This year's Tri-Nations ended last Saturday giving the All Blacks yet another emphatic win, and us fans a memorable game. Actually this years whole tournament was full of them - both wins for the Blacks and memorable games for us fans. The tourney got underway with two thumping wins for the Blacks who swept aside the Boks with ease. While the Blacks were mighty impressive you could also attribute the margin of victory to the lackluster performance by the men from the Rainbow Nation. They seemed so out of touch, out of sorts and without a plan. Then the Blacks went on to demolish a relatively young Wallabies team and and looked set for another Tri-Nations win. All they needed was to lose by less than 7 points to the Boks in the next game to secure the trophy. But that just isn't the way they do things; after trailing behind for the better part of the game, Blacks crossed the line twice during last five minutes, first by their ever impressive captain Richie McCaw and then the big man Nonu. The whole game was a treat, and the Boks had improved immensely from the last few games. That was the first of four memorable games to follow; Wallabies and Boks shared a piece in their next two encounters both of which were absolute nail biters. Last of the two was just a phenomenal game. Boks were trailing 31-6 just before the half time and their impressive lock Victor Matfield scored a dazzling try to give them some hopes going into the breather. Score: 31-13. And they did hit hard after the break and the scoreline read 31-30 in favor of Wallabies around the one hour mark. After that it was just one tense game, but finally the Wallabies edged ahead. Then this weekend was the last game of the Tri-Nations. Again, Blacks showed that they are a class apart and arguably one of the greatest Blacks lineups ever with a coming from behind win to claim a clean sweep of Tri-Nations game.
OK, so it was a great tournament and one for the memory. But now let's go back to the title of this post. While it was such a great tournament, it lacked fast open rugby specially by the backs bar the penultimate game of the tournament between the Wallabies and the Boks. Yes the All Blacks back division with the big names like Cowan, Weepu, Carter, Nonu, Conrad "Average Man" Smith, Rokocoko, Jane and Muliaina is almost intimidating. Yet they hardly matched their predecessors of late 90's or early 2000s in my opinion. I think that the Blacks' line up (specially the backs) of that era is probably their best ever as well. Justin Marshall at 9, combined with Andrew Mehrtens (and later Spencer) at fly half and probably their best ever center Tana Umaga. Then they had the wingers like Jeff Wilson, Dough Howlette and the big man Jonah Lomu, but probably the best of them all was their legendary fullback Christian Cullen. Man, he was FAST. Not just fast, he was mighty good. And the best thing about their rugby; they ran fast and they ran wide. There were so many counter attacks from their own 22 running the ball wide and often ending up crossing the line.
But nowadays, I'm seriously missing that. I don't know what the reason is, but I'm boiling it down to two reasons. Either the defensive play in rugby is improved a lot or simply the fast runners like those guys have vanished. Or perhaps a bit of both. Come to think of it I do believe that the defense has improved immensely, with carefully planned tackles and better marking of players. But perhaps it is also possible that those legendary runners are extinct for real. Now that would be such a waste.