Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Wobbly Wallabies are no longer the threat they once were

No one wants to be arrogant or complacent about these things but Australia are not the foe they once were. Not even close, really, and it's almost reached the point where it is bordering on generosity of spirit that the All Blacks take them as seriously as they do.

Of the big four nations - Australia, South Africa, France and England - the Wallabies have become in recent times the veritable "gimme" for the All Blacks. New Zealand have won 16 of their last 20 tests against the Wallabies and drawn one. They have the same record against France over the same period, while they have won 15 against England and drawn one, and beaten South Africa 13 times in their last 20 meetings.

Australia are in danger of becoming the new Wales - competent, lively and occasionally capable of getting really close. They can rattle the All Blacks for periods, push them to the line in some tests and occasionally even win - but that's not the basis for a classic rivalry.

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The edge that was there throughout the late 1980s, all of the 90s and early part of the new millennium, has gone.

The Wallabies have not held the Bledisloe Cup since 2002 and that's too long for serious questions not to be asked. The games against Australia are tough in so much that all tests against the top-ranked nations are tough. But perhaps now the pre-match trepidation is routine - more for form's sake rather than reflecting a genuine sense of anxiety.

Objective analysis leads the All Blacks to believe that if they get their preparation right and execute their plan well on game day, they will most likely win. Australia seem to have lost their capacity to surprise: they are not a side that strikes fear into All Blacks' hearts the way they once did when players such as David Campese, Nick Farr-Jones, John Eales, Tim Horan, Jason Little, George Gregan and Stephen Larkham were around.

They are still a good side, they still pose threats, especially through Will Genia, but the All Blacks know they are better.

The Wallabies can't lose as much as they have and retain their status as the All Blacks' most fearsome modern rival. That honour needs to be earned and, statistically at least, England are a more credible danger.

Last December, England were everything the Wallabies haven't been for more than a decade. The All Blacks were edged - and that is being kind - physically by the English pack. They could barely hold their own at the scrum, struggled to deal with the volume and power of the ball carriers and were, most surprisingly, ripped apart by a backline that moved well and created space.

When was the last time the Wallabies did so much damage to the All Blacks? When was the last time the Wallabies outplayed the All Blacks across the field? Probably the answer to that is 2008 and Robbie Deans' first game in charge and yet, even then, the All Blacks were the chief architects of their self-destruction.

And that's been the story of the last decade - the Wallabies have needed the All Blacks to be off their best to get the result which explains why Australia have won only three of the last 20 encounters; why they have only won five of the last 30. Nothing illustrates the gulf between the two sides better than the fact the All Blacks are down to their fourth and fifth-choice first-fives and yet there hasn't been a dramatic shift in popular opinion about tomorrow's outcome. That's partly to do with the class of player the All Blacks have been able to call in, but it's more about what was plain in Sydney: New Zealand are a better all-round rugby side with too many competent ball handlers, natural athletes and experienced old dogs to be greatly weakened by a change in one position.

There's also now a self-perpetuating mental edge that exists within the All Blacks: the longer they are dominant over the Wallabies, the more they want it to stay that way.

"Here in New Zealand, rugby is quite high up and if you lose it is the end of the world," said fullback Israel Dagg in regard to what motivates the All Blacks to keep winning. "I hate losing and for everyone here [All Blacks] the Bledisloe means so much to us and I guess it means so much for Australia that's why it's a big contest, so you don't want to be that team that loses. Each week is new but I guess we do have the confidence that we did do the job [last week] but you don't want to be over-confident."

All Blacks v the big four

Last 20 tests v Australia (2013-2007)
Won 16 Lost 3 Drawn 1
Defeats:
25-20 - Brisbane, 2011
26-24 - Hong Kong, 2010
34-19 - Sydney, 2008

Last 20 tests v England (2012-1992)
Won 15 Lost 4 Drawn 1
Defeats:
38-21 - London, 2012
15-13 - Wellington, 2003
21-28 - London, 2002
15-9 - London, 1993

Last 20 tests v France (2013-2001)
Won 16 Lost 3 Drawn 1
Defeats:
27-22 - Dunedin, 2009
20-18 - Cardiff, 2007
42-33 - Marseille, 2000

Last 20 tests v South Africa (2012-2005)
Won 13 Lost 7
Defeats:
18-5 - Port Elizabeth, 2011
32-29 - Hamilton, 2009
31-19 - Durban, 2009
28-19 - Bloemfontein, 2009
30-28 - Dunedin, 2008
21-20 - Rustenburg, 2006
22-16 - Cape Town, 2005

- NZ Herald

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