Australia’s tournament to lose

MARK KEOHANE, in Business Day Newspaper, writes Australia is the rage in New Zealand – on the field and on the streets.

Kiwis grudgingly have to admit the blokes from across the ditch (as locals refer to the Tasman Sea) played the best rugby on the opening weekend, have the best backline in this tournament, the most dangerous halfback pairing in the world, a pack that can physically mix it with anything, arguably the world’s best coach and they are definitely the titans of the Twitter universe, with the likes of James O’Connor, Quade Cooper, Kurtley Beale, Digby Ioane and David Pocock as entertaining in 140 characters as they were against Italy in the 32-6 winning World Cup opener.

While the All Blacks have been banned from tweeting and their interaction with the New Zealand public is largely structured, the Wallabies – very much like the Boks did when based in Paris in 2007 – are living the tournament; not merely playing in it.

New Zealand, because of home ground advantage, remains the team to beat at this tournament, but the best and most balanced rugby team is the one coach Robbie Deans has moulded over the last four years.

New Zealand schooled prop Sekope Kepu, South African-born lock Daniel Vickerman, Zimbabwean-born flank Pocock and Fijian-born Radike Samo have turned their pack from putty to cement and the backs, led by Genia and inspired by O’Connor and another New Zealand-born winger Digby Ioane, have the potential to be the most potent back division produced in the modern era.

Italy’s coach, the former Bok and Stade Francois coach Nick Mallett, applauded the strength of the Wallabies pack in the set phases and the physicality of the forwards in contact. He praised what the Kiwi Deans had done with limited forward resources and was adamant that there was nothing soft about the Wallabies approach.

New Zealanders got a glimpse of this Australian physicality in the 25-20 defeat in Brisbane and South Africa experienced a similar mongrel from the Australians in the 14-9 loss in Durban.

Psychologically playing the All Blacks at Eden Park in a probable final is still a hurdle that may prove to big for the Aussies, given they haven’t won there in 30-odd years, but at this juncture it is the Australian star that shines the brightest over New Zealand.

The similarities in South Africa’s 2007 World Cup campaign and that of Australia can’t be ignored. South Africa had continuity going into that tournament and played the same core of players in their last 2 warm-up internationals and six of the seven matches it took to win the tournament. Deans has settled on a starting XV since the start of the Tri-nations and only changed because of injury or suspension. He was also prepared to change his captain two weeks before the start of the tournament and the team responded immediately to James Horwill’s enthusiasm, confidence and leadership.

The Boks also based themselves in Paris and the players took the intensity to the field and the chill factor to the streets, coffee lounges and wherever else they mingled with supporters and locals. The Boks were the most popular of the visiting teams in France; the Wallabies (of the major nations here), are proving as likeable. They’ve been in Auckland for the last two weeks and they’ve made it home.

It helps that Cooper was born in the Waikato region and lived there till he was 15. He is more Kiwi than Aussie even though home to him is Australia and gold is the colour that inspires him. Kepu was schooled at Wesley College, alma mater to the legendary Jonah Lomu and O’Connor (his father a Kiwi and his mother a South African) lived in New Zealand from the age of 6-11. Deans, of course, is New Zealand’s most celebrated coach from his decade as coach of the Crusaders and a former All Black.

Kepu took his Australian teammates to Wesley College for a visit that was an official social outing, but the spur of the moment visit belonged to O’Connor who (on his day off) took a trip down memory lane and popped into his Rutherland Junior school in Te ata tu and visited his favourite Year 3 teacher. She said she was shocked when he knocked on her class room door.

O’Connor, the golden boy of this World Cup so far, kept his 35 000 Twitter followers in the loop by way of photos and short explanations about who he was visiting, where he was visiting and the relevance of it all.

‘Back where it all started at the Roosters League club,’ he tweeted. He then visited his Kiwi Nana, who turned 70 and met up with schoolmates from 10 years ago.

Those following the Wallabies on Twitter are getting an insight into their world … the strains of training, the pleasures of winning, the funnier side of touring and the many boring hours spent waiting.

Twitter has given the players a voice and the team a personality away from the field. The All Blacks management has killed their players’ social voice and cut the team off from the uniqueness of Tweetland. The contrasts in approach in attitude towards players and team selection has been reflected in performance. Australia, in the last month, has played like a team at home. New Zealand are playing like foreigners in their own homeland.

Ireland will test the character and skill of the multi-cultural and popular Australians this weekend, but this is Australia’s tournament to lose more than it is New Zealand’s to win.