30 Sep

The Difference
by Rick Boyd
30 Sep 2001

One of the most interesting things about current rugby is how New Zealanders and Australians evaluate their relative positions after the recent Tri Nations series, and more generally, rugby in the last five years — to choose an arbitrary figure.

The general consensus is fairly consistent in each country but remarkably divided between the two countries.

In New Zealand, the feeling is that the All Blacks have not been performing to standard. In Australia, they feel that the Wallaby team over this period is not only one of the most successful in the world, but arguably the best team in Australian rugby history. A quick look at the results will reveal a picture remarkably at variance with these attitudes. And thereby hangs the tale of The Difference.

In 1997, the All Blacks defeated the Wallabies three times, and the Wallabies never got closer than 12 points to the All Blacks in any test. At the same time, they went 1-1 with South Africa (although the loss was a 61-22 hiding) and with Argentina, and recorded a win and draw against England. Not a great year. By contrast the All Blacks won all their Tri Nations games and were looking pretty damn good, but only to the uninformed. The inconsistent nature of their play worried more experienced observers, but results like these were hard to argue against.

In 1998 the All Blacks lost a core of experienced players and experienced their annus (or anus, take your pick) horribilis, losing all three games to Australia, although two of these were by 5 points or less, and two against South Africa. Australians were understandably on a high even though they lost two games to South Africa, even if one was by one point, and squeaked home by one point against England. New Zealanders, on the other hand were deeply depressed, although the margins were close enough for informed observers to note that the results might not necessarily reflect the play to any great accuracy.

The world cup year, 1999, saw the Wallabies go 1-1 with the All Blacks, both by big scores and both where the losing team lost it rather than the winning team won it. The Wallabies also went 1-1 with the Springboks, with a good win in the first game but losing the second game by 1 point. They got their revenge in the world cup with a close, late win over South Africa and demolished France in the final. In balance, Australia had the world cup and a 2-1 margin over South Africa and could reasonably describe the year as a success despite a drawn series with New Zealand. Conversely, New Zealanders could only view the year as an abject failure particularly given the humiliating surrender to France in the world cup semi-final. But to look at it objectively, the All Blacks won the Tri-Nations, a competition arguably a better indicator of success than the knock-out world cup, and drew a series with the world cup holders.

The year 2000 started well for Australia with two solid wins over South Africa by a good margin. An astonishing opening game against New Zealand saw them haemorrhage three tries in 7 minutes but come back to play the better rugby and lose only to a late and fairly lucky try to big Jonah. The return game was less dramatic in play but not in conclusion, with a penalty kick in injury time retaining the Bledisloe Cup by the narrowest of margins and winning the Tri Nations for the first time into the bargain, and giving Australians plenty to celebrate. The All Blacks played some wildly inconsistent rugby and the general feeling in New Zealand was disappointment yet again, but in reality the All Blacks had again drawn a series with Australia and with such close results that it would be a brave man who would proclaim one side clearly superior to the other.

Stranger results were to follow in 2001, with the Wallabies winning a close series against the British Lions but losing a series against the Springboks with one close loss and one draw. On the credit side of the ledger they beat a woeful New Zealand in the first test but needed a fortunate late try in the return game to win a series against New Zealand for the first time in three years. The All Blacks won both their tests against the Springboks, the second by a good margin, but were their own worst enemies against Australia. As Australia won the Bledisloe Cup and the Tri-Nations they had much to celebrate while for New Zealanders there was only the by-now familiar bitter pill of defeat to swallow. The objective view, however, reveals that all three teams in the Tri Nations remained within a whisker of each other and there is much credibility to the theory that the Australian victory was technical more than actual.

What does the overall picture tell us? The All Blacks are inconsistent but so close to the Wallabies that finding the better side based on play, rather than results, would be a struggle. The Wallabies are more consistent, but the roll of the die has been in their favour at key times when it could just as easily not have been. And the Springboks are therebaouts as well.And here’s The Difference. Why do All Black supporters view this state of affairs as an unimagined horror, while Wallaby supporters celebrate with unbridled glee?

Firstly, there is undoubtedly the shallow end of the pool, where the results are on the scoreboard and the silverware is in the cabinet. Right now this looks better for Australia than New Zealand but it’s not by a lot, seven wins to five.

But for the better informed there is the matter of play, a subjective topic open to much debate. The All Blacks’ play has undoubtedly been less consistent than Australia’s and their error rate undeniably higher, especially this year, but at times they have been more potent in attack and arguably had the better of the forward exchanges, in the balance. No seasoned rugby observer should really be pleased with the standard of play in this year’s Tri Nations, quite apart from its value as a spectacle. New Zealand has been found seriously wanting in some basic areas of play and subject to a range of errors unacceptable in professional athletes. Australia has done little to capitalise on this and have been dragged down to New Zealand’s standard. The Springboks seem simply devoid of any serious attacking options.

And for everyone there is the matter of EXPECTATION. The All Blacks have a culture of winning, a tradition of success built on great teams of the past. The Invincibles early in the century, the great teams of the 60s who just won and won and won. Buck Shelford’s mighty All Blacks of the 80s, fifty games without loss, four years unbeaten. Rugby is New Zealand’s national sport, the yardstick for New Zealand sporting pride. Too many wins are barely enough.

No matter how objective you care to be about the recent results, being on a par with Australia is not seen as success in New Zealand, it is not even seen as a passing grade. Being on a par with Australia is seen as losing and it’s from this perspective that New Zealanders’ reactions must be judged. Australians, on the other hand, were once widely regarded as a rugby joke, burdened by tags such as The Woeful Wallabies and the Awful Aussies. Their rugby history resounds not with titanic battles on the high veldt but humiliating losses to the likes of Tonga or Scotland. Their meteoric rise to genuine rugby superpower status and current keeper of the silverware cannot be dimmed by allegations of lucky wins, close scores and undistinguished play. A win is a win is a win, and any win will do the job as long as it’s an Australian win.

Perhaps some of this relates to the unenviable rise of Australian urban youth culture best reflected in the underarm bowl and the parochial parodies of Roy and HG, where sportsmanship is an optional extra way down the list from winning. But most of it, it may be contended, stems from the lack of tradition in Australian rugby, the lack of expectation to always win, and always win well. The lack of pressure as the national sport to carry the nation’s psyche into battle and return with victory honours — any sort of win is great and a loss, well, it’s only rugby union after all, not anything really important like cricket.

And there’s the bottom line. We’re pretty even in play, the results are slightly Australia’s way. Australians think this makes the Wallabies the best team in history, New Zealanders think it makes the All Blacks bloody pathetic.

Perspective is an amazing thing, isn’t it?

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