World Cup Mind Games Underway
The phony battles ahead of the Rugby World Cup are over and the psychological war has begun after back-to-back losses by the All Blacks in a top-three upheaval blurred the tournament landscape.
With the warm-up games out of the way, teams began arriving in New Zealand on Monday ahead of the tournament start on September 9 with a clear divide between the approach of the principal southern and northern hemisphere contenders.
The top three sides, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa are downplaying the significance of their Tri-Nations skirmishes despite the All Blacks going into the tournament on the back of losses to both their southern rivals.
However, in the north where France, England and Wales fill the next three spots on the IRB rankings ladder, they believe in the confidence that comes with victory and readily admit it.
After the Wallabies beat the All Blacks 25-20 to claim the Tri-Nations crown on Saturday, rival coaches Robbie Deans and Graham Henry refused to publicly link the result to any psychological World Cup advantage.
Winning a round-robin tournament cannot be compared to the white-hot atmosphere of the World Cup play-off rounds where there are no second chances, they said.
"It’s a significant result for us but in terms of the World Cup it’s irrelevant and if anything we've just put the bar up," Deans said.
The previous week when South Africa beat the All Blacks 18-5, stand-in Springboks captain Victor Matfield also played down the result saying the defending World Cup champions "still need a lot of improvement" before this tournament begins.
But they are arguments that hold no weight with England's Mike Tindall who was only too willing to talk up the significance of his side's 20-9 win over Ireland at the weekend.
"It's massive, you can't underestimate the value of going over there (to New Zealand) with a win," said Tindall who was a member of the England side that won the World Cup in 2003 after completing a Six Nations Grand Slam.
French coach Marc Lievremont was equally upbeat about winning the lead up battles before the real war.
After intensive preparations leading to two wins over Ireland Lievremont declared: "I will be disappointed if we are not champions of the world."
The sentiment was similar in Wales where Warren Gatland said his side "shouldn't go there with any fears" after claiming wins over England and Argentina in recent weeks.
Scotland, who rounded up their World Cup preparations with a win over Italy have moved up to seventh in the rankings overtaking Ireland who have slumped to eigthth, their lowest ever position.
As World Cup preparations stepped up a notch in New Zealand on Monday, the festivities surrounding the arrival of the first team, Fiji, contrasted with the All Blacks camp where players were licking their wounds on their return from Australia.
All Blacks coach Henry, faced with the Sonny Bill Williams bombshell that he may quit New Zealand after the World Cup, attempted to raise morale by pointing out there was no link between Tri-Nations success and winning the Cup.
The three Tri-Nations tournaments previously held in World Cup years have all been won by the All Blacks but they never went on to win the showpiece tournament.
"I do not think what happens in the Tri Nations determines what happens in the World Cup. What happens in the next eight weeks will determine that," he said, opening up about the All Blacks Achilles heel.
"We have not been good at sudden-death football in recent times and we need a special mentality for those games."
It was only Australia's third win in their 14 encounters since Deans crossed the Tasman after missing out to Henry to be the All Blacks coach following the 2007 World Cup.
But significantly for Australia the latest win was their second in their last three encounters and they appear to be peaking at the right time with a youthful squad moulded in quick time.
In contrast, defending champions South Africa have stuck with the stars who won the World Cup in 2007 stars with coach Peter de Villiers saying their is no substitute for experience.