Psychology will play a bigger role than anticipated in determining who will lift the Webb Ellis trophy after the final of Rugby World Cup 2011 on 23 October in Auckland. After today’s 25-20 Tri-Nations loss to the Wallabies, the All Blacks’ shrink will be working overtime, as the RWC gets underway. STYLI CHARALAMBOUS wraps-up this year’s tournament.
At times, this year’s Tri-Nations took on the feel of a soapie, with more twists and turns than a winding Drakensberg pass. With the RWC looming large, each selection decision was scrutinised in the context of what it would mean for the team’s chances in New Zealand. The Boks continued their love-hate relationship with their demanding fans and media, Australia shook things up by cutting dead wood and sentiment from their team and the Kiwis pinned their hopes on “Dad’s Army”. The Tri-Nations was certainly one laden with surprises.
South Africa showed their hand early by announcing what was effectively a third-string side to tour Australasia, as their first choice players rehabilitated from injury and a demanding Super Rugby season. Never short of reasons to do so, the local sports media laid into the Bok coaching team for holding back key players, but had no qualms about Graham Henry doing the same with the All Blacks Port Elizabeth Test.
With the Boks effectively writing off the Tri-Nations in lieu of their World Cup master plan, the southern hemisphere annual was always going to be a two-horse race. However, no one expected the horse crossing the finishing line first would be wearing Wallaby gold, and fewer would have expected the All Blacks to be heading into the RWC with two consecutive losses to their name.
Australia would have won many battles within today’s on-field battle against New Zealand. Robbie Deans, who came within a late Kurtley Beale kick of losing his job in Bloemfontein in 2010, made some massive calls as coach in the past two weeks, which were for the most part justified by today’s win.
Captain cranky, Rocky Elsom, was relieved of the leadership duties last week as Deans announced that inspirational Red’s captain, James Horwill, would be leading his charges into this match and the World Cup. While no-one could blame Elsom for the obliteration of the Wallabies in Auckland earlier this year, many did question his poor leadership skills and his ability to rally the troops in the face of an All Blacks’ onslaught. On Saturday in front of his home crowd, Horwill had the Australian public nodding their heads in approval of the courage and foresight Deans had shown.
A quick comparison of the World Cup squads of the three sides will reveal the disparities in selection mentality between coaches Deans, Henry and Peter de Villiers. While De Villiers and Henry have gone for experience, and in Henry’s case, possibly sentimental selections, Dean’s had no problem dropping Australian veterans from his RWC plans in favour of form players. Drew Mitchell, Phil Waugh, Stirling Mortlock and even Matt Giteau couldn’t crack the nod to make the trip across the Tasman.
For the All Blacks, there’s nothing like a loss or two to shine the spotlight on some dubious selections, and raise the background noise of that word that rhymes with “coke” to more audible levels. Form scrummager and Crusaders strongman, Wyatt Crockett, was inexplicably left out of the All Blacks squad with no room for other stars like Hoseia Gear and Sitiveni Sitivatu. No doubt the social interwebs will be buzzing with more apprehensive chatter tonight as Henry heads into yet another World Cup with selection conundrums as his Achilles heel.
It’d been 10 long years since Australian legend, John Eales, lifted the Tri-Nations trophy, and the team certainly wasn’t living up to pre-match statements downplaying the importance of this match. Today’s win for the Wallabies, and their complete domination of the first half, will lift their confidence ahead of the global spectacle. In fact, the Red’s Super Rugby win in May, coupled with their performance on Saturday to win this tight encounter, will reaffirm the view of many pundits across the globe that it may yet be this team to make it a hat-trick of Australian victories this year.
The Wallabies played sublime rugby to lead 20-3 at the break, courtesy of two converted tries and two penalty kicks by Quade Copper, who managed to tame the demons of his last Bledisloe Cup performance with a display of rugby that left Dan Carter wanting. The All Blacks will take heart from the way they managed to claw their way back into the game, after the restart and a no-doubt a serious Henry-induced tongue-lashing. But they will be disappointed that their premier team could not retain the trophy they have won an astonishing 10 times since the tournament’s inception in 1996.
The All Blacks will be looking to calm the public’s anxiety by saying that today’s loss will only inspire the team to perform better at the world cup proper. But the rest of us will know that, just like every match they play over the two months, New Zealand will start as overwhelming favourites, with the pressure to perform in front of home crowds escalating further with every pool match victory.
By not converting today’s performance into victory, every World Cup press conference by opposing teams will most likely allude to the pressure cooker in which the AB’s will have to play their rugby, hopeful that the home side wilt under the burden of expectation, once again. DM
Tries: Genia, Samo, Beale
Conversions: Cooper 2
Penalties: Cooper 2
For New Zealand:
Tries: Smith, Nonu
Conversions: Carter 2
Penalties: Carter 2
Australia: 15 Kurtley Beale, 14 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 13 Anthony Fainga’a, 12 Pat McCabe, 11 Digby Ioane, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Will Genia, 8 Radike Samo, 7 David Pocock, 6 Rocky Elsom, 5 James Horwill (captain), 4 Dan Vickerman, 3 Ben Alexander, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 Sekope Kepu.
Replacements: 16 Saia Fainga’a, 17 Salesi Ma’afu, 18 Rob Simmons, 19 Ben McCalman, 20 Scott Higginbotham, 21 Luke Burgess, 22 Rob Horne.
New Zealand: 15 Mils Muliaina, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma’a Nonu, 11 Zac Guildford, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Piri Weepu, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (captain), 6 Adam Thomson, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Andrew Hore, 17 John Afoa, 18 Ali Williams, 19 Victor Vito, 20 Andy Ellis, 21 Colin Slade, 22 Isaia Toeava.
Venue: Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane, Australia
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant referees: Craig Joubert (South Africa), Cobus Wessels (South Africa)
TMO: Matt Goddard (Australia)
Photo: Australia’s Wallabies David Pocock (L) tackles New Zealand’s All Blacks Ma’a Nonu (C) during their their Bledisloe Cup and Tri-Nations rugby union test match in Brisbane August 27, 2011. REUTERS/Daniel Munoz
"Have no fear of perfection - you'll never reach it." ~ Salvador Dalí