Sat, Jul 12, 2003 - Page 20 News List

Rugby giants look to Tri-nations to readdress balance

REUTERS AND AP , CAPE TOWN AND WELLINGTON

Southern hemisphere rugby union regroups today after chastening struggles with their northern counterparts last month.

South Africa face world champions Australia in the first round of the six-match Tri-nations series with nagging questions hanging over both teams. It will be no different when New Zealand opens its campaign against the Springboks in Pretoria on July 19.

The success of England in beating both the All Blacks and Wallabies in Australasia and the Springboks' struggles in clambering to a fraught 2-0 series victory over Scotland have modified normal assumptions.

Until recently the winner of the competition could reasonably claim to be the best team in the world.

However, Wallaby coach Eddie Jones picked his words carefully when he looked ahead to the forthcoming five weeks.

"Even though there's a World Cup down the line the Tri-nations is a very important tournament. It has been very successful and will decide which is the best team in the southern hemisphere," he said.

After their 25-14 defeat to England in Sydney, the Wallabies have been strengthened by the return to fitness of fullback Matt Burke and centre Mat Rogers while flyhalf Elton Flatley is back in favour after being dropped for disciplinary reasons for the England match.

But it was the Wallaby pack who were most exposed by England and Jones has also added to their tight phase capabilities by calling up lineout specialist Daniel Vickerman and powerful hooker Brendan Cannon.

"We were pretty disappointed with aspects of our play against England and we have been doing some pretty hard yards in these areas to get the set-pieces right."

Meanwhile, flyhalf Stephen Larkham and flanker Owen Finegan return from injury, allowing Jones to name what he describes as his strongest 22 of the season.

The Springboks have made eight changes to the side who snatched victory over Argentina (26-25) with an after-the-siren penalty in Port Elizabeth although there are only four changes to the side that completed the series victory over Scotland.

Gloucester-based Thinus Delport makes his first start for the Springboks since 2001 while De Wet Barry leap-frogs to the front of a long queue of inside centre candidates. Juan Smith displaces Pedrie Wannenburg at number eight and captain Corne Krige is on the openside flank in the four changes from the Scotland match.

The All Blacks, heavily criticized at home, made a welcome departure for South Africa yesterday and their first Tri-Nations rugby union match on July 19.

All Black teams once considered tours to South Africa mental and physical ordeals but John Mitchell's side, who meet the Springboks at Pretoria, see their visit as a chance to escape the furor in New Zealand.

Controversial selections and a pervasive disquiet about the direction the All Blacks are taking ahead of October's World Cup have made the team the target of an unprecedented barrage of public criticism.

Mitchell's refusal to select fullback Christian Cullen, New Zealand's leading tryscorer in tests, and his rejection of former captains Taine Randell and Anton Oliver have sparked outrage.

So too has his unshakable loyalty to captain Reuben Thorne, whose continued selection confounds many observers.

Cullen has already quit New Zealand to play in Ireland and Randell is expected to join the London club Saracens if he misses World Cup selection next month.

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