New Australia coach Dave Rennie deserves admiration for standing up for the Wallabies over the Bledisloe Cup scheduling imbroglio with New Zealand. Rennie’s hairy-chested declaration that his team will boycott the first Test if they are forced to undertake an “unacceptable” preparation will win the support of the Australian players.
But the threat to the Kiwis also threatens to further strain trans-Tasman relations, which have already been damaged by the dispute over the composition of a future Super Rugby competition involving both nations.
New Zealand will host two Bledisloe Tests next month before the six-week Rugby Championship is staged in Australia. It is understood New Zealand would prefer the first Bledisloe to be played on October 10, while Australia wants it held a week later on October 17. Both countries have good reasons for wanting the game on a particular date.
Apart from the North-South trial, New Zealand’s top players have not played high-quality rugby since the conclusion of Super Rugby Aotearoa on 15 August. Although battle-hardened by the high intensity of the domestic competition, there are genuine fears the All Blacks would not be match-fit after a two-month break, which is why they would rather play the Wallabies sooner than later.
If the opening Bledisloe is played on 10 October, the New Zealand government’s strict coronavirus quarantine rules would mean the Wallabies have to depart from Australia on Sunday, the day after the Super Rugby AU final between the Brumbies and Reds in Canberra.
The Wallabies would be required to spend the first four days in New Zealand isolated in their hotel rooms. While group sizes would increase over the next 10 days, the Australians would not be able to train together as a team until a week from the Test. Meanwhile, the All Blacks would be able to prepare normally, giving them a huge advantage. You can understand Rennie not wanting to play under those conditions.
While Rennie certainly has a point, many sporting teams have had to make enormous sacrifices to ensure various competitions could take place during the coronavirus pandemic – AFL and NRL teams have had to go through a great deal to get their competitions up and running while the Melbourne Rebels and Western Force had to relocate interstate for several weeks to enable Super Rugby AU to go ahead.
In that context, Rennie’s comments would seem rather churlish. It is also worth remembering that New Zealand’s coronavirus restrictions were the main reason the Kiwis lost Rugby Championship hosting rights. It seemed almost certain New Zealand would host the tournament until Sanzaar decided last week to award the event to Australia. Australian administrators were jumping for joy, but Australia cannot have it both ways.
A cynic might suggest Rennie is already making excuses for losing the first Bledisloe Cup Test. The coach was brought in to turn the Wallabies around and he will be wanting to make a positive statement in his first Test outing to give Australian players and fans reason to hope for the future. A hammering by the All Blacks may cause psychological damage to the Wallabies that could take a long time from which to recover.
With an eye to the future, Rennie named 16 uncapped players in the Wallabies’ 44-man squad over the weekend. Another 13 players have played fewer than 10 Tests. The average number of caps amongst the squad is just 17.
Asked whether the Wallabies were capable of beating the All Blacks, Rennie hesitated for a moment before answering “yep”. Of course he would say that, but the Wallabies have not held the Bledisloe Cup since 2002 and their record against the All Blacks over the last four years has been poor.
No doubt Rennie is anxious to see how members of Australia’s Under-20 world championship-winning team – the so-called golden generation – will perform at the next level, but he may need to adopt a measured approach to introducing rookies to the Test arena. The temptation to make changes is powerful for a new coach, but did the previous generation of players fail because they simply were not good enough or were there other factors?
It would be interesting to see whether some of the more experienced players responded to new strategies, tactics and culture. You could argue the previous generation has become too accustomed to losing, particularly against the All Blacks, but if young players, no matter how gifted, are rushed into Test rugby before they are ready, there is a danger their confidence could be destroyed before the careers even begin.
Part of Rennie’s argument for refusing to play the All Blacks on 10 October is that “we’ll have some young guys introducing themselves to some of our other Wallabies two weeks into the camp, so it’s unacceptable”. But that is not New Zealand’s problem. Rennie’s frustration at playing on 10 October is understandable, but a boycott is a big threat, not one you make unless you are prepared to carry it out, and potentially, even worse if you are.