Enough is enough. Time to end the one-sided farce that is the Bledisloe Cup.
Australia simply cannot match the world No1 New Zealand, not now, not in the foreseeable future, and to draw out this one sided thrash-a-thon just drags Australian rugby further and further into the mud.
Surely even the Kiwis are getting bored of this annual mismatch.
The Bledisloe Cup has always been dominated by New Zealand but over the last decade and a half that dominance has become farcical.
Since 1932 the Bledisoe has been “contested” 58 times with New Zealand winning on 46 occasions and Australia just 12.
The longest winning streak for Australia has been just five years, from 1998 to 2002, a period which featured many of the greatest players in Wallabies history: John Eales, Tim Horan, George Gregan, Toutai Kefu, Joe Roff, Jason Little, Stirling Mortlock, Stephen Larkham, David Wilson and Chris Latham.
An era during which Australia also claimed their second Rugby World Cup crown.
In contrast New Zealand’s current 16-year run only just eclipses their 13-year streak which stretched over 27 years from 1951-78.
The Bledisloe is already the most one-sided two-team sporting contest in the world and is made far worse by the fact that it is played across three Tests a year.
For Wallabies fans that’s three times the misery. For All Blacks fans three times the chance to gloat.
But even the increasingly strident New Zealand supporters are becoming more and more restrained as the Bledisloe increases in embarrassment levels year after year.
Indeed these days the All Blacks are trying to talk their opponents up in the hope of some kind of a contest, with coach Steve Hansen comically declaring the Wallabies as favourites for Bledisloe 1 this year.
Hansen may be a great coach but he is clearly not a good tipster as the Wallabies fell to a 38-13 shellacking, following on from their 42-8 and 54-34 drubbings in the corresponding fixture in the previous two years.
It is not that the Wallabies are that bad – they currently sit fifth on the World Rugby rankings – it is that the All Blacks are that good.
It’s hard to blame coach Michael Cheika, captain Michael Hooper or even Rugby Australia for this Bledisloe mess.
They are doing as well as they can.
The preparation for this year’s Bledisloe was meticulous with Cheika and his support staff turning over every stone in an effort to tame the All Blacks machine.
They even tried a well-attended inter-squad trial match to try and get the Wallabies match ready, which worked in the first half at least.
Rugby Australia CEO Raelene Castle and her team also did a superb effort selling the game, even adding a double-header of the Black Ferns against the Wallaroos – to swell the crowd to an impressive 66,318.
Wonder how Jack Goodhue made this linebreak from kick restart?— Christy Doran (@ChristypDoran) August 19, 2018
A seriously clever blocking line from All Blacks hooker Codie Taylor.
Tatafu Polota-Nau pushes his aside, Goodhue runs straight through.
Jaco Peyper misses it completely #BledisloeCup pic.twitter.com/lUUGczcNBi
If you are looking for someone to blame – blame Australian Rules and to a lesser extent rugby league.
Whereas in New Zealand – and Tonga, Samoa and even Fiji – most young boys grow up dreaming of becoming an All Black, in Australia they dream of playing for Collingwood or West Coast in the AFL.
Rugby has a very small talent pool to draw on with the game played only in wealthy private schools and a few public schools, with even the best of those players skimmed off the top by rugby league talent scouts who have 16 professional team rosters to fill where rugby has just four.
Australia simply cannot compete with New Zealand and the gap is only growing.
To be termed a sporting contest an event has to be just that – a contest.
The Bledisloe stopped being that over a decade ago and to continue it further is just like watching Roger Federer destroy a qualifier over and over again in the opening rounds of Wimbledon.
You can admire Fed’s majestic stroke play but even that soon loses appeal.
So what would it be replaced with?
Easy – add Japan and a Pacific Islands Lions side to the Rugby Championship and run a southern hemisphere “six nations”.
Each side plays each other side once – and if you must the Bledisloe Cup can be continued as part of that as a one-off match each year, like the Calcutta Cup in the Six Nations.
Making it a one-off also gives the chance of an upset which is nearly impossible in a three-match series.
The new “Southern Six Nations” would develop rugby in Japan and the Pacific Islands as well as giving more nations around the world a chance to see the great All Blacks live.
This would make five Test matches in the August-October window for the All Blacks, rather than six, and if they must add another then make it against the Springboks – a genuine opponent from another nation where rugby is king.
It would also be good news for Australian rugby.
Freed from the annual slaughter (and pressure) of the Bledisloe, the Wallabies could start to rebuild confidence and the crowds may start to return to watch a winning team.
Melbourne Rebels back Sefa Naivalu will travel with the side to Auckland today as part of an updated 28-man squad.
“He’s (Folau) got a small tear in a muscle right down low. Quite rare really but it’s actually not a long-term injury at all, just a lot of swelling. We’re hopeful he’ll be back for the game in Brisbane against the Springboks,” said Wallabies coach Michael Cheika.
“It’s an opportunity for someone to come into the team. I thought Jack Maddocks had some nice touches and he got a taste of what Test footy is all about. I would say between himself and Tom Banks, they will be looking to fill that spot this week during training and whoever gets that opportunity, I’m sure will go well.
“I think it’s logical to bring in a winger in like Naivalu as we have Maddocks who can play winger and fullback as well as Banks who is an out-and-out fullback.”
For Rugby fans, concern for Israel Folau is lateral (low) ankle sprain. More common form of ankle sprain where foot rolls in; often looks worse than it is. Folau left the ground on crutches, low grade sprain he’s likely fine for next wk. Mod-high grade likely 2-6 week recovery pic.twitter.com/IJ8q9UQTpG— NRL PHYSIO (@nrlphysio) August 18, 2018
Brumbies pair Folau Faingaa and Rory Arnold as well as Rebels centre Billy Meakes will meet the side in Auckland to assist preparations in a train-on capacity.
The Wallabies will square off against New Zealand at Eden Park on Saturday night, where they haven’t tasted victory since 1986.
Updated Qantas Wallabies 28-man squad for second Bledisloe Cup clash (Test caps, Vodafone Super Rugby side and age)
Jermaine Ainsley (1 Test, Melbourne Rebels, 23)
Allan Alaalatoa (23 Tests, Brumbies, 24)
Adam Coleman (24 Tests, Melbourne Rebels, 26)
Ned Hanigan (13 Tests, NSW Waratahs, 23)
Michael Hooper (c) (83 Tests, NSW Waratahs, 26)
Sekope Kepu (95 Tests, NSW Waratahs, 32)
Tolu Latu (8 Tests, NSW Waratahs, 25)
David Pocock (70 Tests, Brumbies, 30)
Tatafu Polota-Nau (83 Tests, Leicester, 33)
Tom Robertson (22 Tests, NSW Waratahs, 23)
Izack Rodda (8 Tests, Queensland Reds, 21)
Pete Samu (4 Tests, Brumbies, 26)
Rob Simmons (86 Tests, NSW Waratahs, 29)
Scott Sio (46 Tests, Brumbies, 26)
Lukhan Tui (8 Tests, Queensland Reds, 21)
Taniela Tupou (4 Tests, Queensland Reds, 22)
Tom Banks* (uncapped, Brumbies, 24)
Kurtley Beale (75 Tests, NSW Waratahs, 29)
Bernard Foley (59 Tests, NSW Waratahs, 28)
Will Genia (91 Tests, Melbourne Rebels, 30)
Dane Haylett-Petty (22 Tests, Melbourne Rebels, 29)
Reece Hodge (28 Tests, Melbourne Rebels, 23)
Marika Koroibete (12 Tests, Melbourne Rebels, 26)
Jack Maddocks (1 cap, Melbourne Rebels, 21)
Sefa Naivalu (7 Tests, Melbourne Rebels, 26)
Nick Phipps (65 Tests, NSW Waratahs, 29)
Joe Powell (4 Tests, Brumbies, 24)
Matt Toomua (34 Tests, Leicester/Melbourne Rebels, 28)
The posters were taken from a South African rugby magazine, so emblazoned across the picture of Smith were the words: “Enemy threat.”
However, even then Pocock didn’t see these Wallaby legends that way. They were already his idols.
But which one did he want to be – Smith or Larkham?
“I’m not sure,” he laughs, “I just wanted to be out there.
“At primary school I played pretty much the No8 and mostly five eighth (fly-half). I was pretty happy with either.”
Big week of training in Cessnock. Thanks for the hospitality and thanks to all the locals involved in making it run smoothly and being such an enjoyable week. Home for a couple of days before heading back to Sydney for the Bledisloe.— David Pocock (@pocockdavid) August 9, 2018
📷: @qantaswallabies pic.twitter.com/fUJJtDm5It
It’s fitting that when Pocock made his Test debut less than a decade later the man he replaced that day in Hong Kong was the “Enemy Threat” from his bedroom wall back in Gweru – George Smith.
And the opponent – the same as this Saturday at the Olympic Stadium in Sydney – the All Blacks.
“Your debut is always special” he recalls, “playing against them (the All Blacks) in 2008.
“I think I only got eight minutes off the bench but to have a coach (Robbie Deans) who believed in you enough as an untapped player to pick for your first Test – against the All Blacks – and then to actually get an opportunity.
“That was huge for me leading into that Spring Tour and something you think about from time to time.”
Pocock doesn’t recall the score or even who he replaced.
“Was George still on?” he asks.
“You’re so wired, you’ve been sitting on the bench for seventy minutes. You just get out there…
“I probably ran around like a headless chook. I guess that’s the nature of it. You’ve got seven minutes to play a role and try to make an impact. I don’t remember the score to be honest.”
For the record the All Blacks won 19-14, thanks to a try a piece to Sitiveni Sivivatu and Richie McCaw, while for the Wallabies winger Drew Mitchell scored a double.
Although the details may be hazy one thing Pocock will never forget is the feeling of pulling on that famous gold jersey for the first time.
“That is a special memory”, the 30-year-old says.
“It really sinks in after a game when you look around and there’s Matt Giteau and George Smith, Stirling Mortlock and Nathan Sharpe – all these guys you’ve been watching play on TV since you were playing at primary school pretty much.”
He’ll also never forget the special welcome Smith gave him, even though the youngster who went by the name of “Bam Bam” (from The Flintstones) was soon to threaten his place in the run on team.
“George – he had my back,” remembers the Brumbies fetcher.
“He went out of his way to make me feel welcome. I remember getting picked ahead of him (against New Zealand in Tokyo in 2009) and he was the first one to shake my hand – that was the kind of guy he was.
“He was always wanting to share knowledge, make the team better.
“Now as an older player you want to be feeling that as well – passing on knowledge, trying to make the players around you better at what they do.”
There is one thing however that Larkham and Smith have up on Pocock – they won the Bledisloe Cup.
That is an honour the 60 Test veteran, about to embark on his eighth Bledisloe Cup campaign, is yet to experience.
Pocock more than anyone understands the challenge which faces Michael Cheika’s side.
“It’s always a huge game (against the All Blacks),” he explains.
“The challenge for us now is we are coming up against the No1 team in the world and they have been there for a very long time.
“There is a long history between the teams. You grow up watching Bledisloe Cup games – there’s definitely meaning there. You want to be playing at your best.”
The breakdown will be key on Saturday, as it is whenever these two nations meet.
“I think it’s always an important part of these games,” acknowledges Pocock.
“Both teams want to be playing on the front foot, want to get fast ball. And defensively are trying to stop the other team from having that fast ball.
“So both teams will be looking to defend well and slow the ball down or even steal it.”
Pocock’s challenge is even greater when you consider he is coming up against two of the best backrowers in the business – Sam Cane and All Blacks captain Kieran Read.
“They’ve been around for a while now and I’m sure it’s going to be a really good contest,” says Pocock.
But the Wallabies also have their own world class combination in Pocock and captain Michael Hooper.
“I love playing alongside Hoops,” smiles Pocock.
“We get on really well off the field and on the field it’s been a great challenge and relationship to find ways to be doing things better, and make that combination work.
“We’ve also got a lot more depth in the loose forwards now which is great. There’s a number of guys who can step up. That’s really healthy and great for the Wallabies.”
Pocock is also trying to add new elements to his own game, reawaken his inner Larkham that was born on those Zimbabwean playing fields all those years ago and play more of a linking role between backs and forwards.
“It’s been something I’ve been trying to work on,” he reveals.
“It was part of the reason for the move to the Brumbies (from the Western Force). To learn from someone like Stephen Larkham, when I made the move in 2013.
“Then I guess that was part of my decision making to play a season in Japan (where he linked with former Wallabies coach Deans) and work on that further.
“It’s a bit more faster, free-flowing game (in Japan) so you get a bit more of an opportunity there.”
But for Saturday Pocock and the rest of his team mates want just one thing – to get their Bledisloe Cup campaign off to a winning start, something they have done just three times in New Zealand’s 15 year dominance of the Cup.
“One of their hallmarks is playing for eighty minutes,” Pocock says of the All Blacks.
“So that’s got to be part of it (winning tonight). You have to be at your best for eighty minutes and making good decisions.
“The game’s often coming down to one or two turnovers that they capitalize on and score tries. I think that consistency is important.”
The Wallabies also must make the right split-second decisions.
The Aussie who has ABs on 'high alert' https://t.co/7tkdX5wSpg— nzherald (@nzherald) August 13, 2018
“I think that teams that have a lot of understanding how they want to play,” he says, “and how the players around them play or their habits – you make better decisions.
“That’s a challenge coming out of Super Rugby into the Wallabies. Get those combinations working – and really spend time with each other and prepare well.”
But as the Men of Gold begin their mighty challenge tonight, Pocock will think back to the memories of those faded posters on his bedroom wall.
As he does every time he takes the field for the Wallabies, those former players will be with him.
“Obviously it’s a really proud history,” he says, “and when you’re running out there you’re wanting to play in a way that not only makes player who have gone before you proud but all supporters of Australian rugby.”
“Australians – and then obviously as an immigrant, there’s a bunch of people in Zimbabwe who now watch and support the Wallabies.
“That’s who you are hoping to do proud and hopefully play in a way that inspires the next generation of players, the future Wallabies.”