Pragmatism rules at final Tri-Nations
The 16th and final version of the Tri-Nations looks destined to be little more than a footnote to this year's World Cup for the southern hemisphere's rugby powerhouses.
Clashes between New Zealand, South Africa and Australia will never be for the faint-hearted but the allure of the biggest prize in rugby has made pragmatism the watchword in the last edition before Argentina make it four nations from 2012.
The competition kicks off when the Wallabies take on the Springboks in Sydney on Saturday, two weeks after the end of the longest Super rugby season. It concludes when the All Blacks travel to Brisbane on August 27, less than two weeks before the start of the World Cup in New Zealand.
The Springboks signalled their priorities when they left 21 injured frontline players out of their tour party for their first two Tests and the All Blacks have suggested they too will have to rest players.
"They just think these guys are machines. You shove in the batteries, charge them up and throw them out there," coach Graham Henry said.
"They're just going to fall over. We've got to be sensible, work with individuals and get the best out of them."
New Zealand, who won all of their matches to clinch a 10th Tri-Nations title last year, face Fiji on Friday in their only warm-up match before hosting the Springboks in Wellington.
Springboks coach Peter de Villiers has made no secret of his opinion that the Tri-Nations should not be held in World Cup years, even if it has been reduced to six matches this year rather than the usual nine.
South Africa also travelled overseas with a weakened party in the 2007 Tri-Nations before going on to win the following World Cup and captain John Smit angrily dismissed allegations that his side was a 'B' team.
"We're going there to play rugby, not to make up the numbers and that's what we did the last time we took a so-called 'second-string' team over there," he said before the squad left for Sydney.
The absence of players such as Schalk Burger, Fourie du Preez and Victor Matfield will, however, mean the team that face Australia on Saturday has three debutants and a string of players with little international experience.
That could be good news for the Wallabies, who will be looking to turn things around on Saturday after suffering a hiding at the hands of Samoa in a warm-up game last week.
Coach Robbie Deans took a lot of flack for resting several players from the Super rugby champion Queensland Reds for the Samoa upset.
Eight Reds, including the inspirational half-back pairing of Will Genia and Quade Cooper, are in the matchday 22 to face the Springboks and Deans has it clear he wants his team to win every trophy they can this year.
Australia have not won the Tri-Nations since 2001, have not held the Bledisloe Cup for the series against the All Blacks since 2002 and will be keen to retain the Mandela Challenge Plate they won back from the South Africans last year.
"Robbie said last night, we've got four games in the next period and there are three pieces of silverware up for grabs in those games," hooker Stephen Moore said.
"Three trophies in four games and if we really knuckle down, we can potentially win those trophies. That's certainly something we're focusing on.
"I know most of the guys in the squad are desperate to achieve that. The World Cup's down the track but there's plenty to do before that."