July ninth’s 18-13 win by the Queensland Reds over the Canterbury Crusaders marked the end of the longest Super Rugby campaign ever undertaken. From late February to early July, 15 teams battered each other with test match intensity. It was mentally and physically exhausting; the equivalent of an NFL season with staggering travel demands.
Owing to the February earthquake in Christchurch and damage to their home ground, the Crusaders embarked on the longest rugby tour in history. Every match was a road game. They played brilliantly to beat the Stormers in Capetown but had nothing left for the final against the Reds in Brisbane. In total, the Crusaders travelled more than 100,000 kms (60,000 miles) to fulfil their fixtures.
Now the three Southern unions are preparing for an abbreviated Tri-Nations championship. Two rounds instead of three to be played in the space of one month. With the Rugby World Cup kicking off in mid-September, each has taken a different approach.
Method to this Madness
Springbok coach Peter de Villiers has named a massive training squad for the Tri-Nations. He then scratched captain Victor Matfield and 20 other veterans from the first two tests. All are classified as “injured” with more than half simply in need of recovery from the Super 15. New Zealand fans are upset by the pending arrival of a Springbok B team to play the All Blacks on July 30th. Many question the sanity of playing any Tri-Nations rugby so close to the World Cup.
De Villiers could care less. Often described by rugby pundits as “eccentric”, he makes public statements and test selections which leave people mystified. Yet there is method to this particular madness. The Springboks’ first two rounds are in Australia and New Zealand; long trips for weary veterans. Few if any would relish this travel culminated by a freezing night game in Wellington.
The Springbok selectors may yet have the right view of a truncated competition which will be forgotten when the World Cup kicks off. De Villiers will lead his Baby Boks into the first two Tri-Nations matches while resting the core of his World Cup team. Only two in the touring party can be considered regulars, John Smit and Morne Steyn. Six are uncapped. Most on the injured list will turn out for the final two Tri-Nations games to be played in South Africa. Only then will we have a feel for what’s to come in September.
Wallaby coach Robbie Deans also selected a wider training group for the Tri-Nations and World Cup. He then took the middle road, favoring a mix of Super 15 players
young hopefuls and a couple of veterans returning from Europe to play a warm-up test against Samoa on July 17th. The side was boosted by the return of injured skipper Rocky Elsom who played almost no rugby for the Brumbies this year.
It looked like a smart move by the wily coach but Samoa spoiled the party big time. Their 32-23 victory in Sydney was the first over Australia. While giving most of the Reds players a week off, Deans has left himself open to harsh criticism and a jarring halt to momentum going into the Tri-Nations.
Nicknamed “Dingo” by the New Zealand media, Deans is a Christchurch native who successfully coached the Crusaders to multiple Super titles. In line for the All Blacks job at the end of the last World Cup, he was passed over for incumbent Graham Henry. ARU president John O’Neil quickly hired Deans to plot Australia’s course through this World Cup.
The Wallabies World Cup squad will feature great loose forwards and a hugely gifted set of young backs. The front row could be their Achilles heel and Robbie Deans must now be wondering how to patch this team together.
Henry Plays a Pat Hand
All Blacks coach Graham Henry admitted a month ago that his squad was virtually chosen. A few players were on injury watch but there would be no bolters into the team.
With fellow selectors Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen, Henry also opted for a smaller
group, naming only 30 players. Four more are in a holding pattern as cover for
established regulars, notably prop Tony Woodcock and fullback Isaia Toeava.
The only uncapped player is lock Jarrad Hoeata who could yet be unseated by Anthony Boric returning from injury.
In all other respects Henry is playing a pat hand. He has great depth in the front row, loose forwards, midfield and outside backs. One key question was answered with the naming of Colin Slade, originally from Otago, as Daniel Carter’s backup in the No 10 jersey. A similar debate raged about a specialist openside deputy for captain Richie McCaw. In the end, the three wise men opted for the combined skills of Liam Messam, Adam Thompson and Jerome Kaino.
Henry’s approach differs from Dean and de Villiers in several respects. He is committed to winning the Tri-Nations as a launching pad into the World Cup. Unlike
2007, he will use his veterans in the run-up to establish and maintain productive combinations. With strength in depth he will not be tempted to tinker with positional changes or other selection vagaries which have cost New Zealand in previous World Cups.
A.W. Scott is a longtime rugby writer and observer. An American living in New Zealand, he will be offering a series of columns on the World Cup preparation in New Zealand.