The latest Tri Nations campaign gets underway this weekend with the Wallabies looking to put a decade of heartbreak behind them.
The Lions’ next opponents haven’t claimed the southern hemisphere’s top prize for a full 10 years but the shortened nature of this season’s competition and the looming presence of the World Cup gives them as good a chance as any to reverse the trend.
Australia have had to sit back and watch the All Blacks claim the Tri Nations crown on seven occasions since their last triumph, while the Springboks have picked up two titles in that period.
And with the Word Cup just weeks away and the 2013 Lions tour now firmly on the horizon, now really is the time for the Wallabies to make their mark.
What should we expect from the Wallabies?
It’s hard to tell, is the honest answer. The general consensus was that the Wallabies were improving; that they were on the right track and ready to make a serious challenge at the Tri Nations and beyond. Then came last week’s friendly with Samoa and an unexpected setback that has shaken Australian rugby to its very core.
The Wallabies were expected to trounce the Pacific Island nation despite head coach Robbie Deans’ decision to rest the majority of his Super 15-winning Queensland Reds stars and a few others. While a repeat of last year’s 74-7 victory over the same opposition was always going to be unlikely given the absence of the likes of Quade Cooper, James O’Connor and David Pocock, no one predicted a Samoan success. But sport is full of surprises and the Samoans provided one of the biggest of them all as they claimed their first-ever victory over the Wallabies.
Questions have since been asked of the strength-in-depth of Australian rugby; of Deans’ decision to name a weakened team, and of the New Zealander’s suitability to lead the Wallabies into the World Cup and the forthcoming Lions tour.
Only time will tell if these criticisms are simply knee-jerk reactions or whether they point to more serious problems. A convincing victory over an under-strength South Africa in Sydney this Saturday would put Deans and co back on track but a second defeat in successive weeks to what is effectively a Bok B team would really leave the Wallabies well and truly on the ropes.
But the Wallabies have been here before and bounced back in some style. A record-breaking 53-8 reverse to the Springboks in 2008 understandably rocked the boat, as did 10 straight defeats to the All Blacks and a home loss to a then-struggling England. Those statistics could have taken the Wallabies on a drastic downward spiral but instead they’ve battled through and come out the other side, beating the Boks on the High Veldt for the first time in 47 years last season and ending their NZ hoodoo with victory in Hong Kong nine months ago.
Australia won the Mandela Plate by beating South Africa twice in 2010
Instead of backing off when things got tough, Deans stuck to his attacking philosophy and that faith in a crop of young stars has seen the Wallabies leapfrog the Boks into second place in the IRB World Standings, leaving them as arguably the most-likely side to stop pre-tournament favourites New Zealand lifting the World Cup on home soil.
In short, this current batch of Australians are a Jekyll and Hyde bunch. Often imperious in one match, or even a half, then woeful the next, the Wallabies are a hard group to judge. They clearly lack the consistency of the great World Cup winning sides of 1991 and 1999 and the Lions conquerors of 2001 but, on their day, the class of 2011 can be something special.
The way the Wallabies want to play
The emergence of likes of Will Genia, Cooper and O’Connor has seen the Wallabies develop a hugely entertaining approach that, when it comes off, is simply sensational to watch. Having been renowned across most eras for the ingenuity of their backline rather than their forward muscle, the current crop live up to that assessment even more than most.
With Kurtly Beale proving a revelation at full back, Australia have become a potent attacking threat from almost anywhere on the field. Tries such as the one scored by Adam Ashley-Cooper in Hong Kong have showed just how difficult they are to defend against in open play, with their speed of thought and the ball-playing skills of their entire XV an example to all four Home Unions.
In the Tri Nations, and indeed in the World Cup, Australia will look to generate quick ball and get over the gain line as soon as possible. Once on the front foot and against a broken defence, Cooper and co are almost unstoppable.
Unfortunately for Deans and his coaching staff, getting into that position is proving a little harder than he would like. The Wallaby setpiece, although undoubtedly far stronger than it was, remains a weak link. England showed as much with their two penalty tries from scrum time in Sydney in 2010 and the Boks and the All Blacks will give the pack a stern test of their credentials this month and next.
Sunday’s defeat to Samoa showed up another glaring weakness in the Wallaby set up as the battle of the breakdown went unanimously the visitors’ way. Outgunned at ruck time against the Islanders, Australia just couldn’t get going. Their favoured free-flowing approach was submerged in what became a stop-start affair that left the Wallabies looking flawed in both attack and defence. The return of star openside David Pocock should help steady the ship in that department against the Boks but even the world’s second-best seven won’t be able to single-handedly solve the problem. The Wallabies must be more aggressive as a group at the breakdown if they are to give their star-studded backs a chance to shine.
Wallabies to watch
Quade Cooper – sensational throughout the Super 15, Cooper has put his off-field controversy behind him to become one of the world’s most-feared players. Question marks still remain about his defensive capabilities but there are no doubts about his attacking talents. And while critics saw the Cooper of 2009 and early 2010 as a purely instinctive player, the current model is now demonstrating a far more rounded approach – an improvement that fired the Reds to glory against Dan Carter’s Crusaders earlier this month.
Will Genia – named as Australia’s Super 15 Player of the Year this term, Genia is fast becoming the world’s premier scrum-half. With South Africa’s Fourie du Preez sidelined through injury and Lions tourist Mike Phillips still struggling for form ahead of Wales’ World Cup warm ups, Genia could head into the global gathering as favourite to be named in the team of the tournament. His stunning solo try against the Crusaders in Brisbane was another demonstration that the 22-year-old is on top of his game – a realisation that won’t have pleased the Springboks or the All Blacks.
Scrum-half Will Genia has been in outstanding form for club and country
Radike Samo – seven years after his last appearance for the Wallabies, Samo is back in the big time and gunning for a shock World Cup spot. The Fijian-born back rower was playing club-grade rugby before being offered a short-term deal by the Reds earlier this year. At 35-years-old, Samo wouldn’t appear to have too many future caps to look forward to but his recent performances for the Reds have proven that he’s still got more than enough left in the tank to make a major impression over the next three months.
Sekope Kepu– with Benn Robinson currently unavailable with what could yet be a season-ending knee injury, Kepu has been handed a massive opportunity to make himself part of the Wallaby furniture. The 25-year-old Waratah has big shoes to fill after Robinson had become widely recognised among the world’s leading prop forwards. And with just three caps to his name and a one-year absence since his last international appearance prior to the defeat to Samoa, opposition front-rowers, as well as the Australian media, will be piling the pressure on the former New Zealand Youth star.
Sekope Kepu will hope to give his side a solid foundation
Matt Giteau – dropped from the matchday 22 for the first clash with South Africa, all eyes will be on whether the former Golden boy of Australian rugby is handed a chance to prove his worth later in the tournament. While it would be foolish to write off a player with his all-round footballing ability and big-game experience, this could perhaps be the beginning of the end for Giteau’s international career.
Tri Nations history
Australia have triumphed in the Tri Nations just twice, claiming the crown on back-to-back occasions at the start of the millennium and winning only 26 of their 68 Tri Nations fixtures to date.
New Zealand have won an incredible 10 of the 15 Tri Nations tournaments, including five of the last six. The All Blacks also boast the top four try scorers in the tournament’s history, with Christian Cullen leading the way and current skipper Richie McCaw sitting in fourth spot.
South Africa have picked up a hat-trick of titles, including the competition that directly followed the last Lions tour.
List of winners
1996 New Zealand
1997 New Zealand
1998 South Africa
1999 New Zealand
2002 New Zealand
2003 New Zealand
2004 South Africa
2005 New Zealand
2006 New Zealand
2007 New Zealand
2008 New Zealand
2009 South Africa
2010 New Zealand
Tri Nations fixtures (kick off times are BST)
Saturday, July 23
Australia vs South Africa 11am
Saturday, July 30
New Zealand vs South Africa 8.30am
Saturday, August 6
New Zealand vs Australia 10.30am
Saturday, August 13
South Africa vs Australia 10:30am
Saturday, August 20
South Africa vs New Zealand 10:30am
Saturday, August 27
Australia vs New Zealand 11am