Australia 25-20 New Zealand, Brisbane, August 27
Bring on the World Cup
August 27, 2011
Supporters of the Wallabies will hope this is just the start of their success this year © Getty Images
If the Wallabies' brutal and enthralling victory over the All Blacks in their Tri-Nations decider in Brisbane did not whet your appetite for the forthcoming Rugby World Cup then you need to check your pulse.
If the International Rugby Board were hoping for a dazzling advert for the game on the eve of their showpiece event then Christmas definitely came early at a packed out Suncorp Stadium. Australia and New Zealand both played their part in an epic encounter boasting a stunning level of intensity and while the greasy conditions did their best to blight their game they could not detract from the spectacle as a whole.
Two giants of the game came to play and went toe-to-toe and while victory for the Wallabies handed them a timely boost going into the World Cup, there is no guarantee that this showing will see them triumph should they cross paths again come October - such is the fine line between these two sides when they are on their game. For Australia the level of performance is perhaps more extraordinary considering it is only six weeks since they were handed a rugby lesson by Samoa.
Australia's victory was built on an outstanding ferocity in defence and attack with the scarily consistent David Pocock and winger Adam Ashley-Cooper two key performers while scrum-half Will Genia is emerging as a more influential figure than headline-hogging Quade Cooper. The elusive fly-half will always make the highlights reel with a deft touch or two but it is the direction and urgency of Genia that sets the Wallabies in motion. It is increasingly clear that to stop the Wallabies from clicking through the gears you have to shackle deny Genia ball - not his halfback partner.
James Horwill's tenure as captain could not have started more spectacularly with Tri-Nations silverware in his grasp come the final whistle. Time will tell whether he can emulate the last Wallabies skipper to lift the trophy - the legendary John Eales back in 2001 - and add the World Cup to his CV and cap a standout year that has already seen him steer the Reds to Super Rugby glory.
However, it was Reds team-mate Radike Samo who earned the biggest cheer of the night for his game-breaking contribution in the first half. He had already issued a warning with one defence-busting run before tearing another hole in a leaky All Blacks defence just past the half hour. But while strength is a given for the 197cm and 119kg forward - blistering pace is not. But those with longer memories will remember Samo as a winger and he offered a flashback to those days with a blistering burst to the line that defied the amount of miles in his 35-year-old legs.
The shortcomings of the All Blacks' defence will be a major concern for head coach Graham Henry with a conservative estimate of 13 missed tackles set to send shockwaves through their camp. Rarely will you see a New Zealand side look so fragile but thankfully for them they will not often come up against a side as willing and able as this success-starved generation of Wallabies.
Henry and co displayed their collective rugby nous with a tactical overhaul that enabled a more abrasive All Blacks side to wrestle their way back into the contest. Call it boring, as many accustomed to New Zealand's more expansive leanings will, but it was effective. By keeping it tight and lifting their intensity to a level where it matched their rivals, the All Blacks managed to subdue their hosts, draw their sting and change the pattern of the game. Ultimately they left themselves too much to do while at the same time they were guilty of expecting the Wallabies to capitulate. But this talent-heavy Australia side so often criticised for lacking backbone now have bags of grit to complement the attacking prowess that abounds in their back division.
While momentum is now clearly with the Wallabies having accounted for their main southern hemisphere rivals with back-to-back victories in recent weeks, they face another hurdle if they are to carry this form into the World Cup - history. No side has won the Tri-Nations and gone on to lift the World Cup the same year - a fact that will not be lost on New Zealand and their fans.
The All Blacks have long been favourites to end a 24-year drought and lift the sport's biggest prize on home soil later this year but having dominated all-comers for much of the last four years they now have plenty of food for thought. They will launch their latest World Cup assault on the back of two successive defeats that have brought to light certain cracks in their armour. Add in the guaranteed pressure of the occasion and suddenly this World Cup looks more open than ever.
The exemplary displays were not limited to the players with English referee Wayne Barnes' handling of this high-profile clash sure to serve him in the latter stages of the World Cup if he can also maintain a notable level of performance.
I doubt the World Cup organisers will struggle to shift what tickets are left for the big one so if you haven't done so already, I suggest you act quickly if you want to be part of what is shaping up as a fantastic tournament.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.