Go south for the game's true Tests of will

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 July, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 July, 1996, 12:00am

The Northern Hemisphere had its nirvana with Euro 96, now the south has its chance.

It is the turn of that ball that bounces funny to steal attention, as rugby union's three undisputed super powers lock horns in the inaugural SANZAR Tri-Nation tournament, an overdue equivalent to the Five Nations Championship.

And World Cup holders South Africa may find their supremacy limited to a year's tenure, considering they have the twin challenge of an ominously resurgent New Zealand and a rebuilding but still dangerous Australia to cope with.

The event kicks off tomorrow with what amounts to a double assignment for the All Blacks and Wallabies; the opener at Athletic Park, Wellington, is also one of two Bledisloe Cup encounters.

Who could possibly dispute that the tournament, which involves the trio playing each other home and away, is for the 1996 mantle of world's best? England - threatening to reduce their event to a farcical 'Four Nations' - would be right back in the frame if they stopped playing, frankly, such stupefyingly stereotyped rugby and got the ball out to new wing flyer Jon Sleightholme in space more often; France are, well, just fickle France; Scotland the Brave but not much else; and as for Wales . . . heard the one about their five-Test tour of Hong Kong? Just kidding.

South of the equator is really where it's at these days.

It's biltong versus beef jerky, it's the Japies versus the, er, sheep-spotters, it's 'what do you prefer, Foster's, Castle or Steinlager, sir?' It's the boerewors roll battling the chunky meat pie.

And all the signs seem to point to a delicate silver fern coming up trumps . . . in the shape of New Zealand.

If anything, the 'Blacks have got better since the 15-12 World Cup final setback at Ellis Park. The South Africans were simply a shade better on the day, swept on by a super-charged 75,000 crowd and that man Mandela.

But second best is no place the All Blacks ever want to be and wise money goes on Sean Fitzpatrick's men, the best-balanced unit in the world.

Their personnel department, to their advantage, shows little change this year, with a significant addition in one Christian Cullen - and don't anyone in Hong Kong dare ask 'Christian who?' The full-back has 'arrived' on the international scene.

With the elusive, yet deceptively strong Cullen - being labelled a rugby Baryshnikov - joining Jonah Lomu as a defender's nightmare, opponents will no longer have the luxury, if that's the right word, of assigning three men to tug at Lomu's left sock.

The warning salvoes have been fired already, with the All Blacks thumping Scotland 62-31 and 36-12 in successive home Tests.

South Africa have had more upheaval. World Cup mastermind Kitch Christie has retired and the man with the hardest act to follow in Springbok history, unassuming former Griqualand West coach Andre Markgraaff, is an unknown quantity at the highest level.

And injuries have wreaked havoc. Ace left-wing try-poacher Chester Williams has been out for months, tall flank Fritz van Heerden (a star at Twickenham last November) is a non-starter, human bulldozer Kobus Wiese will be missing from the second row.

Another setback was the whiplash, incurred in the stuttering win against Fiji this week, that will keep regular centre Hennie le Roux out of the 'away' leg of South Africa's campaign. Even more worrying is that captain Francois Pienaar carries a shoulder injury; there is no guarantee it will stand up to the entire series.

Still, world-class performers like Andre Joubert, Joost van der Westhuizen and Ruben Kruger remain, and the Boks, as usual, will not come up short on old-fashioned guts and tenacity.

Australia? Don't believe a word of coach Greg Smith's 'we're fifth best in the world now' assertion in the Bledisloe buildup; put it down to a crafty bid to lull the All Blacks into over-confidence.

Michael Lynagh leaves a gaping hole at number 10, but beanpole John Eales need look up to nobody as a lineout specialist, David Campese will want his twilight season marked by a blaze of glory, and the under-rated Joe Roff is as strong-striding a broken-play sprinter as anyone at top level.