Alastair Hignell: Tri-Nations prove they are still kings
POINT taken. The illusions fostered by Scotland's midweek win over Australia were shattered on Saturday when England, Wales and Ireland were put firmly in their place by southern hemisphere opposition.
The Tri-Nations, it would appear, still hold all the rugby aces.
The argument for a shift in power was plausible enough – at least until the real action started. If Scotland, the Six Nations' wooden spoonists without a win to their name all year, could beat the reigning Tri-Nations champions in their own back yard, then surely Grand Slammers Wales could win against the Wallabies?
If Ireland had supplied both finalists in the Heineken Cup and four of the top eight in the RaboDirect Pro 12 league, surely they had the power to upset an All Blacks side in the process of rebuilding under a new coach, in their first Test for more than six months?
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If England had made real progress under their new boss Stuart Lancaster, surely the Six Nations' runners-up could catch the Springboks cold in exactly the same way?
All very well in theory. All very different in practice. The All Blacks simply resumed where they had left off in winning the World Cup last autum.
One of their debutants, Julian Savea, scored a hat-trick in less than an hour, while the other two, scrum-half Aaron Smith and lock Brodie Retallick, acted as if they had been part of the well-oiled All Black machine for years. New head coach Steve Hansen was smiling with satisfaction long before the end of a 42-10 dismantling of Irish hopes.
Over in Brisbane an hour or so later, Wales discovered just why the Wallabies finished top of the southern hemisphere heap last season. Captain David Pocock and scrum-half Will Genia, both playing their second international in a week, were in a different class to anything Wales could offer and a 27-19 victory was even more comfortable than the scoreline suggested.
England were also flattered by the scoreboard as they were pulverised by a South African side short on attacking threat but long on aggressive physicality. A late Ben Foden try was the the only time England got near the Springbok try-line. For the greater part of the match they were hanging on for dear life.
If South Africa's goalkicker Morne Steyn had not been uncharacteristically off-target and if his his team-mates had not squandered a couple of gilt-edged chances, England really would have been dead and buried.
As it is, they live to fight another day, as do Wales and Ireland. The decision to decide the respective series over three matches this year means that, theoretically, at least, all three northern hemisphere sides still have everything to play for this weekend. It also means that the television rugby fan has never been quite so spoiled for choice.
Not even in quadrennial World Cups do so many of the world's top nations get to play on the same day. Apart from second Test matches for England in Johannesburg, Wales in Melbourne and Ireland in Christchurch, there are also matches for France in Argentina, Scotland in Fiji and Italy in Canada.
With the Fiji-Scotland match kicking off at 3pm European time and the Argentina-France game set to end just short of midnight there's an unprecedented amount of rugby to watch.
But it could be grim viewing for fans of rugby this side of the equator. It's not impossible for England, Wales and Ireland to improve dramatically on last week's showings, but it's not unlikely that their opponents will do the same. While Scotland have had eleven days to build on their mud-bath ambush of Australia in Newcastle, it's certain that Fiji will ask a wholly different set of questions in tropical heat and on a hard-baked pitch in Lautoka.
France, whose domestic season only ended last weekend with a play-off final victory for Toulouse over Toulon, will have their work cut out against an Argentina outfit fresh from a 37-22 victory over Italy and in the process of gearing up for a first ever appearance in an expanded Tri-Nations.
The beauty of sport is that hope springs eternal even if logic acts like a cold shower.
The chances of England beating the Boks on the high veldt in Johannesburg are slim, but that doesn't make their task, or that of Ireland in New Zealand and Wales in Australia, impossible. At least after last week's wake-up calls, they will be under no illusions.