The Tri Nations features Australia, New Zealand and South Africa and is regarded as the premier international competition in the Southern Hemisphere.
Beginning in 1996, as rugby became professional, it may not boast the long history of the Six Nations (with the Home Nations championship formed in 1883) but has since become renowned for it’s intensity, as the All Blacks, Springboks and Wallabies have consistently been ranked as the top teams in world rugby.
Since the International Rugby Board began their rankings system on the 9 September 2003, at least two of the Tri Nations sides have always been in the top three, and currently New Zealand, Australia and South Africa hold the first, second and third places respectively.
The first clash between the featured nations was in 1903 on August 15, when New Zealand played Australia in Sydney winning 22-3. The classic trans-Tasman rivalry was made official in 1931, when Lord Bledisloe presented his namesake Cup to begin the two team’s fierce enmity.
On August 13 in 1921 the All Blacks and Springboks clashed for the first time, in what was billed as the ‘World Championship of Rugby’, and at Carisbrook the hosts won the first clash 13-5. Twelve years later on July 8, 1933, hostilities began between the Springboks and Wallabies at Newlands, with the home side winning 17-3.
It is generally regarded that South Pacific Championship was the earliest genesis for the Tri Nations in 1986, first contested between Auckland, Canterbury, Wellington, Queensland, New South Wales and Fiji.
Renamed the Super Sixes a few years later, South Africa’s readmission into international rugby in 1992 led an expanded Super 10 - viewed as the amateur pre-cursor to today’s Super Rugby competition.
In 1995, the three unions met via Leo Williams, the president of the Australian Rugby Union, Ritchie Guy, the chairman of the New Zealand Rugby Union and Louis Luyt, the president of the South African Rugby Football Union.
Negotiations led to the creation of SANZAR (essentially the acronym South Africa New Zealand Australia Rugby) and the Super 12 and Tri Nations.
David Moffit was the new organisation’s first chief executive officer (CEO), succeeded in 1996 by Rian Oberholzer who held the post till 1997.
SANZAR was then run on a rotating basis by the CEOs of the three participating countries, before in August 2010 Greg Peters was appointed as CEO, assuming his duties in November last year.
The competition itself
In 1996 the inaugural tournament kicked off, featuring the top two nations in world rugby, the Springboks and All Blacks, by virtue of their contesting of the World Cup final at Ellis Park the year before (the Wallabies were eliminated 25-22 by England in the quarter finals).
On July 6 the All Blacks hosted the Wallabies in the first ever Tri Nations match, and the opening game was not without drama, as the Australians chose to turn their back on the haka and warm-up in the cold and rainy confines of their 22 at Athletic Park in Wellington.
The hosts took exception to this, and despite the poor conditions, played what is considered one of the greatest games of wet weather rugby, beating their Bledisloe Cup rivals (with the series incorporated into the Tri Nations) 43-6.
The All Blacks would take out the maiden series, unbeaten while the Springboks would finish second above the Wallabies by virtue of superior point’s difference (both teams finished with one win a piece).
In 1997 the All Blacks again went through unbeaten, with the Springboks and Wallabies again second and third respectively.
After just two years two records were set that still stand unbroken, with the All Blacks establishing an eight-match winning streak, while the Springboks posted a record 61 points against the Wallabies, just a week after conceding a record 55 points to New Zealand.
The third year of competition was considered a horror year for New Zealand rugby, conceding the Tri Nations losing all four test matches, while the Springboks celebrated their maiden title.
Yet in a couple of years of turnarounds, the All Blacks reclaimed the Tri Nations in 1999, with the Springboks coming last, although the final match of the tournament saw the Wallabies record their biggest victory over their great rivals, beating New Zealand 28-7 in Sydney.
That result would be the catalyst for the Wallabies to go back-to-back, with the 2000 Tri Nations opened with what is still regarded as arguably the greatest game of rugby ever played, with Australia coming back from a 24-0 deficit (after less than 10 minutes) against the All Blacks to lose 39-35 in front of a world record 109,935 strong crowd.
The 2001 Tri Nations was equally thrilling, with the last match of the tournament won 29-26 by the Wallabies over New Zealand with number eight Toutai Kefu scoring a last minute try in John Eales’ final test match.
The Wallabies golden era would come to an end in 2002 as the All Blacks won their fourth title, and they would repeat the feat a year later going back-to-back, stunning their rivals away from home with a 52-16 victory over the Springboks in Pretoria, and then the Wallabies 50-21 in Sydney.
In 2004 the Springboks emerged from the shadows of their rivals with their second title, won via their infamous rush defence and a masterful display of back play that saw their outside men score 10 of the side’s 13 tries.
While current All Blacks coach Graham Henry’s reign started poorly with the Springboks Tri Nations win, an era of dominance would begin for New Zealand in 2005 as they again claimed the championship – courtesy of a late Keven Mealamu try in Carisbrook to beat the South Africans 31-27.
In 2006 the Tri Nations marked its tenth anniversary, and was expanded to see all teams play each other three times (in a World Cup year it would revert back to the old format). The All Blacks would claim the championship with three rounds to spare, losing just the one match in six tests.
The following year would be controversial as the Springboks would send a weakened squad on their away legs, but despite this shocked the Wallabies early racking up a point-a-minute 16-0 lead before losing 25-17. The All Blacks would claim the series to become the first team to win three Tri Nations consecutively.
In 2008 New Zealand would stage one of the great comebacks in Tri Nations’ history, losing two of their first three tests, including a 34-19 win in Wallabies coach Robbie Deans first match against his countrymen. However the return of captain Richie McCaw to the All Blacks would see them emphatically claim the title, beating Australia 39-10 at Eden Park before heading to Cape Town and shutting out the Springboks 19-0.
However South Africa would gain revenge in the 2009 Tri Nations with three straight test wins against New Zealand, including a 32-29 thriller in Hamilton to clinch the series.
Last season though saw a stunning return to form for the All Blacks, winning all six tests, the first team since the tournament expansion to remain unbeaten, as well as the 2010 Tri Nations seeing the highest number of tries and overall points in the competition’s history.
Victory was secured by the All Blacks when they scored a remarkable two tries with just three minutes remaining to defeat South Africa 29-22 in the first test at the massive FNB Stadium in Johannesburg, with 94,713 on hand to witness New Zealand take their tenth crown.
Roll of honour:
2010 - New Zealand
2009 - South Africa
2008 - New Zealand
2007 - New Zealand
2006 - New Zealand
2005 - New Zealand
2004 - South Africa
2003 - New Zealand
2002 - New Zealand
2001 - Australia
2000 - Australia
1999 - New Zealand
1998 - South Africa
1997 - New Zealand
1996 - New Zealand
Head-to-head: pre 2011
(All played 68 tests)
New Zealand, Won 48, Lost 20
South Africa, Won 27, Drawn 1, Lost 40
Australia, Won 26, Drawn 1, Lost 41
All-time leading point’s scorers:
Dan Carter (NZ) 426
Andrew Mehrtens (NZ) 328
Matt Burke (Aus) 271
Matt Giteau (Aus) 257
Percy Montgomery (SA) 210
All-time leading try scorers:
Christian Cullen (NZ) 16
Joe Rokocoko (NZ) 15
Doug Howlett (NZ) 13
Richie McCaw (NZ) 11
Jaque Fourie (SA), Justin Marshall (NZ), Stirling Mortlock (AUS), Lote Tuqiri (AUS) 9
Competition tables (1996 to 2010):