NZ Rugby World - - News - Gre­gor Paul, Ed­i­tor


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.

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