Walking the Tri-Nations tightrope
July 20, 2011
The likes of Australia fullback Kurtley Beale will have to be wrapped in cotton wool to keep them safe for rugby's showpiece tournament © Getty Images
Peter De Villiers Kurtley Beale Dan Carter Robbie Deans Sir Graham Henry James Horwill Johann Muller
Graham Henry, Peter de Villiers and Robbie Deans will be looking forward to this year's Tri-Nations with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. If everything goes well it gives them a wonderful stepping stone into the Rugby World Cup but if key players are injured their hopes could be in tatters before the tournament even kicks-off on September 9.
It will be difficult for the players too. They will be anxious to cement their places in the World Cup squad but they would hate to miss out because of injury. The Tri-Nations is an annual event; the World Cup only comes round every four years.
They must feel a little like we used to after being selected for the British & Irish Lions. Most of the guys would stop playing immediately - in those days there were no play-offs and cup finals to worry about - but there was still the tricky, week-long training camp before boarding the plane. We usually went down to Eastbourne and throughout the week it was always a very difficult balancing act. On the one hand you wanted to impress the coach and put down an early marker for the Test team. On the other you were very aware you were not actually on the tour and had to pass a medical before you were given the all clear to board the plane.
On my first tour I was rooming with England flanker, Brian West, and I still remember returning to the room, all smiles having passed the doctor's scrutiny, to find him in tears. He had suffered a knee injury earlier in the week and failed the fitness test. Suddenly, instead of flying off to South Africa for three months on the greatest adventure in his young life it was back to Loughborough. There was some compensation - he eventually joined the tour as a replacement and was able to call himself a Lion after all.
Normally, the Tri-Nations is the high-spot of the southern hemisphere rugby season but this year it is totally overshadowed by the World Cup. Sponsors and crowds demand a full-blown battle but the coaches will be very anxious to look after their resources. The final game, Australia v New Zealand is on August 27 and less than two weeks later the All Blacks play Tonga in the opening game of the tournament in Auckland - no time for a hamstring to recover let alone a fracture.
It is especially difficult for Australia because they just do not have the same strength in depth as New Zealand and South Africa. If Robbie Deans thought his second string players were looking good he had a reality check last weekend when Samoa beat the Wallabies 32-23 and thoroughly deserved their victory. Deans paid the penalty for resting his Queensland contingent - a totally justifiable decision because they had not recovered after winning a bruising Super Rugby final the week before.
If Australia can field their strongest team all through the World Cup they are possibly the biggest threat to New Zealand. Quade Cooper and Kurtley Beale are not just real talents, they have added a hard edge to Australia's back-play that gives them more penetration than any other nation as they showed in that epic contest against the All Blacks in Hong Kong last October. They are strong enough behind the scrum to drop their long-time lynchpin midfielder, Matt Giteau, for their opening match against South Africa this coming weekend after a poor performance against Samoa but, up front, it is a different story.
With their first choice props fully fit they are no longer a pushover in the scrum. Without them they are and the whole platform for those wonderful backs collapses. That is why Benn Robinson has decided to postpone surgery to repair his cruciate ligament. It is a huge gamble but they simply cannot do without him.
Because there are no summer tours from the northern hemisphere countries and because the Tri-Nations has to be shoe horned in before the World Cup any experimenting has to be done during the tournament.
Both teams have opted for new blood in the second-row, for example, but do we really believe that Nathan Sharpe will not be back for Australia or that Flip van der Merwe and Johann Muller are the new power house for South Africa? I doubt it. When the chips are down I still expect Victor Matfield and Bakkes Botha to be in the boiler room.
Judging from Henry's selection for the warm-up match against Fiji this weekend, he is also being cautious. Richie McCaw needs match sharpness so he plays but Dan Carter, who is probably the most valuable player on planet earth at the moment, is rested and whilst there will be enormous pressure for him to start every Tri-Nations game I will not be at all surprised to see him wrapped in cotton wool. I will be amazed if he plays a full 80 minutes in any game.
I normally look forward to the Tri-Nations with great anticipation, it usually serves up superb rugby but this one will be different. Like it or not it will just be an hors d'oeuvre for the real feast to follow.
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