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Sunday, July 22, 2007

Tri Nations - calm(ish) before a very, very big storm

This Tri Nations was kind of like sitting through, say, Jordan Luck supporting the Rolling Stones - something much bigger and better is just around the corner, so now's a good time to go buy a hot dog and tee shirt. What can we learn from this extended warm up?

- We can do it when it counts. South Africa away and the Tri Nations / Bledisloe decider were the two matches that really mattered this year - we won both with solid performances.

- We're distracted. Let's not beat around the bush - 2007 (not to mention 2006, 2005 etc) is all about the World Cup. When the whistle blew last night, McCaw asked straightaway for our support in France. Nothing else matter to us, the baying, flaming torch waving NZ rugby public, and it's no different for the team. Forget defeat in Melbourne, or a scratchy outing in Christchurch - the team's minds are in France.

- We might just be sandbagging in the backs. Remember 2003 when we took everyone to bits with those majestic, sweeping moves from Carlos and the back three in the Tri Nations, only for Stirling Mortlock put us out in the semi final? There's been a distinct lack of sparkle from the backs this year, not helped by the constant switching and changing. While the forwards have been quietly building up experience and understanding as a pack (locking crisis apart), the backs are still a work in progress. It's pointless giving White, Laporte et al footage to study on their laptops when they're not playing minesweeper for the next six weeks. Expect big things in France.

- The Aussies and Saffas are scared. There was more worried bleating in the Tri Nations press conferences than in the film "Enter The Agrodome", the sordid story of a touring Welsh social rugby team visiting the famous Rotorua tourist attraction after a few pints. Hopefully World Cup referees will be wise to this whinging about McCaw.

- South Africa are tough. The question is, have they got their reconditioning right? It seems a strange, kneejerk move to leave all those players at home for the touring matches. Now White has to reintegrate his squad and find a number one XV, since his last best XV was beaten at home by the ABs. All that good feeling created by the all-South Africa Super 14 final suddenly seems a long time ago.

- Australia are tough and smart. They beat us in Melbourne in their must-win game of the season, and were a handful in Auckland. Gregan is still the best ref around - his 'not actually feeding the scrum' scrum-feeding technique has masterfully minimised psychological damage to their fragile front row. Last night's ref wasn't fooled, and if it's the same in France, they could really struggle.

- The TV commentary will get worse. Much, much worse. You all that bitch about Tony Johnson and Mex, get ready for the pain. TV3 will cover the World Cup, meaning their 'Rugby' 'Editor' Hamish MacKay has the mic. With MacKay, every game is a MASSIVE, MUST WIN ENCOUNTER, every tackle is a HUGE, TEETH RATTLING HIT. When he scratches his arse, IT'S A SUPER HUMAN EFFORT. Most annoying, though, is his rehearsed lines for try scorers - utter bollocks like "Aye, Aye, Captain!" as McCaw crashes over, "the Ice Man cometh" for Toeava, or "But soft, what light over yonder try line breaks? 'Tis Anton, and the ball is the sun" for Anton Oliver*. I bet he's got heaps prepared in an exercise book in writing that doesn't join up. He'll have guys like Frank Bunce and Allan Whetton alongside him (plus, worryingly, KFC spokesman / Destiny Church advocate Mark 'Bull' Allen) - let's hope they can get a word in edgeways.

Now we just have to wait six weeks until the big show starts. (SIX WEEKS? WE'VE BEEN WAITING FOUR YEARS!). Despite our media and public's demands for flawless 50 point thumpings every time we play, we saw enough in Durban and Auckland to suggest Henry and Co. are timing their run for France, as they should be. 2007's real crunch matches are yet to come - remember how well they played in the last really big series? That would be the Lions tests, and if we can hit that form again, we'll justify our tag as huge favorites, and it will take something very, very special indeed to stop us. Can we get excited yet?

* I made that one up. You get the idea, though.

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