Blacks reign but Boks still major player

Congratulations to New Zealand for winning their ninth Tri-Nations title but the Springboks have to fancy their chances of wresting the silverware away from them in 2009.

The All Blacks did brilliantly to overcome the challenges posed by the loss of some of their elite players to Europe, securing the southern hemisphere crown with a side littered with Test rookies. For that they need to be applauded.

However, not taking anything away from their triumph, it has to be noted that the Springboks’ tactical naivety did make their path to success easier.

After the disappointment of the Wellington defeat to the Blacks, the Springboks got it right in Dunedin, registering a memorable win and in doing so ripping away the plaster that was covering the significant cracks in the Blacks’ game.

One would think that that performance, which sacrificed expansive play for a more structured variant, would form the basis for their approach going forward. Instead the Springbok coaching staff maintained faith in their attacking philosophy, and crashed in Perth a week later, then were whitewashed in Cape Town and schooled in Durban.

They finally got it right in Johannesburg against Australia and that performance, while admittedly against a Wallaby side with their minds cast towards Brisbane, must encourage those vexed by another mediocre Tri-Nations campaign by the Springboks.

Australia have a world class coach in Robbie Deans and his impact has been patent. But his team have also shown significant vulnerabilities over the course of the tournament, not least of all in Auckland and Johannesburg.

They’ll always be competitive at home, but if teams get their tactics spot on at home (which the Springboks failed miserably to do in Durban) they struggle – seen by the fact that they’ve won just one of their last 16 away games in the Tri-Nations.

New Zealand are still in transition but will be better in 2009 if coach Graham Henry continues to field the same side consistently. They will, however, still be beatable. They’ve lost the aura they possessed through 2004 to 2007 and with a number of their elite players being lined up by European clubs, they could face the prospect of another exodus – forcing Henry to build from scratch.

The Springboks will remain largely unchanged from the squad who drifted between the sublime and the ridiculous in this campaign. It is unlikely that the players in the current squad will be lured by overseas deals because they know that it would compromise their chances of being selected for the British and Irish Lions tour in mid 2009.

In fact, providing coach Peter de Villiers gets his tactics on point next year, they could be better with the return from injury of John Smit, Bakkies Botha and Jaques Fourie to bolster the squad.

Neither Australia nor New Zealand can match the South Africa for the quality of their squads. If the Springboks are coached in a way that maximises their strengths, 2009 could see the Tri-Nations returning to the Republic.

By Ryan Vrede