RIVALRIES ARE THE LIFEBLOOD OF ANY SPORT.
They are, in essence, why sport of any nature works. One group or person becomes determined to beat another group or person and in the course of time, stories, feelings, legends and all sorts develop.
There are few rivalries as deep and as enduring as that between the All Blacks and Wallabies.
But at the moment, that rivalry is under threat. It’s not in a good place. Not in a healthy state.
That’s not because of the simmering tension and edginess that has developed since Michael Cheika took over as Wallabies coach in November 2014.
That’s actually been good for the business of selling the Bledisloe as genuine sporting theatre. The rivalry is not in good shape because it doesn’t actually feel like much of a rivalry at all.
The All Blacks have dominated for so long now that some of the fear and respect has disappeared as New Zealand have held the Bledisloe since 2003. In that time they have been unbeaten at home and only lost six of the 38 tests that have been played. Only twice – in 2007 and 2015 – have the Wallabies given themselves a chance to take it back. That is to say, only twice have they managed to win the opening game in a year when they have only two test fixtures.
When they came to Wellington this year, on the back of a 42-8 loss in Sydney the week before, the TAB had the All Blacks at the lowest odds they can recall.
Everyone seems a bit scared to confront this head on – that it could be interpreted as arrogance or complacency to properly dissect the last 13 years and wonder out loud whether the Wallabies are in much bigger trouble than anyone would care to admit.
It’s not arrogance to feel concerned that one of the best things in rugby is under threat. What is arrogant, silly, is to assume with great conviction that the Wallabies and Australian rugby are just going through a bad patch.
It’s been too long for that and there are too few signs that anything is going to change in the immediate or even mid future.
There are no guarantees that Australia will return to being the superbly innovative rugby nation it was in the 1980s and 1990s. It’s just as valid to wonder whether that period was the exception rather than the norm.
Will that turn out to be the golden age of Wallabies rugby? Everyone in New Zealand says not, but on what basis is that opinion reached?
A salient lesson on this can be learned by examining the situation in Wales. For 80 years they too were a great rival for the All Blacks. Maybe they didn’t win that often, but they were feared and respected.
Whenever they played the All Blacks it was fierce, competitive, down to the wire rugby that left New Zealand sighing with genuine relief when they walked away with the victory.
But it all changed so quickly. Come the 1980s, Wales lost their way. Their best players were picked off by rugby league and then the arrival of professionalism saw their once proud clubs compete for too little funding and they were replaced as professional entities by regional franchises.
There was no other choice, but today these franchises are under-resourced and the best players in Wales have long left for better paying jobs in England and France.
Welsh domestic rugby is no longer particularly strong and while the national team is competitive, they are the sort of side that asks enough questions of the best teams to be interesting, but not enough to be dangerous.
What’s worrying is how many similarities there are between Wales and Australia. Queensland and New South Wales used to be provincial heavyweights when they were the sum total of Australian rugby.
Now, there are five mediocre franchises that are struggling financially. All of them. And not only that, but more Australian players are heading offshore than ever before.
From being one of the strongest rugby nations in the 1970s, Wales were branded by one New Zealand newspaper as ‘the village idiots of world rugby’ by 2005. Their fall was fast and dramatic and the prospect that Australia could be experiencing the same kind of rapid descent can’t be easily dismissed.
Let’s hope not. Let’s hope Australia can find a few answers to its obvious problems. Hopefully, it won’t take long before they have players again of the same calibre as John Eales, Joe Roff, Tim Horan, Jason Little, George Gregan and Stephen Larkham.
They were players New Zealanders love to hate back in the day but it was because they were so good. They were so easy to admire and respect, and while those who experienced the pain of last minute defeats in 2000 and 2001 may find this hard to believe, they should be craving that sort of emotion again.
The Bledisloe needs that element of drama, suspense and heartbreak. That’s what sustains the rivalry and makes the whole business fly.