In our third and final feature in the series, we take a look at the Tri-Nations' most successful team, New Zealand, which has won ten of the 16 championships on offer.
It has been a remarkable period for the All Blacks since 1996, winning more than three times as many crowns as the Springboks and Wallabies, a useful diversion when kiwis need to come up with a counter to the fact that their greatest rivals have won two World Cups each.
Overall this dominance is reflected in a ledger that has seen New Zealand win 50 of their 72 Tri-Nations Tests, with a 16-year aggregate of 1933-1410, a +523 point’s difference that is over 700 points clear of the Wallabies (-192) and Springboks (-349).
The All Blacks are the only team to clean sweep the Tri-Nations more than once – the Springboks achieved in it 1998 – having done so in 1996, 1997, 2003 and 2010.
Their 2003 season was the most successful of any team during a six-match format, while their 2010 triumph stands as the best campaign during a nine-match competition.
They are also the only team that has defended the Tri-Nations on more than one occasion – the Wallabies accomplished this in 2000/2001 – with the All Blacks doing this five times in 1996/1997, 2002/2003, 2005/2006, 2006/2007 and 2007/2008. The latter three defences constitute the longest single reign for a Tri-Nations team, with the All Blacks having held it for four years.
Such has been the All Blacks’ tournament success that failure to win the Tri-Nations has often paralleled with their SANZAR contemporaries ‘golden runs’.
The Wallabies two wins at the dawn of the millennium capped off a period generally regarded as their finest ever era.
The Springboks success in 1998 was a welcome return to form for the then reigning World Champions, and Nick Mallet’s team at the time is still to this day rated as one of the finest South African sides. In 2004 their Tri-Nations success was seen by many as the building blocks of the current generation, while in 2009 that same generation ‘hit their peak’ winning the title off the back of a successful British and Irish Lions tour.
The two championships running alongside the Tri Nations for the All Blacks are the Bledisloe Cup (New Zealand versus Australia) and the Freedom Cup (New Zealand against South Africa).
The Bledisloe is the oldest running international competition in the Southern Hemisphere, and the All Blacks were holders when the Tri-Nations begun. In 1998 the Wallabies won it for just the eighth time since 1932, and went on to successfully defend it for five times – their greatest period of rule.
However in 2003 New Zealand won it back, and has not relinquished their hold on it since.
The Freedom Cup was first won by South Africa in 2004. In 2006 when it was contested for the second time the All Blacks won it, and held it for three years. The Springboks won it 3-0 in 2009, but New Zealand returned the favour the following year.
461 – Dan Carter (6 tries, 61 conversions, 100 penalties, 3 drops) *
328 – Andrew Mehrtens (1 try, 34 conversions, 82 penalties, 3 drops)
153 – Carlos Spencer (3 tries, 21 conversions, 32 penalties)
16 – Christian Cullen *
15 – Joe Rokocoko
13 – Doug Howlett
* Leading points and try scorer in Tri-Nations history
The All Blacks won the first two Tri-Nations titles in 1996 and 1997, with a team that many consider not only one of the finest vintages from New Zealand, but arguably one of the greatest of all time.
The very first Tri-Nations match was high on drama, as the Wallabies chose to turn their backs on the All Blacks haka and walk towards their goalposts and warm up. It was a vicious counterstrike by New Zealand, who made a mockery of the poor conditions at Athletic Park in Wellington to run out 43-6 victors – with their seven tries notched by some legends, with Jonah Lomu, Zinzan Brooke, Michael Jones, Jeff Wilson, Justin Marhsall and Cullen all getting on the score sheet.
The All Blacks clash with the Springboks in Christchurch was the first time the two finalists from the 1995 Rugby World Cup had played, and the Test didn’t disappoint, with Andre Joubert’s try (the only one of the Test) giving the visitors a 8-6 halftime lead, before the boot of Mehrtens allowed the All Blacks to run out 15-11 winners.
Another halftime deficit then had to be overcome by New Zealand in Brisbane, at the then named Lang Park, with the Wallabies leading 16-9 at the break, before second half tries by Frank Bunce and Marshall gave the All Blacks a 32-25 victory.
The final Tri-Nations Test in Newlands again saw the All Blacks come home the stronger, with Os du Randt and Japie Mulder scoring in the first 40 minutes to give the hosts a 15-6 lead, before the All Blacks second half unanswered tries by Glen Osbourne and Craig Dowd gave New Zealand the inaugural crown.
To cement their dominance, the All Blacks would remain in the Republic after the Tri-Nations for a three-test tour, and would win 2-1, their first series success on Springboks soil – and a victory that captain Sean Fitzpatrick would rate higher than their World Cup title in 1987.
While the 2003 and 2010 seasons have gone down in Tri-Nations history as the most successful by any team, it was in 2008 where the All Blacks proved their class, a year after crashing out in their earliest ever World Cup exit (in the quarter-finals to France) while the Springboks were newly minted World Champions.
The opening match of that season’s Tri-Nations was a brutal affair, where the All Blacks – sans captain Richie McCaw – managed to beat a Springboks team that featured eight of their World Cup winners in the starting XV 19-8.
The ensuing match in Dunedin was another classic, but this time an inexperienced All Blacks team (six players had less than five caps, and only six had played more than 30 Tests) fell to the Springboks 30-28.
That match broke a ten-year Springbok winning drought in New Zealand, ended the All Blacks’ world-record 30-game winning streak at home, and gave South Africa their first win at Carisbrook for 87 years.
Two weeks later things went from bad to worse as the Wallabies put their highest winning score in history on the All Blacks, winning 34-19 in coach Robbie Deans first Test against his countrymen – and with McCaw still sitting in the stands, New Zealand sunk to back-to-back defeats for the first time in four years.
The All Blacks inspirational captain returned a week later, as New Zealand headed to their greatest fortress at Eden Park.
The Wallabies, who confidently talked themselves up prior to the Test, were stunned by a rampant home team, with Tony Woodcock scoring twice in four minutes in the first half, en route to a 39-10 win, Deans first loss as Australian coach.
Two weeks later the All Blacks continued to turn around their fortunes after losing two of their three first Tests in the series, heading to Newlands to win 19-0, the first time in the history of the two nation’s clashes that the Springboks had been held scoreless.
A stunned Cape Town crowd, who had cheered the Springboks and new Test match centurion Percy Montgomery onto the field, gave scattered heckles and jeers to their team when they left.
The final match of the Tri-Nations in Brisbane was the decider, courtesy of the Wallabies winning one from two in South Africa (27-15 in Durban). They lost the second match 53-8 in Johannesburg.
Despite an early Mils Muliaina try, the Wallabies were in control early in the second half, with tries from Adam Ashley-Cooper and James Horwill putting the Wallabies 17-7 ahead after 45 minutes.
The All Blacks hit back with a compelling 21 minute scoring spree that saw them record the same number of points – with converted tries to Tony Woodcock, Piri Weepu and Dan Carter.
Running out 28-24 victors, the All Blacks won their sixth Tri-Nations crown in seven years, despite the Springboks and Wallabies looking like title certainties after New Zealand’s two early competition losses.
After winning consecutive titles in the first two year’s of the competition, many expected the third Tri-Nations in 1998 to be more of the same from the All Blacks, who still had most of their superstars on board after ruling world rugby for a couple of seasons.
Heavy wins against England (64-22 and 40-10) early that year reinforced this opinion.
The tournaments opening match saw the Wallabies beat the All Blacks for the first time in eight test matches, winning 24-16.
The Springboks then defeated the All Blacks in Wellington, the first time since 1981 the South Africans had won in New Zealand.
Australia then defeated the All Blacks 27-23, which was the first time in eight years that they had won in New Zealand, and the first time since 1958 they had won in Christchurch.
The All Blacks ‘tournament from hell’ was rounded off with a 24-23 loss to the Springboks in Durban, and to add insult to injury, the third Bledisloe Cup match in Sydney was won by the Wallabies 19-14.
In 2003 the All Blacks unveiled a game plan that in many respects set the tone for the current blueprint of the way rugby is played to this day.
Counter-attack was the vogue, playing with speed while players were encouraged to aggressively link up in support to produce a running game that was very much rugby at its most attractive.
Then All Blacks coach John Mitchell and assistant Robbie Deans pioneered this approach (Deans has used a similar style with the Wallabies), while Richie McCaw and Dan Carter were beginning their Test careers at the time.
This was encapsulated in Pretoria and Sydney.
The Springboks had just beaten the Wallabies 26-22 to open the 2003 Tri-Nations, but nothing could prepare them for an All Blacks team that ran in seven tries and posted a 52-16 victory.
The All Blacks served up a similar thrashing to the Wallabies in their own backyard, winning 50-21.
However much to the chagrin of New Zealand supporters, the All Blacks had in many respects shown their aces too soon, as the Springboks (19-11) and Wallabies (21-17) closed the gap in the return matches – while ultimately Australia would have the last laugh at the World Cup later that year by shutting down the All Blacks expressive game plan with ease to win 22-10 in the semi-finals.