Tri-Nations awash with talent
September 15, 2010
Australia's Kurtley Beale celebrates his match-winning kick against South Africa in Bloemfontein © Getty Images
After the first round of Tri-Nations matches I installed New Zealand as hot favourites to win the World Cup this time next year. They have gone on to complete a clean sweep winning all six matches, scoring a hatful of tries in the process.
But, if you took my advice and put on an early bet, don't start counting your money yet! The surprise team of the tournament for me was unquestionably Australia.
Not long ago their scrum was a joke, their back division looked to be creaking and they appeared to be in decline but, suddenly, they have produced a crop of new, exciting young players who have already shown they do not fear the All Blacks and are right up for the challenge.
They came out of the blocks like sprinters in every game and although they faded badly on occasions in the second-half they would have won the final Test against New Zealand in Sydney last Saturday if they had had a decent goal kicker.
Matt Giteau is a great talent and has now kicked over 500 points in Test rugby but he is streaky rather than reliable and a top class kicker would have expected to make at least two if not three of the four kicks he missed last weekend - it is not the first time he has gone AWOL in a pressure situation but, officially, he still has the backing of the kicking coach. I wonder how long that will last? In Bloemfontein Kurtley Beale showed he has the temperament and the firepower - 56 metres is a hell of a kick even on the high veldt - and they should be working on elevating him to No. 1 before the World Cup kicks off. Beale is not just a kicker either. He has wonderfully quick feet and is the perfect fullback for this new freestyle rugby we have seen in the 2010 Tri Nations.
I am not one of those who wants to see rugby turn into contact basketball but tries are important and this year it was thrilling to see New Zealand score 22 touchdowns with Australia not far behind on 17. In 2009 South Africa scored 10 tries when they won the tournament - this time they scored 13 and finished bottom.
It has been a really vibrant tournament and the most exciting thing of all is perhaps the number of new stars it launched. We knew Beale was a prodigious talent but here he took centre stage as did Quade Cooper - yet another player the Australians blooded before his 21st birthday.
In the pack, David Pocock has exploded on to the international stage. When George Smith announced his retirement from international rugby the whole of Australia groaned - now he's yesterday's man. Pocock even beat the master, Richie McCaw at his own game on occasions.
New Zealand, normally so quietly evolutionary, also came up with a few surprises. Just as we were getting used to Kieran Read and Jerome Kaino as the replacements for Jerry Collins and Rodney So'oialo there's another new kid on the block, Victor Vito. The Franks brothers, babies in terms of front row experience, have made a big impression and behind the scrum, Israel Dagg has erupted on to the scene so that the great Joe Rokocoko can no longer expect an automatic starting role even if he is fully fit.
The main difference between the two sides at the moment is simply that the All Blacks have more experience where it counts whilst the Australians are prone to lapses in discipline. Beale and Cooper have both had problems in the past and the new hooker, Saia Faingaa, could easily have cost them victory over South Africa in Bloemfontein with that stupid spear tackle. But they are very talented and if Robbie Deans can get the young hot-heads to curb their natural instinct to prove a point at every physical confrontation he could end up being the villain back in his native New Zealand next year.
Other statistics as well as the try count from this year's Tri Nations were also wonderfully encouraging. The average number of kicks in open play was around 35 per match as opposed to 91 in the World Cup Final between South Africa and England in Paris three years ago - that really does represent a sea shift in the way the game is being played. Interestingly, South Africa have been left behind. They still have the talent and the power but they are playing an old fashioned game and it shows.
Australia and New Zealand have thrown down the gauntlet now it is up to the Springboks and the European nations to respond. Roll on the autumn internationals. This year they will have real bite and they will tell us just how much catch-up there is to be done between now and next September.