The Tri Nations has come to a close, rounding out a brief but entertaining test year in the southern hemisphere.
Across eight matches, the All Blacks suffered back-to-back losses for the first time in nine years – including a first-ever defeat to Argentina – yet still managed to reclaim the Bledisloe Cup and Tri Nations, while the Wallabies and Pumas played out two draws.
Those results all provided no shortage of storylines and talking points, as did South Africa’s non-inclusion in the tournament, so five RugbyPass writers have taken it upon themselves to evaluate exactly how things panned out in Part I of the Tri-Nations review.
What did this Tri Nations tournament tell you about where the All Blacks, Wallabies and Pumas stand at the beginning of the new World Cup cycle?
Ben Smith: The All Blacks have some way to go to challenge for the 2023 World Cup, but the improved showings from the Pumas and Wallabies will only aid them in getting there.
The All Blacks need tight, competitive games to learn from if they are to win three knockout games to win a World Cup. Inevitably, they will have to learn to win games without playing that well which was a problem in 2020.
Finn Morton: No tier one nation isn’t aiming to win the World Cup, so with that as the marker, all three nations have a lot of work to do.
Argentina were the fairy-tale of the Tri Nations this year, having beaten the All Blacks for the first time ever. Their resilience in both draws against the Wallabies as well speaks a lot about the potential of this team.
But until Los Pumas can develop some genuine consistency against top teams, where they can beat them week-in and week-out, then they can’t be considered a contender, but rather a team who is capable of causing a surprise or two.
The All Blacks had one of their worst test campaigns in recent memory, winning just 50% of their matches. Simply, they had to re-find their mojo and what makes them the best team in the world.
As for the dual-threat combination of Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett, they can’t be given forever to get this right. While both players had impressive performances this year, until they can click alongside each other, than focusing on what works as against the theory is what will help the All Blacks return to former glory.
Finally, the Wallabies are a young team who’ll be disappointed with their season. All they can do is continue to work hard and learn from the hurt, but it’s pretty clear that they have the most work to do.
Tom Vinicombe: It’s hard to get a good gauge on where each of the competitors really stand following considerable change post last year’s World Cup.
Nick Turnbull: With regard to New Zealand, I think the gap has narrowed somewhat but they still remain the best side in the southern hemisphere currently. If I were an All-Black fan my immediate concern would be for the tight five come 2023. The awesome display by veterans Joe Moody, Dane Coles and Nepo Laulala, Sam Whitelock and Scott Barrett against the Pumas in Sydney was something to behold. They were simply brutal but it is unlikely that tight five, as it stands, will be around in three years’ time. I don’t think Alex Hodgeman and Tyrel Lomax are anywhere near that yet.
The Pumas should be ecstatic with what they have achieved; a first ever win over the All Blacks and holding the Wallabies to two drawn test matches is an amazing effort. The experience of competing and winning away from home will be an invaluable one for coach Mario Ledesma and his side. The key for the Pumas will be how they come together as a side as now the Jaguares are no longer part of the 2021 Super Rugby program. I think we will be seeing plenty of Pumas training camps in Australia and Europe in the years to come as that where their players appear to be plying their trade.
The Wallabies had their moments but there are three areas they need to improve on. They have to learn how to break an opposition down. The Australians show signs of patience but not enough skill or nous to manipulate defences as much as they potentially could. They are still a side searching for a sense of style and a side the understands what pragmatically works in the moment.
Furthermore, get a kicking coach. The Wallabies for at least the past decade have left far too many points out on the park as a result of missed penalty and conversions. If they had kicked their goals in this tournament, they could have won 4 tests, not 1. This is a facet of play that must be rectified if the wish to progress from 6th in the world rankings.
Finally, the Michael Hooper captaincy has to be reviewed. There is no doubt about his qualities as a player but his judgement as on field battle-captain remain questionable. I am not convinced Dave Rennie and Michael Hooper are the right combination moving forward as the coach appears to be a pragmatist and the skipper an ideologue.
Would the outcome of the competition have changed if the Springboks were involved?
BS: No. We got a close tournament where every team beat each other so having the Springboks involved would have only furthered that.
The Springboks don’t have a great record in Australia, having only won three of 23 matches there against the Wallabies in the last 20 years.
With a challenged preparation, they would have conceded a few losses but at the same time added to competitiveness of the tournament. In what was already a close tournament, it what have been even more so with the Springboks having equal chance finishing last as they would have finishing first.
FM: Initially it was quite disappointing to hear that the world champion Springboks would not be able to make the trip to Australia, but once the rugby started, that stopped bothering me.
The fact that the Tri Nations came down to the wire was fantastic for the sport, even though the quality of rugby may not have been at the same level as what it was last year.
But if the Springboks were involved, they probably would’ve run away with it after the Pumas beat the All Blacks. Yes, the All Blacks could beat their rivals on paper, but the men in black were that far off the pace this year that they wouldn’t be able to hold on over 80-minutes.
In my opinion, the Springboks would’ve been clear winners, which would’ve seen the tournament conclude with a somewhat tame final round or two.
TV: Generally, it would be fairly safe to assume that South Africa would finish the competition with more than one win and one draw – but you would also say the same for the All Blacks, and we know how that finished up.
Factor in that the Springboks weren’t ‘battle ready’ (not that that harmed the Pumas’ performances), and it’s hard to imagine that the tournament would have run an obviously different course.
NT: No, I don’t think so. I think the All Blacks would have done a job on the Springboks as South African rugby is in such a state of flux and New Zealand would have loved nothing more than beating their old foe.
Who was the MVP of this year’s Tri Nations?
BS: It is hard to go past Sam Cane, who was a standout in the side that won the tournament. He finished with the most turnovers in the tournament and had nearly double the amount of the tackles of the next best in the All Blacks.
As a player, his performance was outstanding.
As a captain though, the decision-making was questionable against the Pumas by allowing his side to fall behind by an insurmountable amount in the historic loss. Other questionable decisions in Brisbane left points on the table that could have swung a match they lost by two.
Sam Cane the player was the best performer, but Sam Cane the captain can probably improve his game management as captain.
FM: There were plenty of players who stood out throughout the Tri Nations, including the likes of Sam Cane, Marcos Kremer and Marika Koroibete.
But the MVP, without a doubt, would be Pumas flyhalf Nicolas Sanchez.
The 32-year-old silenced his critics with a player of the match performance against the All Blacks in Sydney, where his 25-point haul guided the Pumas to an historic win.
A week later, his accuracy and reliability with the boot helped his side claw their way back from nine-points down to salvage a 15-all draw with the Wallabies.
When he went off injured last Saturday, Los Pumas were simply a different team without him and couldn’t close out the game.
If we look at consistency and how vital any one player is to a teams success, then how could you look beyond Nicolas Sanchez?
TV: The likes of Sam Cane, Michael Hooper, Matt Philip, Nic White and Pablo Matera have all stood out for their teams this season, but the man who’s absence was most missed when he wasn’t on the field was Aaron Smith.
The All Blacks halfback re-affirmed his place as perhaps the best in the world and New Zealand always played at a different level when Smith was present. His passing game and ability to put players in gaps is a step above any of the other options in New Zealand and, frankly, probably anywhere in the world.
He’s a man that the All Blacks desperately need to find a long-term replacement for, because you suspect he won’t be around for many years more.
NT: Sam Whitelock. Even when things were not going the All-Blacks way, the veteran lock was still working away and never giving an inch or giving up. Leadership by example. Quite an extraordinary rugby player who should finish the game with legendary status.
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