History of the Tri Nations
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and New Zealand first met in 1903 and South Africa toured Australasia
for the first time in 1921. But for the best part of the
twentieth century the southern hemisphere superpowers only met intermittently
and could only look on in envy at Rugby’s premier annual international
tournament, the Five Nations Championship.
For years, the nations that were formerly known as The Dominions longed
for a competition of their own to compare with the European tournament.
It was the dawn of the Rugby World Cup era in 1987 that finally gave
them an official title to focus their ambitions on, but it was not
until after the third World Cup, in South Africa in 1995, that the
Tri Nations concept was born.
The impetus behind its launch was rugby union’s final acceptance
of professionalism. Commercially driven, the new competition derived
from the multi-million pound negotiations that the South African, New
Zealand and Australian Rugby Unions (SANZAR) made with Rupert Murdoch’s
NewsCorp television company during the four-week World Cup event.
A ten-year deal worth £360 million to the SANZAR nations was
announced on the eve of the 1995 final and the competition, which features
the three nations in a round-robin of home and away fixtures, took
off in 1996 when New Zealand made a clean sweep of four victories to
secure the inaugural title. An interesting departure was the competition’s
bonus point system that encouraged the nations to play attacking rugby.
One additional point is awarded to a team for scoring four or more
tries, and one to a team losing by fewer than or equal to seven points.
From the start, the Tri Nations was brilliantly
successful and attracted thousands of spectators as well as millions
of television viewers.
The All Blacks’ revolutionary play in the 1996 tournament was
the blueprint that all international teams endeavoured to copy in the
years that followed. New Zealand again carried off the title without
dropping a point in 1997 before South Africa, the then reigning world
champions, collected a Grand Slam of victories in 1998 when the All
Blacks, astonishingly, lost all four of their matches.
That year’s competition included one of international rugby’s
most amazing comebacks when South Africa, after trailing 5-23 to the
All Blacks early in the second half of the Durban Test, scored 19 points
without reply to win by the odd point in 47.
New Zealand, however, bounced back to take the 1999 tournament
by winning the first three of their four matches. The final match of the
season was at the new Stadium Australia where a world record attendance
of 107,042 for a Test saw the Wallabies give notice of their 1999 World
Cup potential by inflicting a then record 28-7 defeat on the All Blacks.
Australia were able to get their name on the Tri Nations trophy for
the first time in 2000 after arguably some of the greatest rugby spectacles
ever. Australia and New Zealand combined to produce perhaps the most
exciting action ever witnessed on a rugby field, on two occasions,
and South Africa were not completely outshone. The statistics tell
us that Australia won the 2000 Tri Nations, New Zealand came second
and South Africa third. But in reality there was precious little between
the three sides, home advantage not counting for much as matches in
Sydney, Wellington, Johannesburg and Durban went down to the wire.