Aussie rules

Keo, in his News24 column, writes the Waratahs will win the Super 14 and Australia will win the Tri-Nations in 2006.

It is a big call, but I have a hunch that instead of laughing at the Aussies this year, South Africa and New Zealand’s supporters are the ones who will bear the brunt of Australian laughter in the international season.

Australia’s horror season ended with defeat against Wales in 2005, but if a country is to have a shocker, then the Aussies have timed it to perfection, bearing in mind the World Cup is played in 2007. They’ve also introduced a new coach in John Connolly at the right time.

Connolly may be an old hand, but he will bring something new to a Wallabies team that had become robotic under Eddie Jones and easy to beat by the likes of New Zealand, England, France and even South Africa.

This year will be different and it is New Zealand who could find the strain of expectation tough to handle in an extended Tri-Nations that sees the All Blacks play the Springboks twice up north. They won’t win both and they’ll struggle to even win one of them.

This year has again been confirmation that the New Zealand players don’t enjoy being in South Africa and they look 50 percent less intimidating than the visuals we see from New Zealand.

The Chiefs were nothing short of a disgrace in South Africa, the Blues were appalling in Durban and only marginally better in Bloemfontein, the Highlanders got out of jail in Bloemfontein, found comfort in Cape Town and then got whipped in Pretoria, while the Hurricanes could easily have left here with no win in three starts.

Yes, you have to credit their grit in hanging in there to beat the Stormers in the last minute and to also deny the Bulls with two minutes to go, but lady luck cuddled up nicely to the ‘Canes while in South Africa.

Generally, the Kiwi teams have looked as limp as the South Africans do when in New Zealand and if the Crusaders were to play five successive matches in South Africa the chances are they’d struggle to win more than two. They have the good fortune of getting on a plane after just two matches, with their display in Cape Town among their worst in a couple of seasons.

It is said that a week is a long time in sport, but as New Zealand’s Grand Slam heroes of 2005 are discovering six months is a lifetime. The champs of November are already being questioned as chumps in the Super 14 and the picture being painted in New Zealand is not so grand.

In 2003 the Boks were the laughing stock of the rugby world and nine months later they had won the Tri-Nations. It all changes very quickly and this is what Australia will be banking on in 2006.

On the evidence of the Waratahs, Australia will be formidable in 2006. The ‘Tahs have closed the gap on the Crusaders in the Super 14 to the point where they may actually have gone past them.

While they lost the league match 17-11, they dominated the second half eight to three and spent the last 10 minutes on the Crusaders tryline. The five time champs held out, but at what price? It was an effort that seemed to have taken everything out of them if you assess their lethargic displays in Perth and Cape Town.

The ‘Tahs, by contrast, have just got better. They were brilliant defensively in atrocious weather conditions in Dunedin and the only match in which they took a beating was at Loftus against a fired-up Bulls side. As the Crusaders will attest to it is the kind of thing can happen to the best of teams.

You just get the sense that something is giving in New Zealand after last year?s high and it is not totally unexpected. There has not been the aura around some of their players, especially when playing in South Africa, and the form of their lethal test wingers Sivivatu, Howlett, Gear and Rokocoko in South Africa has been ordinary, with Howlett the best of an average all-round effort.

The hostility of the South African crowd does get to them and seems to muzzle the mongrel of their forwards, whereas the Aussie teams have looked more accomplished in South Africa this year.

The ‘Tahs have certainly looked the most complete side in the competition and with Mat Rogers back in the mix they have added variation to their attack. Rogers, as he showed against the All Blacks, is dangerous at No 10. The closer he is to the action the better for the ‘Tahs and Wallabies.

South Africa will be good this year when at home, but may struggle with the two tests in Australia.

More immediately, it is the Super 14 that will determine regional superiority and the Sydneysiders have reason to feel smug. They have never been in better shape and if a South African side can’t get there then at least an Aussie victory will cast necessary doubt in the minds of New Zealanders.

And we all know how good it can get for the opposition when the fabulous Kiwis start doubting themselves. We saw it in 1998, in 1999 and in 2003 at the World Cup.