Rugby Championship News

Tri-Nations Preview – New Zealand





In case you have been living in a cocoon for the past couple of years, New Zealand are the world’s number one rugby team.

They are odds-on favourites to take the Rugby World Cup in France later this year, they have a squad depth that creates a green mist of envy over the faces of all of coach Graham Henry’s counterparts, they are unbeaten in 23 matches at home (likely to be 24 by the time the Tri-Nations starts assuming they beat Canada) and they play a brand of rugby that has neutrals all over the place swooning with delight.

Most of the players in visiting teams fall over themselves to confess that even against the All Blacks B team – whatever that may be – all the other international A teams would struggle. Everyone tries to find a chink in the armour, but the armour on this team is eerily like the armour of the advanced model in Terminator II: even if you cleave it apart once, it simply melts back together, forms itself into a lethal cutting tool, and then slices its opposition apart.

One final test probably awaits in the form of Jake White’s Springboks. White has masterminded the All Blacks’ only two defeats of the past couple of years, basing his tactics on size and speed and a shamelessly bullish implementation of the two. Only the Boks have been able to bundle the All Blacks to the floor, and keep them there until the final whistle.

Graham Henry’s start-of-year re-conditioning programme could have been a protest against the amount of rugby foisted upon all the players by the various competition bodies, but lurking in the back of Henry’s mind might also have been an idea that his players needed just a little more muscle to cope with their likely challengers from across the time zones.

That re-conditioning appeared to be backfiring for a time, with several players getting early-season injuries mid-season in the Super 14, and many not up to speed initially. In the first Test against the weak French, the All Blacks as a team struggled to get into top gear.

Last week in the French re-match was a vast improvement though, and it signalled the start of an upward trend for this team. The trick is to know when to peak… Tri-Nations or Rugby World Cup? Time will tell.

Strengths: The best front row in the world, a perfect combination of physicality and speed in the back-row, the best fly-half in the world, and a set of backs that knows all each other’s ins and outs intimately. Oh, and a reserve XV every bit as good as the first XV in most positions.

Weaknesses: There lingers a doubt about the ability to withstand a sustained physical onslaught, and the line-out is prone to occasional bouts of the yips. But instances of either symptom are few and far between, and becoming fewer and further.

Coach: Graham Henry is an ex-Grammar school headmaster who has taken Auckland to four consecutive NPC titles, the Auckland Blues to a brace of Super 12 titles, taken Wales out of a deep slump, and taken New Zealand to the brink of greatness. The Rugby World Cup would cap a fine career.

Captain: Richie McCaw made his All Blacks debut at the age of 20 in Ireland in 2000, and inherited the captain’s mantle from Tana Umaga after the Grand Slam tour of 2005 – he had been heir apparent for a long time. He is by some distance the best openside in the world.

Previous campaigns:

1996: Champions
1997: Champions
1998: Third
1999: Champions
2000: Second
2001: Second
2002: Champions
2003: Champions
2004: Third
2005: Champions
2006: Champions

2007 prospects: They really ought to win. There could be a stumble on the road in Durban, but expect the performances to improve and improve as the tournament wears on.


June 23: v South Africa, ABSA Stadium, Durban – 15.00 (13.00 GMT)
June 30: v Australia, Melbourne Cricket Ground – 20.00 (10.00 GMT)
July 14: v South Africa, Jade Stadium, Christchurch – 19.35 (07.35 GMT)
July 21: v Australia, Eden Park, Auckland – 19.35 (07.35 GMT)


Forwards: Ali Williams, Andrew Hore, Anton Oliver, Carl Hayman, Chris Jack, Chris Masoe, Greg Rawlinson, Jerry Collins, John Schwalger, Keith Robinson, Keven Mealamu, Neemia Tialata, Reuben Thorne, Richie McCaw, Rodney So’oialo, Ross Filipo, Tony Woodcock, Troy Flavell.

Backs: Aaron Mauger, Brendon Leonard, Byron Kelleher, Conrad Smith, Dan Carter, Doug Howlett, Isaia Toeava, JoE Rokocoko, Leon MacDonald, Luke McAlister, Ma’a Nonu, Malili Muliaina, Nick Evans, Piri Weepu, Rico Gear, Sitiveni Sivivatu.

By Danny Stephens 365 Digital

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