On the back of another record loss to New Zealand, ensuring Lord Bledisloe’s trophy will stay on the other side of the ditch for the 19th consecutive year, it’s time Rugby Australia cease this annual humiliation-fest against the world’s best team.
Seriously, what’s the point of holding the Bledisloe Cup every year? Who is it serving?
The Wallabies get beaten, Aussie players have their confidence battered and coaches lose their jobs, all so the All Blacks can hoist a massive trophy after a training run.
And it’s not like we’re suffering through an anomalous situation, with the current, near two-decade run not even the Aussies’ longest stretch of time without a series win, the Kiwis having held the trophy from 1951 until 1979.
That means in a pair of ridiculous victory streaks alone, New Zealand have held the Bledisloe Cup for almost half the competition’s entire history.
What’s more, since the series began in 1932 (the 1931 match was a one-off, so we won’t count it – although, for the record, New Zealand won), the Kiwis have won 49 series to Australia’s 12.
That gives the Wallabies a winning record of slightly less than 20 per cent in almost 90 years of competition.
To put the current 19-loss streak in historical context, it is a particularly bad run but we should really only have expected to win three series in that time.
So, again, why do we keep doing this?
The obvious argument is because New Zealand is right there, geographically speaking. Our cuzzies are really easy to visit – and have come visit us.
But do you know where else is easy to visit and vice-versa? Pacific islands like Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. Japan isn’t a world away either, particularly in comparison to sending a national team and its myriad support staff to Aotearoa.
It’s not the 1930s anymore. Planes make international travel pretty simple.
Granted, it is the 2020s and COVID-19 makes international travel pretty difficult, but that’s true of New Zealand as much as the other nations mentioned (and, obviously, fingers crossed a discussion about rugby’s future isn’t going to be coloured by the pandemic much longer).
Then there is the argument that you should want to test yourself against the best, as it’s the only way you’ll ever find out how good you really are.
But is anyone under the illusion that the Wallabies are in the same conversation as New Zealand? Aren’t 19 series losses in a row evidence enough that the men in gold are much, much worse at the game of rugby union?
Sure, the Aussies jag a win here and there, but winning series is about sustained excellence, not a bit of luck or simply coming up against a team that have already claimed the silverware so aren’t particularly desperate anymore.
Word Rugby’s ranking system is imperfect but New Zealand at number two is about right, give or take (definitely give) one spot. Likewise, the Aussies at six (as at time of writing) is probably around about where they belong, with the argument they should be above France at five probably tempered by the fact Argentina, who are at seven, finished last year’s Tri Nations above Australia.
So second-best team plays sixth-best. What outcome would a neutral observer expect?
I suppose we do need to be aware of tradition – this is, after all, one of the code’s greatest, most historic trophies.
But did you notice that while we’ve been competing for the Bledisloe since 1932, there have only been 61 series?
That’s because holding the competition every year is relatively new. For the first 50 years, the Bledisloe was held, more or less, every second year.
And that’s what I propose we return to. Not that we stop playing New Zealand altogether, nor that we turn the Bledisloe into some mythical tournament that is held once every Olympiad.
We would continue to play the All Blacks every year in the Rugby Championship, but every other year that would be all that’s on the line (mind you, it’s not too shabby a carrot), with an extra game to make the Bledisloe a best-of-three series held only on alternating years.
That gives the Wallabies a year off after losing the trophy to a country with a population smaller than that of Melbourne. Take an extra 12 months to lick our wounds, look at where we went wrong and – dare I say it – possibly even improve.
To be clear, I’m aware three matches aren’t required to contest the Bledisloe. I’m just saying, in the interest of better theatre and more money, we’d factor an extra, non-Rugby Championship match against New Zealand every other year – a bit like how the early years of the Mandela Plate were played against South Africa.
As for what we do in the other years, how about taking on the nations mentioned above? Why not play Fiji (rated 11th in the World Rugby rankings), Samoa (13), Tonga (15) and Japan (10) in two or three-match series?
Aside from the fact it gives Australia a chance to be the favourites for a change – which has its own challenges that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for the Wallabies to deal with on a regular basis – this would also help these nations improve and serve as a shot in the arm for the entire game globally.
No, playing these countries may not come with the history and prestige of the Bledisloe, but a story has to begin somewhere.
And to date, we have shamefully little narrative to speak of against our other neighbours, having only ever played Fiji 22 times, Samoa six, Japan five and Tonga four. The latter three, in particular, are seriously embarrassing numbers.
These are nations that are growing in their rugby prowess, so it’s not like an Aussie victory would be a fait accompli – particularly as the years go on – and they each also have strong heritage presence on these shores, so crowds and TV audiences wouldn’t necessarily diminish.
Although, on that latter point, after going on 20 years of annual floggings, the Bledisloe is no longer a blue riband event for broadcasters and ticket sellers.
The Nine Network don’t regard international rugby as being worthy of their primary channel, showing the Bledisloe on Gem. What’s more, having sat through more ads for Happy Nappers than I care to recall while watching Saturday’s game, I’m guessing Wallabies matches are just about the cheapest ad-spot going on the supplementary channel. That’s bad news.
What’s arguably worse is that apparently even the Kiwis are sick of watching us lose, with just over 25,000 locals turning up to watch in the flesh.
Yes, it had been games against the Wallabies on consecutive weekends at the same venue, but when you can only half-fill a stadium for a Test match in rugby-mad Auckland, there’s clearly an issue.
And it’s this issue that gives RA a modicum of madman power.
Their games don’t rate, people aren’t turning up to them, and their team loses anyway. That’s not a losing hand, it’s the singed remains of cards that long since went up in flames.
But that allows RA to try something wild, like tell the NZR that they’re not going to play the greatest nation in the history of Test rugby every year in a series that ends in humiliation.
Hey, it’s not like the crowds or ratings are going to get worse. In fact, if the Wallabies win against teams that have local followings, logic suggests financial drivers would improve. And the Bledisloe would be better for it as well, eliminating concerns of familiarity having bred contempt.
Maybe most importantly of all, I reckon Australia would actually stand a better chance of winning this most revered of trans-Tasman trophies on the years it was up for grabs.
Replace a loss every other year with a win – even if it’s subbing one win against inferior opposition for one loss against superior – is going to be better for the Wallabies. Winning is a habit and all that jazz.
Plus, in the years the Bledisloe isn’t on the table, we’re still in a contest with the All Blacks for a respected piece of silverware, one which we have actually won twice (once as the Tri Nations, once as the Rugby Championship) in these 19 Bledisloe-less years.
At the very least, you’d have confidence going into a Bledisloe series knowing you’ve beaten the All Blacks for the only trophy you were both in a contest for the year prior.
Ultimately, the current situation reminds me of that old joke about the man who’s about to get divorced for the fifth time and he asks a friend what he’s doing wrong.
“You keep getting married!”
If the Aussies want to stop losing the Bledisloe Cup every year, there’s a very simple solution.
Stop playing it!