Power plays and player power seem to be at the heart of the dispute threatening to tear Australian and New Zealand rugby apart after trans-Tasman relations sunk to an all-time low when a decision was made for the All Blacks not to play the Wallabies in Perth as scheduled on Saturday night.
Australian anger is palpable. The game was a Bledisloe Cup dead rubber, but it was also a Rugby Championship fixture. The reason NZ Rugby gave for the All Blacks not boarding their flight to Perth was uncertainty about the Rugby Championship schedule and the length of time the players would be away from home.
It may have been a legitimate concern, but it was the manner in which it was communicated – or not – that has Australia-New Zealand relations at breaking point. It was no way to treat a partner, let alone a friend. In recent years New Zealand has been successful at alienating its rugby partners. Last year the Kiwis got both Australia and South Africa offside with their hardline negotiating on the make-up of Super Rugby.
It was as if New Zealand was attempting to show that it was more powerful than its partners and that it would do what was in New Zealand’s interests without consideration for anyone else. This attitude comes from being the best in the world – a “you need us more than we need you” mentality.
It is not just New Zealand rugby’s administration that seems to think this way. In professional sport players deserve a voice, but the All Blacks have a very loud voice indeed. The decision not to send a team to Perth should not have been too surprising given a similar situation almost occurred last year when the All Blacks managed to have the Rugby Championship draw re-adjusted in 2020 to ensure they returned home to spend Christmas with their families.
Now the All Blacks have placed the third Bledisloe Test and the Rugby Championship in jeopardy because players did not want to spend too long away from home. It is understandable given the uncertainty with Covid-19 lockdowns and quarantining, but the Wallabies have already made sacrifices to ensure the Bledisloe Cup and the Rugby Championship went ahead.
The Wallabies have effectively been away from home since late June and changed their own travel plans to make sure back-to-back Tests at Eden Park in Auckland were played. New Zealand’s NRL side, the Warriors, have virtually camped in Australia for two years. But it appears the All Blacks are not willing to put themselves out for anybody.
It would be a brave soul to suggest the All Blacks jersey does not mean everything to New Zealand’s players, but in this modern, commercialised game, does it mean just as much as it did in the past?
The Original All Blacks toured Britain, France and North America in 1905-06. They departed for England aboard the Rimutaka on 30 July and returned from San Francisco the following January, six months away from home. The “Originals” set the benchmark for all future All Blacks sides. It is a legacy that has been handed down from one generation of New Zealanders to the next.
After winning back-to-back World Cups in 2011 and 2015 the All Blacks placed themselves head and shoulders above every rugby nation on earth. But they are no longer the No 1 team in the world, even if they do have the most marketable brand. They wallop the Wallabies every year, but the current generation did not beat the British and Irish Lions in 2017 and did not win the 2019 World Cup in Japan.
After defeating the Wallabies for the 19th year in a row in the Bledisloe Cup series, the All Blacks were meant to challenge South Africa in the Rugby Championship. The Springboks are the reigning world champions and recently defeated the Lions 2-1. They are the No 1 side in the world and their match-up with the All Blacks is the game the rugby world has been waiting for. But now it may not happen, at least not this year.
New Zealand is a great rugby nation, arguably the greatest, but it is a small country, which has saturated its own market. In troubling times old friends are good friends. Australia and New Zealand will no doubt patch up their fractured relationship, if only because the two countries are mutually dependent on each other, but it will take time to regain trust.
Australians have complained about a lack of respect from New Zealand in this current imbroglio, but ultimately, there is only one way for Australia to command respect from the Kiwis – on and off the field – and that is for the Wallabies to start beating the All Blacks again.