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Three to tango for southern hemisphere glory

As Australia, New Zealand and South Africa compete for Tri Nations glory, The National takes a peek into a controversial yet successful competition.

A tournament originally devised to ward off enemy forces continues, in its 14th season, to be a volatile beast. The Tri Nations began in 1996 primarily because of the threat of Super League, and the necessity to produce something lucrative to keep the major southern hemisphere players within the establishment and a code that had just officially turned professional.

The lead-up to the original Tri Nations series were heady times, with threats of key performers heading to the breakaway World Rugby Corporation organisation, and uncertainty whether the three parties involved - Australia, New Zealand and South Africa - could remain unified to ensure it became the second best international rugby tournament behind the World Cup. There were endless disputes and inevitable complaints about one nation getting more than the other in the cutting up of the lucrative financial pie, brought about by the Rupert Murdoch's millions pumped into rugby in exchange for News Corporation having the television rights to southern hemisphere rugby. And the organisation formed to run the tournament - Sanzar - remained a mysterious entity.

They had no head office. It was often difficult determining who at Sanzar, which stands for South Africa New Zealand Australia Rugby, was actually running the tournament. And whenever there was a dispute, buck-passing between the countries was the norm. Even for some years it appeared the whole operation of the Super 12 competition and Tri Nations was being run out of the back office of a New Zealand travel agency.

Somehow the Tri Nations continued to survive, primarily because the product was so good. For rugby supporters and the growing pay TV market it was an instant attraction. Having New Zealand, Australia and South Africa playing regularly in a round-robin fixture was tantalising, especially as it involved the strengths of world rugby, and involved a simple formula that was easy to understand, and which encouraged attacking play.

A bonus points system that supported those teams whose prime pursuit was scoring tries, and even when losing encouraged a team to continue to be competitive, made certain that the Tri Nations trophy was regularly not determined until the last match of the series. It also worked on traditional rivalries. For decades, South Africa and New Zealand regarded each other as the ultimate rugby foe. They looked upon each battle as a determination of world supremacy. This had been going on for decades.

And Australia's gradual improvement saw their duels against New Zealand from the 1980s take on extra meaning and sting, with even the All Blacks treating the Bledisloe Cup fixtures - which for a lengthy period were regarded as a bit of joke - into an ultra serious exercise. This may have had something to do with the Wallabies gloating whenever they won the cup, even resorting to doing laps of honour in front of their humiliated Trans Tasman rivals.

The All Blacks hated that, especially as their officials had not forgotten when the Australian Rugby Union were so impoverished they had to rely on New Zealand's financial support to remain afloat. Now the Wallabies had appeared to become upstarts, and suddenly the Cup became the be all and end all. That the Bledisloe Cup was tied up into the Tri Nations series just added to the allure and the edge of the tournament.

But those with long memories still laugh about how the Bledisloe Cup, which is so closely intermingled with the Tri Nations, is now surrounded by security guards whenever it makes a public appearance. After all, the same cup was lost for years, and no one really seemed to care about its existence, until someone remembered that it had been given on loan to the New Zealand Tourist Bureau in Melbourne, as part of a promotional display. Sure enough, it was found by a cleaner on its side in a forgotten cupboard, with the lid leaning up against the wall, hidden away behind some cardboard cut-outs of sheep and Maori huts.

The big silver monstrosity is now looked after far more carefully these days, as is the nondescript Tri Nations trophy. But each still inflames passions. The World Cup remains the prize reward, but the Tri Nations trophy is not that far behind. New Zealand have been the dominant party, winning the series nine times - including in the past four years straight - ahead of Australia and South Africa who both only boast two Tri Nations series wins.

And as the 14th series is about to start, some elements have changed, but some have remained the same. As usual the off-field relationship between the three countries remains a snake pit. A few months ago even the Sanzar alliance was under serious threat because of a major rift involving the future of the Super 14 and Tri Nations tournaments. With the News Corporation broadcasting deal up for renegotiation, Australia have been pushing for expansion.

The Australian Rugby Union argued that if the three countries - who rely on the broadcasting revenue to finance the game including player payments - wanted a boost in funding, they had to offer something in return. Realising the broadcasters were seeking extra products, the ARU proposed an expanded tournament featuring 15 to 18 teams. This included expanded finals series and a far longer season. New Zealand agreed, but resistance came from South Africa for concerns it would affect their local tournament - the Currie Cup.

Promises were made and broken. Compromises were achieved, and then ignored, and for some time it appeared South Africa would walk out of the alliance, and instead head to Europe. Australia and New Zealand virtually dared them to, and South Africa stayed put. South Africa argued Australia and New Zealand did not understand their needs. Australia and New Zealand found it hard dealing with South Africa, as their administration appeared to change everyday.

Due to the never-ending political upheaval within South African rugby, Australian officials would complain that they would attend a meeting with South Africa, come to an agreement with their various heads, but the next time they went into discussions, they would have to deal with new officials. It was a bewildering period but eventually peace was achieved. They eventually all agreed that the Tri Nations was safe, and that Super 15 was the way to go. The next big argument was where the extra team would be located. It must be in the Australian conference, but South Africa continued to argue the team should come from one of their provinces. Highly illogical, but nothing unusual when Sanzar political wrangling is concerned. And Australian officials repeatedly shake their heads when asked how they are faring with their South African counterparts.

Thankfully South Africa are able to get their act together on the field. As shown by their recent success against the British & Irish Lions, when the Springboks have their best team on the field they are far and away the most capable line-up in international rugby. They have every area covered - power, passion, desperation and depth. They boast the best half-back in Fourie du Preez, and he is surrounded by an endless line of intimidating performers, including Bryan Habana, Jean de Villiers, Adrian Jacobs, Victor Matfield, Pierre Spies and Danie Rossouw.

They also have the required menace as shown by their forwards Schalk Burger and Bakkies Botha. Their only weak link is their leader. How Springboks coach Peter de Villiers holds on to his position is beyond belief. He is the master of the stupid statement, the loony line and the embarrassing quip. It is almost as if the Boks continue to produce in spite of him, as his often incoherent ramblings at media conferences defy description.

De Villiers's defence of Burger after his forward eye-gouged Lions winger Luke Fitzgerald during the second Test was unforgivable. Lions centre Brian O'Driscoll had every right to describe De Villiers's comments as a "disgrace". This followed De Villiers uttering that Burger had done nothing on purpose, adding: "Do we really respect the game? If not, why don't we all go to the nearest ballet shop and get some nice tutus [skirts], get a great dancing show going on, no eye-gouging, no tackling, no nothing and then we will all enjoy it."

This is typical of De Villiers's stand-up routine, with his other crazy recent lines including: "We went wild, wild, wild - some of the guys went wilder than that"; and "I know dancing is a contact sport, but rugby is far from dancing". The All Blacks also have their coaching concerns, but it revolves around the New Zealand people's choice being elsewhere and even more infuriatingly in charge of the other Tri Nations country. There is no surprise that in his other life, Graham Henry was a school headmaster. His dominant stance does not endear him to all, and after the All Blacks collapse at the 2007 World Cup - where they were outright favourites but faltered badly before the final - the New Zealand public wanted Henry gone.

That he survived did not make him any more a favoured figure in New Zealand. Adding to the agony was that the country's most successful coach, Robbie Deans, who had turned the Canterbury Crusaders into the most dominant provincial team in the world, was lured away by the Australian Rugby Union to be the Wallabies coach. Since then the country has been riding Henry, waiting for him, almost wishing for him to falter. There were indications that would happen last year, but the All Blacks picked their act up late in the season to keep the detractors at bay.

Again this season, there has been disconcerting signs that under Henry the All Blacks are strangely rudderless - but at least he has some valid excuses, including that his two best players - Richie McCaw and Dan Carter - have been sidelined. Carter may miss the Tri Nations, but McCaw is scheduled to be back, so at least the All Blacks will be working on one motor. Even in Australia, where they have for so long been intimidated by the All Black menace, there is the belief that New Zealand are vulnerable. This is as much due to New Zealand's inconsistency as it has with the Wallabies transforming their game, changing the complexion of the team by introducing new blood, and becoming a more adventurous, creative side under Deans.

There is no doubt that the shackles have been removed, and the Wallabies are playing an enlightening brand of football, based on finely tuned ensemble work. Deans preaches to the players that they have "to play what's in front of you", and that has prompted an end to their long-time structured and highly predictable game. They appear to believe in themselves, and two years out from a World Cup, that is an encouraging sign.

The Wallabies fans are returning, believing that while the Springboks are justified tournament favourites, they may be some unexpected upsets this season. That is part of the Tri Nations charm: it thrives on surprises, drama, tension, moments of madness and old-fashioned bickering. Just ask the administrators of the three countries who have been at each other's throats, but get it together when it counts to provide a tournament that matters.

ggrowden@thenational.ae

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