The fine-tuning begins

The six Tri-Nations matches will be crucial to the three teams respective bids to win the World Cup in France.

Five days remain before the twelfth installment of this competition, and history would suggest the winning of this tournament in a World Cup year has little bearing on success at the global event. The All Blacks won the Tri-Nations in 1999 and in 2003, but bombed in the semi-finals of the World Cups in Wales and Australia. The Wallabies finished second at both of these Sanzar tournaments, but went on to make the final of both World Cups, winning against France in 1999 and losing narrowly to an extra-time Jonny Wliklinson drop-goal in 2003.

Success in the Tr-Nations is not important, at least not on the scoreboard. It would be a great boost for any of the three teams to take the momentum provided by a title-win to France, but as the New Zealanders have shown in their failures, peaking at the right time is all-important. The right formula lies in taking a form squad to front the world’s best, and ensuring 30 players are ready before the first match on 9 September taxing into account variables of injury and fatigue.

The South Africans scored a huge mental victory in winning their first Super Rugby championship when the Bulls beat the Sharks in May. Throughout the competition, they showed they could match the Australasians’ best, and put to bed the belief they are soft targets on the road.

The performance of many of the Springboks in this competition was encouraging. However, the momentum gained by a few of the players will have been stifled due to injury, with several Boks in the dock since the culmination of the Super 14. Fourie du Preez and Andre Pretorius are yet to play for South Africa this year, while Os du Randt has only had one match and Jaque Fourie came off the bench in the second half against Samoa. These players are all certainties to feature in France, and so need as much exposure as possible in the upcoming Tri-Nations.

These next two matches in Cape Town and Durban will be especially important, as these are the fixtrues where White is likely to field many of his first-choice combinations. Fourie and Jean de Villiers have been touted as the centre-pairing to win South Africa the World Cup, but may go to the competition having played as few as two matches together in 2007 against quality opposition.

Du Preez may only return for the away leg of the Tri-Nations, where likely halfback partner for the big games in France, Butch James is due to be rested. Andre Pretorius did not get a full Super 14, and is in desperate need of a run after falling foul to injury yet again after the Super 14.

Down Under, John Connolly and Graham Henry will realise their jobs are far from done in preparing for the World Cup. Injuries in the Super 14 and in the recent Test series against France would have set the All Blacks back. Lock Keith Robinson was ruled out ahead of the match in Wellington where fellow second-rower Ali Williams suffered a broken jaw after enduring a savage shoulder barge by Sebastian Chabal. Jason Eaton has been ruled out of Test rugby for the year, while it is concerning how often flyhalf Dan Carter breaks down these days.

The All Blacks have had their problems in the line-out, and with the loss of four frontline locks, they will be susceptible in this area come the Tri-Nations. At flyhalf they have plenty of depth, with Nick Evans and Luke McAlister more than capable of filling the gap, but Henry should be keen to have Carter back marshalling the All Black back division sooner rather than later.

The Wallabies have finally abandoned the experiment ofMatt Giteau at scrumhalf and George Gregan and Stephen Larkham are reinstalled as the first-choice halfback combination. Connolly does not have the depth available to White and Henry, and will be looking to play his best team from here-on in, with momentum the Aussies’ strongest potential ally. The return of fullback Chris Latham will also be significant in the first Bledisloe Cup clash and will bring another dimension to an already potent backline. However, where the Wallabies may stumble is in the forward pack, and a couple of injuries to these players will sink from their World Cup campaign.

By Jon Cardinelli