A tournament of extremes
September 24, 2009
The Tri-Nations has produced some memorable moments in 2009 © Getty Images
Peter De Villiers Adam Ashley-Cooper Berrick Barnes Richard Brown Dan Carter Matt Giteau Joe Rokocoko Morne Steyn
The Tri-Nations is over, the trophy safely tucked away alongside the Webb Ellis Cup in South Africa's bulging cabinet.
It was a tournament of extremes, with the Springboks hailed as the best ever and the All Blacks and Wallabies derided at home and impotent abroad. There were high-profile returns, ignominious exits and a sprinkling of off-the-wall jibes from Peter De Villiers, who had the last laugh in Hamilton.
In our latest Scrum Seven we take a look back at the seven moments that shaped this year's see-saw tournament.
Outside you, Berrick
The tournament kicked off in Auckland way back in July, where the Wallabies arrived on New Zealand soil full of promise after coasting to victories over France, Italy and the Barbarians. Their confidence looked well founded as after only three minutes centre Berrick Barnes dummied his way through a static All Blacks backline to score.
With the score at 10-3 inside the opening quarter, Barnes was again the focal point as the Wallabies had the perfect chance to take a huge step towards their first win on New Zealand soil since 2001. The Reds' talisman charged down a kick by Stephen Donald, gathered at pace and set off for the line.
A player renowned for his class, Barnes straightened and kept going as the overlap outside him went from two, to one, to none. Ignoring his options meant that the ball was stripped and within minutes All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw was dusting himself down after scoring and setting up a comeback victory. Fine margins.
If you wanna be a record-breaker
With the British & Irish Lions dispatched 2-1 and their opening Test against the All Blacks having gone the same way, the Springboks progressed to Durban with their tails up. The same could not be said for the All Blacks, who were now in the throes of a difficult season.
Isaac Ross, stepping in to the gargantuan boots of the injured Ali Williams, rounded off a flowing All Blacks try. His bread and butter at ruck-time was not so pretty as the All Blacks pack conceded penalty after penalty. The game finished a try apiece - the score was decided by some indiscipline and an inspired, record-breaking performance by Morne Steyn.
Only in the side due to an injury to Ruan Pienaar, Steyn broke Andrew Mehrtens' Tri-Nations scoring record by bagging all 31 points with a try, conversion and eight penalties. His boot produced a further 64 points during the tournament, breaking the record for most points in a Tri-Nations series. Not bad for a back-up.
Discipline was a recurring theme throughout the Tri-Nations. Experienced players who should have known better and younger players alike felt the wrath of the referees, no more so than during Australia's 29-17 loss to the Springboks in Cape Town.
Highlighting the lack of experience in the Wallaby set-up, flanker Richard Brown followed Matt Giteau to the bench two minutes after the fly-half was given his marching orders for a reckless lunge at an airborne Fourie du Preez.
At a time when the Wallabies were reeling after Victor Matfield cancelled out their early lead, Brown's ruck infringement was the height of stupidity considering the situation and stole away from the Wallabies any chance to counter-punch before the break. Morne Steyn kept the scoreboard ticking over with another 20+ point haul and the rest is history.
Return of the King
The knives were out for both Graham Henry and Robbie Deans by the time the All Blacks and Wallabies trotted on to the field in Sydney. Both sides had played, and lost, in South Africa and nothing less than victory would suffice for both teams as the Bledisloe roadshow stopped at the ANZ Stadium.
For some part, everyone watching the game inside the stadium or out knew that the man wearing No.10 for the All Blacks would have a bearing on the outcome. Had Dan Carter returned to the international stage too soon?
The proof was in the pudding. With 78 minutes on the clock and the home side leading 18-16, Carter stepped up and threaded a picturesque penalty through the uprights to seal the game and the Bledisloe Cup. It's hard to do justice to how much better the All Blacks are with him than without.
So they are human after all…
The Springbok juggernaut was halted, temporarily, in Brisbane as the Wallabies produced a fine display of pressurised attacking rugby to win 21-6. In a heartbeat the Wallabies went from young and reckless to being ridiculously coined as 'Generation Next' in the Australian media.
It was a superb performance however, characterised by their hounding of a Boks side that looked tired and vulnerable for the first time in the tournament. Adam Ashley-Cooper's try sent the already vociferous crowd in to raptures, one of Australia's best players this season seeing just reward.
There are big steps yet to be taken if this Wallaby side has any chance next season and beyond in to the 2011 Rugby World Cup, and skipper Stirling Mortlock should be fearful for his place in the No.13 jersey. He'll be 34 in 2011, Ashley-Cooper 27. Just saying.
"We did find something to do in Hamilton - we won the Tri-Nations Cup."
The Springboks' loss in Brisbane threw a startled All Blacks back in to the title mix, leading Peter De Villiers to wind up the press pack for the first time since the British & Irish Lions series. Proclaiming that his Springboks would not complete their preparations in Hamilton as it was too boring, echoing the sentiments of Wallabies fullback Chris Latham.
Some statements from Hamilton's authorities and a bruising victory later, De Villiers was on his way back to South Africa with the Tri-Nations trophy in his possession. His mouth had again gotten him in trouble, but his preparations had been spot-on as the tired side that lost to the Wallabies was replaced by a precise, ruthless unit. Fourie du Preez and Jean de Villiers picked up tries, while it was the other Steyn, fullback Frans, who nabbed the headlines with three penalties from his side of halfway.
"We did find something to do in Hamilton - we have won the Tri-Nations Cup," quipped De Villiers, before legging it on to a plane, chased by the city's angry population. Probably.
No ordinary Joe
No player cut a more forlorn figure during the early Tri-Nations Tests than All Blacks wing Joe Rokocoko. Smokin' Joe's Test record heading in to the tournament read 55 Tests, 44 tries. By the end it read 60 Tests, 45 tries.
Suffocated by the All Blacks' lack of accuracy against the Springboks and anonymous against the Wallabies, the fans turned on Rokocoko as his scoring drought appeared to get the better of him. Aside from standing on his wing and throwing a tantrum until someone passed him the ball, there was little that he could do.
Against the Springboks in Hamilton he played his best Test for a year, looking hungry and eager for work in coming off his wing. He followed that up with an even better showing in a 33-6 rout of the Wallabies, sparking counter-attacks from deep and diving in for a cathartic 79th minute try. He now needs only five tries to overtake Jeff Wilson as the All Blacks leading try-scorer. Any bets?