How All Blacks have become the new Wallabies

This article originally appeared on Stuff and is reproduced with permission

OPINION: Having lived in Australia for a period covering the Wallabies’ great decline (2000-2013), I have a warning for New Zealanders in the wake of the All Blacks loss to Argentina on Saturday: the length and depth of New Zealand rugby’s decline is entirely dependent on the decisions made in the next year or so.

And it is a decline: everything about the All Blacks’ performance on Saturday screamed decline: you don’t get to that point unless a number of things have gone wrong.

Here are some of the symptoms and/or causes of the Australian decline: do they sound familiar?

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A lack of alignment between the governing body and the test team; an over-sensitivity to criticism; a lack of effective relationships between the national side and the Super Rugby clubs; the atrophying of professional players’ skill levels; the development of savor syndrome amongst fans (if only coach A/player A were involved it would be just fine); playerpower; a complete disconnection between the rich professional game and the grassroots; clear evidence of people within the rugby system working in silos; an inability to work out what to do with the ‘third tier’ of rugby (NPC); the loss of coaches overseas; a misguided belief that what worked previously will work again; blaming external factors (the refs, the rules); and performance inconsistency.

To that list, New Zealand has its own unique issues, such as a relatively stagnant professional competition that is won by only one team (the Crusaders) and the unhealthy pooling of playing resources in the top two teams.

These are significant headwinds, and reflected in the current world rankings: the All Blacks are fifth and the Wallabies are sixth, and not many would quibble with that.

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All Blacks go coast to coast

My experience from Australia is also this: once you have a serious set of issues like those affecting New Zealand rugby at present, it can be extremely difficult to change course through personnel changes alone.

For example, take a look at the Wallabies’ coaching history over the past decade.

They sacked Robbie Deans (he went on to build a Crusaders-style dynasty in Japanese rugby): Ewen McKenzie lasted just more than a year (and has been lost to the game); Michael Cheika’s reign ended in anger and finger pointing (he then beat the All Blacks on Saturday); and even Dave Rennie is under some pressure (his win rate is just over 40%).

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Changing coaches has not helped the Wallabies become a better team; in fact, they have gradually won fewer and fewer games over the course of the past 10 years.

I’m willing to bet that Scott Robertson is acutely aware of the bigger picture here.

This All Blacks job, under the current settings in New Zealand rugby, is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Take a look at Joe Schmidt’s body language in the coaching box on Saturday: a world-class coach stressed, anxious and – crucially – helpless as he watched a performance that reflected so many of the issues listed above.

Indeed, if Robertson is smart, and I think he is, he will play the waiting game and then present a list of non-negotiables that would address some of the many issues that have derailed Australian rugby and are starting to do the same thing here .

The decline is real, and it’s time to do something otherwise Richie McCaw will become John Eales, the player Australians tell their grandkids about as a reminder of the good old days.

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