It should have been another ho-hum, World Cup-year Tri-Nations: a repeat of the phoney wars that see key players rested, outsiders blooded and new tactics kept close to the chest.
But Australia's season came under some unexpected early heat with defeat to Samoa last weekend. The Pacific Islanders claimed their first scalp of a World Cup-winning nation with a display of raw physicality, exposing the lack of depth in the Australian game. If they had beaten Samoa, or at least not looked like such witless roadkill, Robbie Deans' men could have been forgiven a poor Tri-Nations campaign.
But a poor effort over the next six weeks of internationals would now suggest that the Samoan slip was indicative of a deeper rot in the Wallaby system. A second consecutive defeat in today's Tri-Nations opener against the Springboks would mean Australia's momentum, which built so nicely for their major teams in the Super 15 series, has fallen flat.
So while Samoa's eyes are now on the World Cup (and if you're wondering where their next major nation scalp will come from, pencil this into your diary: Sunday, 18 September, 3.30pm [NZ time], Wales v Samoa, Waikato Stadium) the Wallabies must undertake a credibility reboot against the All Blacks and Springboks.
Their biggest problem against Samoa is one they can do little about. With Deans resting players from the Queensland Reds after a victorious Super 15 campaign, the next cabs off the rank simply weren't slick enough.
While the Springboks are resting 21 front-line players, and the All Blacks plan to use the Tri-Nations series to get experience under the belt of backup No 10 Colin Slade, for the Wallabies it's all hands to the pump.
"We'll look at each individual in isolation but, ideally, my preference is that we want to get on with it and get under way," said Deans. "We want to get going as effectively and as fast as we can."
In reality, his hand is forced by lack of depth. While the Wallabies can field a world-beating XV, scratch much deeper and you find forgettable names capable of losing their structure and dropping their guard against a hastily pulled together but fired-up Samoa.
So scant are the staffing levels in Australia that winger Drew Mitchell will probably be rushed into the World Cup squad without having played a match since dislocating his ankle in April. "We know he can play the game," said Deans of Mitchell.
In the All Black camp, depth is rarely a problem. With preferred wingers Hosea Gear, Isaia Toeava, Israel Dagg and Cory Jane injured, Graham Henry had the luxury of throwing Sitiveni Sivivatu and Zac Guildford into the fray for last night's 60-14 season opener against Fiji.
The two positions where the All Blacks could be considered light on back-up cover are – worryingly – openside flanker and fly-half, although Slade's assured display at No 10 yesterday will go some way to assuaging concerns about the gap behind Daniel Carter. As for replacing Richie McCaw, for the best part of a decade New Zealand has merely crossed its collective fingers and hoped for the best that the world's premier opensider doesn't break down.
The coaches gave up looking for a genuine open-side substitute some seasons ago, and now just put loose-forward utilities out there when McCaw needs a sit down. Why change the head-in-the-sand habit of a generation?
Meanwhile, the South Africans are doing the sensible thing, resting a Test match squad's worth of top players and sending second-string Springbok sides out to meet the All Blacks and Wallabies. Fly-half Morne Steyn will be playing for his place in the World Cup squad (see above), but he is surrounded largely by novices and outsiders.
It's worked for them before. In 2007, the South Africa coach, Jake White, made the Tri-Nations a low priority, resting his big names and cheerily flopping through the campaign before seizing the big prize in the World Cup final in Paris.
Current Bok coach Peter De Villiers says his side will aim to starve returning Wallaby half-backs Will Genia and Quade Cooper of quality possession in today's match. The wet weather should help his cause. If it doesn't, De Villiers will quell his disappointment with a quick read of the World Cup schedule.
Three To Watch
All Black lock, 61 Tests
A veteran of two World Cup campaigns and a recent nightmare run of injuries, the All Black lock has been returning – gradually – to the sort of form that made him one of the first names on Graham Henry's team sheet. After Williams lost two seasons to injury, his place in the All Black pecking order has been taken by Sam Whitelock. Athletic and shrewd at his best, Williams had a mixed return after two years' absence in the scrappy victory over Fiji.
Springbok fly-half, 25 Tests
He booted the Boks to success against the Lions, and has been prolific in the Super 15. But management have been making eyes toward 2007 World Cup fly-half Butch James. The physical James stands flatter and is quick to test defensive lines, while Steyn is a distributor and, when things go wrong, retreats deeper. Now Steyn has has a chance to play for his World Cup place.
Wallaby flanker, 65 Tests
The Wallaby captain was one of many to have a quiet day in defeat to Samoa last week, while his back-row understudy, Scott Higginbotham, made a big impact off the bench. He's already confirmed as the Wallaby World Cup captain, but if their campaign is to build and maintain momentum it could do without the kind of questions Elsom's form will inevitably generate.
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