All Black fans are desperate to watch them take on Australia. But the arguments for playing in New Zealand are worse than flimsy, writes Scotty Stevenson.
On October 10 this year, the All Blacks and the Wallabies will play the first match of a Bledisloe Cup series. If there is any fairness left in the fiscally focused world of professional rugby, that match will be played in Brisbane.
If New Zealand Rugby has its way, the match will instead be played in New Zealand. From a Kiwi point of view that would be a sensational outcome. But any fan who truly believes in such a thing as a level playing field – and surely rugby would wish to remain one of the last bastions of that concept – would know that match would be a complete farce.
No one can dispute the playing of international rugby underpins the financial models of every union in the world. That has been by design, rather than accident. As one insider put it to me, without beating around the Billy Bush, “New Zealand Rugby has turned the national sport into a cash business.” That cash business at essence sells approximately 14 products a year: they’re called test matches.
How we ended up there is not the point; it is undeniably where the sport is at, and there is no appetite around the boardroom table of the game’s national administrators to turn back the clock or to find some way back to a model that, in the minds of the high performance acolytes of this world, disrupts the convenience of a conveyor belt that delivers test-ready players directly into the mitts of the All Blacks coaches.
That is why the staging of test matches is right now the most significant concern to the overseers of the game, and exactly why the Sanzaar partners will this week convene to divine some kind of clarity around when and where this year’s Rugby Championship will be played. In the meantime, there is the not insignificant matter of a Bledisloe Cup series to consider and, on this matter at least, Australia must succeed off the field, if not on it.
New Zealand Rugby seems convinced that the Wallabies should play two test matches in New Zealand on October 10 and 17. That stance may have been perfectly reasonable during the outbreak of premature triumphalism surrounding the “elimination” of Covid-19 but, as we have all noted, how quickly things can change. The cancellation of the final Super Rugby Aotearoa match between the Blues and Crusaders and a North-South blockbuster played in the centre of a donut of yellow seats is evidence enough, surely, of the perils of hubris.
Dealing with a global health crisis is a challenge for all, and hardly the kind of eventuality many administrators of this generation would have ever thought they might have to contend with. In times like this, sports don’t get to make their own rules. Instead, sports have to live within the rules that are set for the public. At this stage, and for the foreseeable future, those rules mean any team coming to New Zealand will have to isolate for 14 days.
As important as the All Blacks may be to the bottom line of New Zealand Rugby, and as important as New Zealand Rugby thinks it is to the fabric of New Zealand society (tip: not as much as it believes) it would be a brave government a week out from an election to bend its own rules so 46 men could run around a footy field for entertainment purposes. Those of us who love the game want to see test match rugby. Those of us who would like our country to return to some kind of normal service, who have seen friends lose jobs and businesses shutter their doors, would be flabbergasted at the very thought of special treatment for a visiting footy team.
The fact is, as policy stands, the Wallabies would have to fly to New Zealand a day after the final of Australia’s domestic Super Rugby competition. The team would have to base themselves in a managed isolation facility for a fortnight. During that time, there would be no scenario in which the team could train together as a squad. There would be no chance to build the all-important cultural bonds that teams like the All Blacks speak at length about. There would be no opposed trainings, no real chance to test moves, and no ability to establish combinations through repeated drills. To put it simply, there would be no way to prepare adequately for a test match.
That 14-day isolation would conclude on the Sunday preceding the first test, giving the Wallabies six days to prepare to face the All Blacks. Without a single salty note of dismissiveness, that would be like sending lambs to the slaughter. If any All Blacks fan would rejoice in seeing their side defeat the Wallabies after that kind of build-up to a test then I am afraid your rampant jingoism heavily, and unfortunately, outweighs your love of the sport.
The alternative is that the All Blacks to fly to Queensland. There they would – like the AFL and NRL teams – be able to isolate for two weeks with unfettered access to training facilities, a virtually unmitigated ability to train as a team, a complete confidence that they can involve the entire squad, and the comfort of knowing that they will face an opponent who has at least had a fighting chance to prepare for a test match.
There is little doubt New Zealand Rugby has alienated its closest allies through its Super Rugby hardball act in recent months but there is some level of sympathy that can still be squeezed from a realist in this matter. However, if the win-at-all-costs mentality that seems to pervade the union is so out of control it extends to ostensibly rigging the game so a result is almost guaranteed, the same sympathy should not be expected from fans who have been led to believe the All Blacks stand for something far bigger than corporate caprice and boardroom bullying.
Play the Bledisloe tests. Those of us who love the game, its history, and its rivalries, are dying to see them. Just do us all a favour and give them the greatest chance of being memorable. If the All Blacks really back themselves, and if New Zealand Rugby is genuinely concerned about leadership, those tests will be in Brisbane, not New Zealand, next month.
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