In the wake of London 2012, Sydney’s eyes turned to the home of the 2000 Games for the latest edition of what is perhaps rugby’s greatest rivalry: the Bledisloe Cup. Trainloads of tweed-clad fans poured off trains from the city’s well-to-do north shore, cutting a sharp contrast with the All Blacks’ considerably more ‘earthy’ supporters.
It was a shame, though, that only 76,877 of Sydney’s most patriotic toffee noses – and a noisy band of conspicuous Kiwis – made their way to Homebush for the biggest game of the season. Perhaps it had something to do with the sky-high ticket prices, obviously designed with the affluence of their target demographic in mind. The cheapest adult tickets in the nosebleeds cost $89 and a spot on the flanks set you back $179. It was hardly a surprise that large pockets remained empty, and it’s remarkable how much of a toll that takes on the atmosphere compared to when there’s not a spare seat in the joint.
It was hardly the bubbling cauldron the advertising campaign portrayed. “They’re not at home anymore”, it stated ominously, promising to exact revenge for Australia’s tepid performance at last year’s World Cup. A stadium filled with cucumber-sandwich-scoffing accountants hardly struck fear into the indomitable All Blacks, who performed the haka to as silent a gallery as I have ever witnessed at sport besides for an actual minute’s silence. And as much as I adore ‘Land Down Under‘, blaring Men at Work over the PA system is a pretty weak return of serve.
Perhaps people stayed away because they didn’t give the Wallabies much of a chance, just like the bookies, who rated them $2.80 outsiders. Unfortunately, Robbie Deans’ men lived up (or is it down?) to those expectations.
Israel Dagg scooted over for the first try before Scott Higginbotham spurned a golden chance to allow NZ to march up the other end and add another five-pointer via Cory Jane. Despite their best efforts to butcher another attacking foray, Nathan Sharpe eventually warbled over to close the gap. But the All Blacks predictably prevailed in an error-strewn second-half arm wrestle, and on a dirty night for the green-and-gold, a Dan Carter penalty after the siren pinched a bonus point from their grasp. Sigh.
To be fair, both sides struggled to mount much pressure due to the error count. There were turnovers aplenty, forward passes, juggles and spills. As a rugby league devotee, I’d be curious to compare the ratio of successfully completed passes in the NRL compared to top-grade union. It seems the 15-man game attempts far fewer passing movements and commit far more errors doing so; wingers were routinely bundled into touch, centres throw panicked midfield passes that miss their targets, and all that under limited pressure from defenders who struggle to stick to a tackle.
I also furrowed my brow at the kicking tactics employed by both teams. Judging from the myriad of midfield bombs delivered, hang time seemed more important than distance, and rarely did kicks find grass or make the back three work particularly hard. From restarts, considering how rarely the team kicking off retrieves their own short kick, I couldn’t understand why you wouldn’t go for a bit of distance to either turn around the defending team, or if they were willing to commit more men back to negate your longer kickoffs, improve your chances of latching on to a short one.
Maybe, as a part-timer, I was unable to comprehend the subtle vagaries of the game. I still can’t decipher how a referee figures out who’s at fault in a collapsed scrum, when literally two tons of meat comes crashing together at a tremendous rate. Why you wouldn’t chance your arm more in attack when chasing a lead, or inject some fresh legs when your starting 15 are tiring and struggling for impact (Rob Simmons for an ineffectual Sitaleki Timani, for example, could have been made earlier in the piece).
Post-game, the New Zealand fans celebrated with a characteristic lack of grace resulting from the deeply-ingrained chip digging in to their shoulder. Let ’em have rugby. We won more gold medals, we always beat them at cricket, we’ve got beautiful beaches and weather. That makes up for the rugby, right?