It comes as no surprise that after three games in the Tri-Nations, each team has won one game. I thought the All Blacks won the opening game appreciably more comfortably than the final score indicates, the Springboks pulled the second game out of the fire after courageously hanging in, despite struggling for territory and with a minority of possession, and my impression was that the Wallabies earned a much deserved win in their only game at the time of writing.
The opening three games make for what should be an absorbing Tri-Nations, perhaps as tight a contest as we've seen for some time. For tactical nous - bringing an astute intelligence to every aspect of their game - the Australians come second to no team, but they will need to continue to match the All Blacks and Boks physically if they are to win the Tri-Nations. Their matching of South Africa's physicality and outplaying of the Boks at the breakdown must have come as something of a humbling experience for the visitors, and turning this around at home will be a primary goal for the Springboks.
Defence has been strong for all three teams so far, with excellent exhibitions of technique and commitment. Few tries have been scored, not as much through lack of attacking skill as through tight defensive organisation and, for the most part, clinical defensive execution.
Bring huge impetus
The match-ups at flyhalf have been fascinating, with the sublime skills and decision-making acumen of Dan Carter and Matt Giteau in contrast to the combative ferocity of Butch James. I rate all three as highly effective international pivots. Everyone rates Carter and Giteau, as they should, but even good judges sometimes make the mistake of underestimating the importance to the Springboks of the assertiveness of Butch James. His decision-making and execution may not be as fluent as that of Carter and Giteau, but he is a real force in his own way.
Leadership may be vital in determining the winners of this year's competition. Stirling Mortlock is an accomplished captain, and it was clear how much the Wallabies missed him both as outside centre and leader in the last half-hour against the Springboks. The return from injury of Richie McCaw will bring huge impetus to the All Blacks - as a brilliant flank as well as their clever, authoritative leader. As good a leader as Victor Matfield is, I do feel that the Boks miss the composure, experience and wisdom of John Smit. I'm not convinced that Smit has been granted full recognition for his contribution to South Africa's successes in recent years.
What do the Boks have to do to win the Tri-Nations? First off, they need to decide more definitively what their approach is to be. They seem stuck somewhere between the meticulously planned, carefully structured gameplan which won them the Rugby World Cup under Jake White - honed by Eddie Jones - and Peter de Villiers's goal of playing more expansive rugby. It's a moot point as to which approach is more appropriate right now - what is needed is an appreciation of what the team strategy is and then buy-in from all the players. What you can't have is an approach that is a little haphazard.
Whatever game they decide to play, it is essential that the Boks improve markedly on their disappointing performance at the breakdown against the Wallabies. If it's an expansive game they are aiming at, then quick recycling of possession for continuity of attack is a basis for this - and not conceding turnovers is also a prerequisite.
You get the impression too that there are times when the Boks would benefit from avoiding running into contact. They seem to relish running into opponents, when passing after committing a defender (but before contact), or at least offloading in contact, may sometimes be a wiser option.
Advocating more incisive decision-making in general may sound like a catch-all cliche, but it would not be an inaccurate observation. Certainly, Australia's decision making was sharper, and more effective, than South Africa's in their first meeting of the year.
Would it be unfair to assert that the new coaches seem a little insecure in selection? It's difficult to establish exactly what they are looking for, but I'd certainly have the experience and skill and accurate boot of Percy Montgomery in the starting XV, and I believe they need to establish, as a priority, who their best props are and to decide on their top eighth man, so that he, Juan Smith and Schalk Burger have the opportunity to develop into an effective trio. Deciding which right wing can best complement Monty and Bryan Habana is important too.
The highly accomplished Robbie Deans will have Australia playing to the very best of their abilities, and despite having lost experienced players, New Zealand have too much talent to be regarded as anything other than serious contenders to be the best team in the world. To me the most unknown factor in the Tri-Nations this year is South Africa - despite having some of the most experienced, skilful players in the world, they still need to settle down under the new coaching and management team. The next few weeks will be fascinating indeed.