New Zealand and Australia have always enjoyed a well, special, sporting relationship. But if this week has proved anything it is that the Wallabies and the All Blacks barely have a relationship at all any more, writes Scotty Stevenson.
Once upon a time this was the contest that defined rugby in this part of the world. All Blacks and Wallabies tests were to be savoured, as much for the raft of stars in each team as for the fact one could never tell which way the result would go. They were the great test matches of the year. Hell, one – in Sydney in 2000 – was called the Greatest Game of Rugby Ever Played.
What a game it was. How else could you describe it? The All Blacks rampant in the opening five minutes, the Wallabies resurgent to level the scores at the break, both sides punching and counter-punching in the second half, and Jonah scoring the winner three minutes into injury time. It was everything we love about the trans-Tasman rivalry played to a packed house by a sensational cast.
It seems so long ago now. So long ago that Stirling Mortlock and George Gregan still had hair. So long ago that Chritian Cullen has now gone grey, and Jonah has simply gone forever. The legacy of that time remains, however, in the camaraderie between the protagonists. Yes, there was a rivalry – a fierce and unforgiving one – but afterwards there were friendships, many strong and lasting.
It feels like that respect has gone now, as anachronistic as the post-match piss up. In its place: clown cartoons and constant carping; court cases and the incredibly coincidental timing of a certain report into the coital habits of halfbacks. There has always been tension in Bledisloe build ups, but this week has fallen into farce. When we should be talking about a test match, we are tittering about testicles.
The harsh reality is without a strong ally next door, New Zealand Rugby is at risk of a hemispheric marooning. South African rugby has already begun its first foray into Europe with the Cheetahs and Kings joining the Pro14 and, if successful, more will follow. Australian Rugby’s survival is just as important to New Zealand in a geo-political sense. Life support is required, and the Bledisloe Cup is the machine.
It has not proven to be very effective at keeping the heart beating. We all know that Australia hasn’t seen the Cup since Burke and Wills went walking; it has not been tainted by a tinny of Aussie suds in 14 long years. That angers and frustrates the fans, and that feeling is magnified by the fact Australian Super Rugby sides went 0-26 against New Zealand teams this year. As if that weren’t enough, the Australian Rugby Union showed it has all the common touch of a family of Tsars when it torched the Western Force earlier in the month.
Against this depressing backdrop, you would think the Bledisloe Cup would be a chance to reignite the passion for the game, but once again here we are in roadside attraction land. We have public toilets on the left and public nuisance on the right and in the middle two teams that don’t dare call each other by name. Steve Hansen is wondering why his own security consultant is up on charges of bugging his team hotel, and Michael Cheika can’t even (or just doesn’t want to) name the All Blacks midfielders. Please don’t tell me he’s never heard of Sonny Bill Williams.
Forget the bluff and bluster and bullshit. This must be a test match for the players. This must be the stage upon which the great Bledisloe show of the past is revived for the next generation. The rest is bad marketing. It is time to put away the sneering and the off-field acrimony and let the game do the talking. We as fans want to see the best of both sides and we sure as hell want this contest to once again be the defining series in the southern hemisphere.
I think back to that greatest game ever played, when the All Blacks won 39-35 and no one was sure what had happened or what they had just witnessed. And I think now of the great respect between two of the men in the middle that day: Justin Marshall and George Gregan. Their individual battle – lippy, frustrating, niggly and wonderful – was worth the price of admission alone. Their friendship today, and the deep and abiding respect they have for eachother now that the boots have been safely stashed away, is priceless.
I wonder, sadly, if any of the combatants this weekend will feel the same way about one another in 17 years time. I hope they do. I hope that respect is rekindled this weekend, and that its flame burns bright for many years to come. I hope that we can return to a rivalry that was once respectful rather than spiteful.
Most of all, I hope that if this can’t be the greatest game of rugby ever played, it can at least be in the conversation.
This story originally ran on RugbyPass.com – the premier destination for rugby fans in Asia, streaming International Test Matches including The Rugby Championship, Super Rugby and more to your device wherever you are in Asia