywhere at any time. Making them even more dangerous is a bit more steel upfront with David Pocock a match for anyone at the breakdown and the Australian scrum far from being the laughing stock it once was. In Robbie Deans Australia also have arguably the world’s shrewdest coach.

Why they could fall short: A lack of depth. The extended Super Rugby competition has showed how shallow the pool of talent in Australia is, something not helped by a potentially season-ending injury to Drew Mitchell and Matt Giteau’s loss of form.

Key player: Quade Cooper. If the twinkled-toed fly-half can show some consistency he could overshadow even the great Dan Carter.

Prediction: Second. They are the team the All Blacks are most worried about but a tough Tri-Nations in the wake of an equally strenuous Super Rugby tournament might just see the Wallabies run out of world-class players.

Saturday, July 23: Australia v South Africa - Sydney
Saturday, July 30: New Zealand v South Africa - Wellington
Saturday, August 6: New Zealand v Australia - Auckland
Saturday, August 13: South Africa v Australia - Durban
Saturday, August 20: South Africa v New Zealand - Port Elizabeth
Saturday, August 27: Australia v New Zealand - Brisbane

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