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In memoriam: NZ rugby, 1884-2018

The finger of blame for New Zealand rugby's failures, writes Steve Deane, must be pointed squarely at those at fault: Australians.

The inscription on the urn containing the ashes of the match balls, strapping tape and Steve Hansen’s empty diet coke bottle should read: “In affectionate remembrance of New Zealand Rugby, which died on the fields of Dublin and Grenoble on November 17, 2018.”

That’s right. New Zealand rugby is dead. There is no other way to explain defeats by the world champion Black Ferns and All Blacks on the same day to teams they almost never – or actually never – lose to.

The only sensible way to deal with the shock of these reverses is to burn some junk, place the Ashes in a weird little vase, and then pretend they are of massive importance for the next century-and-a-half.

Sure, this has been done before. But it worked, didn’t it.

And, right now, New Zealand rugby needs to focus on what works. Which rules out the All Blacks’ scrum, line-out, set moves, legally contesting breakdowns and catching the rugby ball.

On the positive side, Beauden Barrett is now really good at drop goals. So it’s not a dead loss.

The evidence served up by the weekend’s reverses is grim, suggesting that, right now, Ireland is the best men’s rugby team in the world and France the pre-eminent power in the women’s game.

The country’s finest rugby minds (which realistically contain a similar quality of brain matter as a below average accountant) will be hellbent on figuring out a way out of this mess.

Luckily, they needn’t ponder too hard and long. The answer is straightforward: The All Blacks and Black Ferns must stop playing Australia.

Despite being utterly unable to compete on the field, Australian rugby has nefariously achieved its ultimate goal: it has brought NZ rugby to its knees.

New Zealand rugby has been dragged down to Australia’s level, which turns out to be somewhat below that of the French and Irish.

History suggests that if we burn some tat, retain the ashes and make up a bullshit story, the Brits will do anything to get their hands on such a wonderful ‘trophy’.

It’s a classic case of no good deed going unpunished. It may well be the decent thing for New Zealand’s elite rugby players to spend the bulk of their time playing against strugglers from a minnow nation, but there is a price to be paid for such charity.

By measuring themselves constantly against Australians, both in super rugby and the endless series of non-competitive All Blacks-Wallabies test matches, New Zealand’s rugby players and coaches are being given a false impression of their ability.

Beating the Queensland Reds in Brisbane or subduing the Wallabies in Sydney used to be a fair indicator that things were on the right track. These days, such results are meaningless. A 50-point blow-out against the Wallabies provides about as much preparation for a clash with the fighting Irish as a walk up Mt Eden does for an assault on K2’s north face.

In fairness to Australia, South Africa is almost as culpable. New Zealand rugby used to be able to rely on these arch foes to keep our rapier sharp. These days we need to constantly remind ourselves that they are second-tier opposition - and that the real challenges in the global game lie in the North.

Last year’s drawn Lions series wasn’t an aberration brought about by a Sonny Bill Williams' shoulder charge and dodgy officiating. It was clear sign of how things really are. The weekend underscored that.

The only sensible solution is to ditch regular engagements with Australia and South Africa and look north for more meaningful fixtures.

But how can that be achieved in a crowded rugby calendar where the hemispheres align about as neatly as a Dane Coles line-out throw, I hear you ask?

Simple.

History suggests that if we burn some tat, retain the ashes and make up a bullshit story, the Brits will do anything to get their hands on such a wonderful ‘trophy’.

For those not fully familiar with the story of cricket’s Ashes, the popular myth is that, after suffering a painful defeat by Australia in 1882, English cricket authorities burned the bails from the match and placed them in an urn that would become the trophy over which both nations would obsess forever.

What actually happened is that, in 1882, an English journalist called Shirley published a mock obituary in the Sporting Times following a defeat by Australia at the Oval.

It read: "In affectionate remembrance of English Cricket which died at the Oval on 29 August 1882. Deeply lamented by a large circle of sorrowing friends and acquaintances. RIP. NB.- The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia."

A year later when England toured Australia, as a bit of a piss-take, two sheilas called Janet, Lady Clarke and Florence Morphy presented the English captain Ivo Bligh with a silver urn containing the “Ashes of English cricket”.

Given that Bligh’s team won the series 2-1, the joke was actually on Janet and her mates. None of which matters much now - other than illustrating the difference between perception and reality. Which, of course, is exactly the nature of the chickens that came home to roost for New Zealand rugby fans over the weekend.

At least we know who is to blame.

Thanks a bunch, Australia. It’s been real. We’ll be in touch. But don’t call us. We’ll call you.

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