With the opening Blediscoe Cup test approaching, Wallabies and All Blacks selectors face the dilemma of whether to keep their powder dry ahead of this autumn’s World Cup, or commit to delivering a statement performance.
Steve Hansen has indicated he is treating the Blediscoe with the respect its tradition and history deserve, but the situation is fundamentally different for New Zealand, who, as the incumbent victors, need to win only one if the two tests to retain the trophy. If they do win on Saturday, expect Hansen to rest players in the second test.
This truncated format, which occurs every World Cup cycle, devalues the series. The Blediscoe, once the meeting of the world’s two best sides, has also been undermined by the All Blacks 17 year stranglehold.
Fundamentally, a competitive Australia is essential for southern hemisphere rugby, and the trans-Tasman rivalry is one of rugby’s most entertaining and important. Its health is crucial to that of the broader game.
Certainly, the Blediscoe Cup and Rugby Championship suffer far more than the Six Nations in a world cup year. Nobody could doubt Wales, Ireland or England’s commitment to winning this year’s tournament, whereas the fluctuations in selections and form of the Rugby Championship sides would suggest otherwise. It cannot be positive that every four years the tournament is reduced in quality and commitment.
According to Bret Harris, writing in The Guardian, “the obsession with winning the Webb Ellis Cup is having a detrimental effect on other important competitions, which sustain the game over a four-year cycle”.
Meanwhile, for Cheika, the situation is more complex, but the Wallabies have far less to lose than the All Blacks. They also, by virtue of the dire state of Australian rugby, have far more to gain. Indeed, former Wallabies captain Phil Waugh believes the Australians have a rare opportunity to damage the ‘vulnerable’ All Blacks.
Waugh suggests, “the All Blacks, they’ve been beaten by Ireland, they’ve been beaten by South Africa and I think they’re not nearly as dominant as they were almost to the point where you could say, are they the best team in the world at the moment?”
“I really don’t know.”
“Because you’ve got Ireland, you’ve got Wales, who went through a Grand Slam, and you’ve got South Africa who are picking players from all around the world now, so world class players getting picked for the Springboks.”
So, do the Wallabies risk losing players to injury and attempt to recover some impetus and momentum ahead of the tournament? Cheika must tread the tightrope between the two. The risk remains: would a victory against the All Blacks be worth it if they lost Michael Hooper to injury?
Ultimately however, a loss to the All Blacks would in no way derail the Aussies preparation; the expectations are currently so low that they really have little to lose. For the New Zealanders however, they face far greater pressure. Questions are being asked about their status as the worlds best, and the failure to dominate the Australians would only heighten concerns.
The Blediscoe may not be as important as it once was, but it remains interesting, full of intrigue, and with the potential to impact this autumn’s events.
Written by Joe Ronan