There’s not a lot of hope for Australian rugby ahead of tonight’s test, says Scotty Stevenson.
Despite the usual cork floats of confidence bobbing about in the sea of indifference that constitutes the vast majority of planet rugby in Australia these days, the third and final Bledisloe test in Brisbane is likely to go the way of the other two this season and end with an All Blacks victory.
You can say what you like about how much this test means to Australian rugby and to the players – none more so, perhaps, than Stephen Moore who has been benched for the more dynamic Tatafu Polota-Nau in a move that seems designed to scream ‘sentimentality does not reside here’ – and of course it means a lot to the sport’s governing body and to the 23 men who get to wear that jumper. Ultimately, though, you have to ask yourself: who in that team is going to get the job done?
There is talent in the side, certainly, but where are the real knockout punches in this team? In years gone by names like Horan and Little, and Lynagh and Gregan and Smith filled kiwi hearts with a real sense of dread. Do any of the current Wallabies engender that response from the New Zealand fans, or from the All Blacks themselves? Respect, yes. Fear? No way.
Partly it’s because Australian Super Rugby teams have been points pinatas for the New Zealand for the best part of a decade, give or take a title or two, but more its because the Australians simply don’t have the volume of rugby behind them. I am not talking about this year, I am talking about a generation that has not had the battle hardening of their closest neighbours.
This weekend, while many a mango is deleted at Suncorp, New Zealand’s national provincial championship enters its playoff phase. It is worth noting this because the Mitre 10 Cup is the difference between the two nations, plainly and simply.
Much has been said about the decline of the the championship in light of the rise of Super Rugby and the disconnection between the provinces and the All Blacks, but it remains the best domestic competition in the world for generating skilful, athletic and dynamic players and testing them in a regular season that demands conditioning, intellect and preparation.
There is not an All Black who has not been through the provincial championship ranks at some stage of his career. It is the proving ground for the future international stars. Australia’s fledgling, struggling NRC does not yet come close. When it does, Australian rugby will be back in business.
It may seem a bridge too far to be comparing a semiprofessional league with an international fixture but if this season, and New Zealand’s continuing dominance of the southern hemisphere proves one thing, it is that the Mitre !0 Cup is the crucial link between age group greatness and international readiness.
Look through the All Blacks team this weekend: Kane Hames, Nepo Laulala, Scott Barrett, Liam Squire, Sam Cane, Reiko Ioane and Damian McKenzie will all start on Saturday night. All of them played in the Mitre 10 Cup last year, some have strapped on the sprigs this year. They may have then gone on to Super Rugby and, ultimately to All Blacks selection, but their participation in the provincial championship gave their development structure and direction.
Can the Wallabies say the same about their starting team this weekend? Are they being tested in an ultra-competitive environment away from Cheika’s watch and their super rugby squads? Put simply, do the next wave of Wallabies have the runs on the board at the senior level of the game? The answer it seems is no.
That’s why the All Blacks won’t fear them this weekend, and why the All Blacks will win again. All Blacks are made, the Wallabies are selected. It is a harsh reality for our friends across the ditch, but until the investment is made in a domestic league to really sort the wheat from the chaff, those corks will continue to bob in that ocean of indifference, and the results will be the same.
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.