Wellington: International rugby resumes this weekend when New Zealand’s All Blacks face Australia’s Wallabies in Wellington, but the mood ahead of the match is one of festering resentment rather than celebration.
As the southern hemisphere heavyweights prepared this week for Sunday’s Bledisloe Cup opener, Rugby Australia chairman Hamish McLennan admitted relations with his New Zealand counterparts were at an all-time low.
“There is respect there, but the relationship is at probably the lowest ebb it’s ever been,” he said.
The neighbours normally pride themselves on maintaining rugby union’s ethos of having a fierce rivalry on the pitch, then setting aside any differences once the final whistle blows.
But the intense financial pressures the COVID-19 pandemic has created in an already cash-strapped sport have opened up deep divisions over Rugby Championship scheduling and the future of the southern hemisphere Super Rugby club competition.
The result has been threats of boycotts, accusations of misrepresentation and a steady stream of potshots hurled from both sides of the Tasman Sea.
The Wellington Test was in danger of not going ahead when Australia coach Dave Rennie complained that New Zealand’s strict border controls would prevent his team training together, leaving them ill-prepared to face the All Blacks.
“Under those quarantine arrangements, I can assure you we won’t be playing a Test that weekend,” he said, prompting officials in Wellington to back down and ease the rules.
The New Zealanders were keen to host the two-Test Bledisloe series after losing rights to stage the upcoming Rugby Championship to Australia, another sore point in trans-Tasman relations.
New Zealand were initially told they would host the four-nation tournament — which also includes South Africa and Argentina — only for governing body SANZAAR to switch venues to Australia because quarantine rules there were more relaxed.
SANZAAR and the Australians then further angered New Zealand by scheduling their final Test on December 12, meaning players face the prospect of spending Christmas in isolation under New Zealand’s two-week quarantine requirements.
“I’ve had one player that has barged in my door and said ‘I’m not playing at Christmas’,” New Zealand coach Ian Foster revealed.
The Australians countered that if the Kiwis had been hosting they would have forced the Wallabies into Christmas isolation, and claimed New Zealand Rugby had signed off on a schedule that included the December 12 Test.
New Zealand Rugby denied both allegations, saying it had been “blindsided”, and has not ruled out boycotting the final Rugby Championship fixture.
“We do challenge those that have made comments concerning NZR’s integrity, we defend our position and we’re firm on it,” NZR chairman Brent Impey said, insisting New Zealand never agreed to a Test on the disputed date.
The scheduling dispute can probably be settled if those involved are willing to set aside bruised egos and compromise, but Super Rugby represents a deeper division with far-reaching implications for the game’s future in the southern hemisphere.
The club competition — which was suspended because of the pandemic, forcing Australia and New Zealand to run domestic versions — has long been acknowledged as unwieldy, expensive to run, and confusing for fans.
New Zealand’s proposed replacement not only ditched teams from South Africa and Argentina, but had room for only between two and four of Australia’s five sides due to a perceived lack of player depth.
Rugby Australia maintained all of its teams must be included and accused New Zealand Rugby of arrogance, a perception reinforced when Foster said the competition had no room for weak links.
As it stands, New Zealand and Australia are set to continue to operate separate domestic Super Rugby competitions in 2021, although plans remain fluid in such uncertain times.
Whatever happens, the battle on the pitch between the All Blacks and Wallabies at Wellington Regional Stadium on Sunday may have a hard time matching the fireworks off the field.