New Zealander Robbie Deans did the All Blacks a huge favour when his Wallabies opened their Tri Nations campaign by beating the Springboks 16–9 in Perth last Saturday July 19.
A second African Springbok win on tour would have given them an almost unassailable lead in the nine-match tournament – particularly as they have three home matches to play.
The Springboks looked sluggish, possibly suffering the after-effects of their successful tour of New Zealand, where they scored an impressive away-win in Dunedin – their first ever at the House of Pain – following a loss in Wellington.
Still, the Australian Wallabies, who were the underdogs, were impressive, particularly in the scrum, which has been sub-standard for several years.
Before the game, the Springboks identified inside centre Berrick Barnes as a weakness.
Queenslander Barnes is a talented young player who came to union from the Brisbane Broncos league side. As well as being inexperienced, he is much smaller than his Tri Nations opponents, Jean de Villiers from South Africa and Ma’a Nonu from New Zealand.
However, Barnes again denied the logic of size and experience, and showed he is capable of matching it with the best in the world.
While there were flaws in the Australian game, the Wallabies dominated the Test, despite losing concussed skipper Stirling Mortlock in the second half. The influence of new coach Deans is already apparent, with the Wallabies being more constructive and more expansive than they have in recent years.
Deans sought the Wallaby position after being overlooked as All Blacks coach earlier this year. The job was returned to Graham Henry, who was expected to be sacked following the poor performance of the New Zealand All Blacks at the World Cup in France last year.
The rivalry between the two master coaches from New Zealand will add spice to the Wallabies–All Blacks clash in Sydney. Pressure will be on both men to prove themselves. Henry, in particular, is under siege in New Zealand, where many believe he should have been sacked to make way for Deans.
While Deans will feel the personal pressure, his standing with the Australian Rugby Union could not be higher. Since his appointment, he has had four wins from four matches – one against Ireland, two against France and the Perth victory over the World Champion Boks.
Apart from the issue of the two coaches, the match – the first of four matches between the two Down Under nations in the Bledisloe Cup that is incorporated in the Tri Nation series – will determine which side can go on to challenge the front-running Boks for the Tri Nations title.