AUCKLAND, July 16 – Southern hemisphere rugby is set for a shake-up in the Tri-Nations series kicking off Saturday, with confidence high in South Africa and Australia and a question mark over powerhouse New Zealand.New Zealand and Australia launch the tournament in Auckland and the All Blacks’ grip on the championship, which they have won nine times out of 13, including for the past four years, looks decidedly shaky.
They were off colour in their warm up matches against France and Italy, teams Australia disposed of with comparative ease, while South Africa chalked up a notable 2-1 series win over the British and Irish Lions.
It’s a reversal of the pattern of recent years and sets up an intriguing nine-match series over the next two months.
The quality of the Springboks’ performance against the Lions, and a favourable Tri-Nations draw that sees them play their first three games at home, has bookmakers putting them as favourites.
Their squad includes 22 players who turned out against the Lions and coach Peter de Villiers said that consistency was important for the Tri-Nations.
"The core squad that secured the series win in the first two Tests has great potential as a unit and we believe that they have much more to offer," he warned.
Although South African rugby is already on a high, with the Northern Bulls having won the Super 14 crown, de Villiers has been reluctant to accept the "favourite" tag.
The All Blacks and Wallabies offered a faster-paced game than the Lions, and de Villiers said the Tri-Nations offered "a new and different challenge."
It has never been fashionable to rate the Wallabies highly, even in the two years they won the Tri-Nations, the last of which was eight years ago.
But with coach Robbie Deans now in his second year at the helm, they are starting to build a more resolute reputation, and importantly leaked only one try in the June Tests.
Deans is not one for predictions, apart from acknowledging his side is in better shape than they were a year ago, but Wallabies’ captain Stirling Mortlock was upbeat.
"If we can keep on making strides forward at set-piece time and the cohesiveness of the backline is improving as well, our kicking game has been improving, things are looking good," Mortlock said.
Ace pivot Matt Giteau added a feeling of belief was growing within the squad.
"It is our second year under Robbie Deans and we are starting to understand not just what Robbie wants us to play, but the way we are going to be playing heading into the (2011) World Cup," he told reporters.
"There is a greater understanding amongst the group and with that comes the confidence."
Confidence is not evident in an All Blacks camp struggling to click as it comes to grips with the seriousness of not having an adequate back up for injured playmaker Dan Carter.
Stephen Donald and Luke McAlister were both tried at fly-half and found wanting last month with Donald getting the nod to start against Australia.
The All Blacks’ early performances were also hampered by multiple injuries and while the pack has been bolstered by the return of Richie McCaw and Rodney So’oialo they have played no serious rugby for seven weeks.
Veteran lock Ali Williams remains sidelined and his replacement Isaac Ross has outstanding ball skills for a tight forward but All Blacks coaches note he still lacks the "physicality" required for Test play.
If the All Blacks cannot dominate up front, as they failed to do against France and Italy, backfoot ball will not help a fly-half struggling for confidence and that can only hinder the firepower wider out.
Coach Graham Henry was brutally honest in his appraisal, but suggested the form book may not be the best guide.
"We have a number of experienced players and a number of guys that have not played much international rugby, so in the experience stakes we will be number three," he said on naming his squad.
"But we were considered to be number three last year, and, I can’t remember, did we win it?"
United last toured Asia in 2007 when they visited China, South Korea, Japan and Macau.
It will be their first time in Malaysia since 2001 and their maiden foray to Indonesia, where the 100,000-seat Bung Karno Stadium is already sold out.
Rio Ferdinand said the conditions and varied opposition would provide ideal preparation for the long campaign ahead.
"One of the main reasons we’ve been successful in the last few years is because we’ve had a good base from pre-season," said the England defender.
"It takes a bit of time to get acclimatised to the humid conditions in Asia, but it’s a good exercise to play against different teams that pose different threats."