And that's it! The Tri-Nations has finished for another year. This has been the closest series ever with all three teams getting one win and one loss against their two rivals. For the first time in its 9-year history the final standings of the Tri-Nations has been decided by bonus points.
All the games were won by the home team, which keeps the crowds happy and the referees alive. Let's take a quick review, shall we?
Game 1: All Blacks beat Wallabies 16-7 in Wellington
A game played on a night only Wellington could produce. Torrential rain kept the rugby old-fashioned and the scores low. The All Blacks prepared for the night with brutal games against England in the cold of Dunedin and Auckland.
Australia prepared by training with the sprinklers turned on at Camp Wallaby in Coffs Harbour. I get the feeling one team had a somewhat better preparation! The All Black fowards were simply awesome and with the weight of possession and territory they had they could have put 40 on Australia on another night. Instead they ground out a tense but satisfying win. The Wallabies would have been grateful they weren't playing at the old Athletic Park on a night like that - in fact I think even the most grizzled Wellington rugby fan would be glad Athletic Park didn't host that game! The goalposts would have blown down!
Game 2: All Blacks beat Springboks 23-21 in Christchurch
Hello, this was a shock to the system! A South African team proving a handful in a game outside of the republic! More than a handful in fact; they scored 3 beautiful tries which left the partisan crowd stunned. The Boks tackled hard and got right up in the faces of New Zealand which disrupted a lot of our play. This proved a double-edged sword as the All Blacks kept in touch with 6 penalties, many of which were from offside play. But just when you thought the South Africans had done enough, suddenly the All Blacks started to play with irresistible commitment in the last 10 minutes, keeping hold of the ball for phase after phase after phase as they crashed into tiring defenders with terrific ferocity. Doug Howlett got the try in the final minute of play that sent Jade Stadium into a frenzy and stretched the All Blacks winning streak over South Africa to 8 games.
Game 3: Wallabies beat Springboks 30-26 in Perth
South Africa looked good early. Real good. This match was supposed to be like a home game for them but ultimately the Wallabies punished poor discipline. The Boks again showed signs that they were to be taken seriously, but again lost in the final minutes. This time it was a try to their former under-21's captain Clyde Rathbone. After the game he was called a traitor, a sell-out and even got death threats! Missed shots at goal by the recalled Mr. C*ck-up, Percy Montgomery, hurt the Springboks too. Nice hair though.
Game 4: Wallabies beat All Blacks 23-18 in Sydney
Argh. What the hell happened here? Something called the flat backline, that's what. The idea is to get the ball from 1st 5/8 and pass to the centres flat. When they get tackled, this is supposed to open up space for the wingers with fast ball from the tackle.
It didn't work.
After this game the All Blacks had 2 tries in 3 games and were looking a shadow of Mitch's 2003 side. There were a lot of really mindless grubber kicks put in too. Larkham on the other hand was starting to improve from his awful kicking game in Wellington. Graham Henry finally dragged Spencer and threw Merhts into the fray, but not even the great Andrew Merhtens could save our skins this time. The Aussies played with passion and fire and deserved their win, but the best moment in the match was when Gregan had an Australian penalty reversed for backchat. I never get sick of seeing a referee getting so pissed off with Gregans banter they resort to penalising him!
Game 5: Springboks beat All Blacks 40-26 in Johannesburg
Marius Joubert scores a hat-trick and it's goodnight nurse for the All Blacks 2004 Tri-Nations campaign. We were simply outplayed by a side with too much desire for us to handle, and the crowd baying for blood. 5 tries to 2 and again we relied too much on penalties to keep us in touch. Funny how things change, isn't it? It was only a few short months ago that we were kicking for touch from 35 metres out hoping to score a try because we couldn't trust Spencer, wouldn't pick Merhtens, didn't play Carter and had Leon MacDonald as our #1 goalkicker! With this result the Tri-Nations would all come down to the final game in Durban.
Game 6: Springboks beat Wallabies 23-19 in Durban
A fitting finale to a great Tri-Nations season. There were no considerations of how much one team had to win by, or how many tries needed to be scored - it was winner take all. Both teams threw everything at each other early. Every time Clyde Rathbone got the ball a huge "BOO!" went up from the Jappie faithful, but it was Rathbones' clever kick that sent Lote Tuquiri in for the first try to Australia. That proved to be just the tonic the Springboks needed as they slammed on 17 unanswered points faster than George Gregan could say "That's not fair ref!"
At the 60 minute mark the Boks were steamrolling Australia and grown men in the crowd were dancing and singing but the Wallabies of today don't just lie down when they fall behind like they did 30 years ago. Around the 70 minute mark the Wallabies were red-hot on attack and had their opponents scrambling to defend a shrinking lead. I don't know what caused this huge shift in psychic energy (as Murray Mexted would call it), but the Springboks got 2 men sent to the bin and 2 tries put on them in rapid succession. Would the young Boks crack? Not today. The ball went out from a silly kick from George Smith and South Africa are the 2004 Tri-Nations champions.
Obviously I'd have much rather have seen the All Blacks win all four games. I'd like that every year. But you've gotta appreciate the Springboks of 2004. They won against all the odds and their story is a dead-set fairytale; even though fairytale isn't usually a word associated with the Boks! J
I'm happy for them and their fans. New Zealand Rugby supporters often bemoan the fact we're not as good as we used to be, or that we're no longer feared like we once were. South African followers have been to hell and back over the last few years, finishing with the wooden spoon in 5 Tri-Nations in a row, getting dumped out of the world cup at the quarter-finals, had a loss to Scotland, got pumped by 50 points against England in 2002, and lost 8 games in a row against their greatest foe - the All Blacks.
In 2004 though, they've announced that they're back. Their young tyros led by new coach Jake White played with the passion and drive we've come to expect of Springbok sides of old.
Unlike the Wallabies and All Blacks, they don't have a lot of structure or set gameplans (which are a waste of time anyway if the flat backline is the best we can come up with) but what they do have is 15 guys on the park and 7 on the bench who are ready to fight like demons for their country, and back themselves to have a real crack at playing winning rugby.
Well done South Africa ?deserved 2004 Tri-Nations champs.
But before you Springbok fans get too misty-eyed, kindly count the Tri-Nations titles:
South Africa 2
NEW ZEALAND 5 (nya nya nya nya nya!)