The Tri Nations tournament is second only to the Rugby World Cup in terms of excitement, glamour, class, importance, quality of rugby, and not to mention sheer public hype. Riding on the immense success of the Southern Hemisphere teams against the May/June Northern Hemisphere touring sides, the 2008 tournament could be one of the most interesting yet held. Furthermore, with a number of Experimental Law Variations (ELV’s) being implemented in this year’s competition, the quality of rugby could pave the way for the ELV’s to be set in international rugby concrete.
Despite South Africa having won the 2007 Rugby World Cup, New Zealand remains the team-to-beat. The only significant change to the All Blacks line-up this year is the new and improved centre combination of Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith, and significant it is.
Ma’a Nonu’s inclusion in the starting line-up at inside centre was scarcely surprising following an outstanding string of impressive Super 14 appearances. Nonu’s gigantic frame and outstanding pace have always made him a solid choice for centre, however in his previous All Black appearances his hands and passing let him down. Now that someone’s taught him how to catch and pass the ball, he is unstoppable. With the build of an NFL linebacker, the pace of a 100 metre sprinter, and his new-found ball skills, Nonu could prove to be the most impressive weapon in the All Blacks extensive arsenal.
Conrad Smith remains solid at outside centre, both on offense and defense. The remarkable Daniel Carter’s influence on the game will ensure security for New Zealand come-what-may, and Andy Ellis has proven himself at half-back, despite his relative inexperience at international level. Finally, the All Blacks’ tight five has dominated the scrums against the Northern Hemisphere teams, and currently looks to be the strongest of the Tri Nations team, posing a problem for South Africa in particular.
The only problem the All Blacks may encounter is the loss of their captain Richie McCaw to injury. While they will continue to compete at the breakdown, the new captain Rodney So’lialo will struggle to be as competent in his decision-making as McCaw.
It is always difficult, not to mention dangerous, to label a Tri Nations team as weak. However, despite being current World Champions and having recently mangled Wales (the current Six-Nations Champions), South Africa could prove to be the weakest of the three teams. Their front row especially buckled against both Wales and Italy, and their weight at the scrums could prove the decider.
Added to this the coach Peter de Villiers is new at his job and has yet to face any serious opposition. South Africa’s sizable victories against Wales were against a depleted and injury-stricken side, and their 26-0 performance against Italy was considered less than admirable in the South African media.
As if this wasn’t the least of their problems, the team de Villers has selected is practically a completely new-look team, with inclusions such as Ricky Januarie, Conrad Jantjes, Luke Watson, and Pierre Spies based purely on outstanding Super 14 performance, with no regard to prior international test experience. Most notable of all is the absence of Jacque Fourie at outside centre, resulting in an endless debate over the next-best choice.
The debate centers (pardon the pun) on the highly talented but inconsistent utility back Francois Steyn, and the Sharks’ impact player Adrian Jacobs. Jacobs’ choice for the squad was initially surprising considering that in the Super 14 he generally starts from the bench. These doubts were generally put to rest following an impressive performance in the first Wales test. On the other hand, Francois Steyn's incredible kicking boot combined with his creative ability, for many people makes him an obvious choice in the starting line-up, regardless of his jersey number. Regardless of the final decision, outside centre could prove to be a problem for the Springboks.
All is not lost for the world champions, however, with the participation of such key players as Butch James and Schalk Burger. There is without doubt enough talent in the team, but will they stand up to the concerted pressure and structure of the more experienced Aussie and Kiwi teams?
Australia looks to present as consistent a team as they have ever fielded. With Robbie Deans, who as coach created the Crusaders dynasty, at the helm “Oz” is lucky to have one of the best coaches in international rugby. The loose trio of George Smith, Phil Waugh and Rocky Elsom is tried and tested, and the vision of Matt Giteau at flyhalf remains unquestioned. The Wallabies captain Stirling Mortlock, at outside centre, is always a force to be reckoned with, and could prove decisive.
Eyebrows could be raised over the exclusion of Morgan Turinui at centre, who had an incredible Super 14, however Deans’ choice of Berrick Barnes at inside centre was proven during the first test against France. Barnes’ contribution in providing the backline with more attacking options was significant in racking up a big score against France. Cameron Shepherd is a popular choice at fullback, but his decision-making has been questioned, and will be put to the absolute test in the Tri Nations.
In conclusion, the All Blacks will be under pressure to perform following their knock-out in the quarter-finals of the World Cup, especially considering they entered the World Cup as favorites to win the ultimate prize. There is no doubt they will have the incentive to go all the way. This will place both Australia and South Africa at a disadvantage. Regardless, all three teams will give the viewers a marvelous tournament, with big hits, big tries, and hopefully some big scores. It should be a most entertaining tournament to watch.