Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Oh, how the mighty have fallen

Wallabies might have joined Wales on the sidelines of world rugby relevance.
All Blacks lock Brodie Retallick and his mates have reduced Welsh rugby to an asterisk in the game's history. Picture / Brett Phibbs
All Blacks lock Brodie Retallick and his mates have reduced Welsh rugby to an asterisk in the game's history. Picture / Brett Phibbs

There was a time when Wales were one of the All Blacks' great rivals. For 80 years, those two bashed it out in tough, down-to-the-wire contests that left both parties with an inescapable sense of having been taken to the darkest reaches of themselves.

But then Wales were beaten so easily in the semifinal of the 1987 World Cup and came to New Zealand so unfit and in such disarray a year later, that the illusion of genuine rivalry was challenged. Within another 10 years, the image was shattered and Wales became a good tester for the All Blacks - the sort of side that can ask enough questions to be interesting, but not so many as to be dangerous.

It would be a full-on national outrage in New Zealand if the All Blacks lost to them.

The rise and demise of Wales is a salient tale of how nothing is forever and why no one should be wedded to the idea that Australian rugby will recover from its current malaise.

In much the same way as analysts of English football wrongly proclaim that certain clubs are "too big" to be relegated or "not big enough", in the case of Leicester City, to be crowned champions, it's equally nonsensical to suggest the Wallabies will return to being a more consistent force on the world stage just because they have been there in the past.

Look at Welsh rugby now. The once-powerful clubs have been reduced to amateur shadows of their former selves. In their place are inadequately funded regional franchises that act as glorified feeders to the English and French leagues.

The best Welsh players have cleared out en masse in search of better pay and better everything. What is happening in Australia is worryingly similar.

Queensland and New South Wales were the top dogs in the amateur Super 10 - the precursor to Super 12. Now Australia has five franchises struggling financially. They only managed four wins out of 25 against New Zealand teams this year.

And plenty of their best players are heading offshore, just as they have in Wales. The 18,000 empty seats in Sydney should be seen as a glass half-empty scenario. Yes, New Zealand would love a crowd of 65,000 to watch the All Blacks, but not if it meant the stadium was nowhere near sold out.

The TAB have the All Blacks at the lowest odds they can recall and that's not based heavily on what happened in Sydney. It's because Australia haven't won in New Zealand since 2001 and haven't given any indication they have the mental fortitude or physical capacity to beat the All Blacks on their home soil.

It's reached the point where no one can pretend any more.

The Wallabies can be talked up as a dangerous beast but conviction is fading.

Those who talk them up are doing so more out of respect for the long history between the two and a reputation that great Wallabies such as John Eales, Tim Horan, George Gregan and Stephen Larkham built many years ago.

Former All Blacks captain Richie McCaw made an indisputably poignant comment to the Guardian when he said: "I hope that it is a bit closer, because you don't want to see big one-sided results for the top teams. I don't think that's healthy for Southern Hemisphere rugby, or for world rugby.

"But I can say that now I'm no longer playing. As a player that's the last thing you want to hear, bloody idiots like me spouting on like that."

The Wallabies don't need New Zealand's pity or ill-conceived assumptions that they can magically dig their way out of the hole they are in on their own.

What Australian rugby needs right now is a clear strategic plan. It needs an understanding from its old foe that the game across the Tasman is in trouble and the reassurance that no one in New Zealand wants to see this great rivalry fade to obscurity in the next 10 years.

- NZ Herald

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