Unfortunately for the world-champion Springboks, their record-breaking 53–8 win over the Wallabies at Johannesburg last Saturday (August 30) means nothing in the Tri-Nations – and leaves them in last place behind the All Blacks and the Wallabies.
The All Blacks remain on top of the ladder with 14 points, followed by the Wallabies on 13. These two sides play for the title in Brisbane this Saturday week (September 13); that match will also determine whether the Wallabies can still win the Bledisloe Cup, the highly sought trophy for trans-Tasman contests.
If the Wallabies can raise themselves from their worst defeat at the hands of the Springboks and then beat the All Blacks in Brisbane, they win the Tri-Nations – and the Bledisloe Cup will be decided in Hong Kong in September in the first cup game to be played outside New Zealand or Australia.
Boks Coach Booed
Even though the Springboks victory meant nothing in the Tri-Nations, it was the confidence boost that the South Africans needed following big losses to the Wallabies and the All Blacks. In fact, both the team and the first black Springbok coach, Peter de Villiers, were booed from the field after losing to the Wallabies 27–15 two weeks ago in Cape Town.
Under de Villiers, the Springboks have tried to play a running game. But the players have struggled with the transition, drawing condemnation from their win-at-all-cost fans. All that angst disappeared in the sunshine at Ellis Park last Saturday as the Springboks played with all the flair of a French side – or an in-form Australian side.
The Wallabies, by contrast, looked tired and inept. This might have been because the game meant nothing to the Tri-Nations competition – the Australians knew they would be playing the All Blacks for the title in Brisbane whether they won or lost.
However, the inclusion of recent rugby league convert Timana Tahu at inside centre also contributed to the loss. The talented Tahu – a favourite of Australian coach Robbie Deans – was out of his depth in his first run-on Test, particularly in defence.
After the game, the Springboks captain, Victor Matfield, thanked coach de Villiers for having confidence in the South African squad. “I think character comes out when the going gets tough,” he said. “Today, the guys showed they’ve got a lot of character.”
The man-of-the-match was the new Springboks winger Jongikhaya Nokwe, who scored four tries. In the week preceding the game, he was named as a weak link, which added a dimension to his performance.
The Wallabies haven’t won at Ellis Park for 45 years, but were confident going into the Test. The question now is whether the devastating loss will make the Wallabies more determined or whether it will shatter their confidence. That question will be answered when they meet the All Blacks in Brisbane.
In their last clash with the All Blacks, they were thrashed 39–10 in Auckland. But the Wallabies play much better at home – which is a flaw that coach Deans is trying to overcome.
As stated, the game is weighted with importance – both the Tri-Nations title and the Bledisloe Cup are on the line. But so is national pride. Both neighbouring countries place particular pride on beating each other, no matter what the contest. The Bledisloe Cup probably represents the pinnacle in that longstanding rivalry.
There is also the grim fact that both the Wallabies and the All Blacks had humiliating exits from the Rugby World Cup, which was held in France last year. Consequently, both rugby sides are desperate to rebuild their reputations. There is also a grudging rivalry between the two New Zealand-born coaches – Deans from the Wallabies and Graham Henry from the All Blacks.
All of this means that the Brisbane game will be the match of the year. On paper, the All Blacks are the favourite. But the home ground advantage will counter that.