COMMENT:

By Gregor Paul in Rome

There are a host of issues threatening to damage the global dominance of the All Blacks.

The rise and rise of Ireland for one. The maddening, vanity-led, purchasing power of French clubs is another.

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The increasing lure of Japan and the uncertain broadcast landscape are also contributing to the sense of the All Blacks being under siege.

But there is one other less obvious threat that is possibly hurting New Zealand already.

And that is the recent softness of the Rugby Championship and in particular the demise of Australian rugby.

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It has been a hard and fast fall for the Rugby Championship. The 2015 semi-finals were an all Southern Hemisphere affair and then boom, 2016 came and three of the four teams who made it that far were suddenly tumbling down the rankings and the All Blacks cruised to a Grand Slam with hardly a scratch on them.

The picture last year wasn't so different, the All Blacks having just two tests where they had to scrap a bit for the win and that was again the case this year.

The All Blacks dusted off Argentina and Australia with minimum fuss or difficulty and had two epic battles with the Boks that in the long run will be critical experience for the players.

The recent softness of the Rugby Championship (especially Australia) is not helping the All Blacks. Photo / Photosport
The recent softness of the Rugby Championship (especially Australia) is not helping the All Blacks. Photo / Photosport

But there just hasn't been enough demanded of the All Blacks in their bread and butter business.

Since 2016, New Zealand haven't been challenged enough in the Rugby Championship to have fully learned the art of playing high pressure rugby where taking chances is the be all and end all.

Mistakes haven't been punished as fiercely as they are in the North and the fact the All Blacks have lost one Rugby Championship game in their last 18 is more a sign of the weakness of their opponents than it is of their quality.

It's starting to feel like New Zealand have been living in a false economy and the weakest currency is the Bledisloe Cup.

It is the staple fodder of the international rugby diet in New Zealand and while it being sold as healthy, nutritious and wholesome, the reality is that it is providing empty calories.

It hasn't been like the good old days when the Wallabies were the most resourceful and cunning team in world rugby, forcing the All Blacks to be equally innovative just to keep up.

The old foe has barely thrown a punch in the last three years.

[Read more: Aussie press starting to turn on Wallabies coach Michael Cheika – 'He must go']

There was a classic encounter in Dunedin last year and a Wallaby victory in Brisbane in 2017, but the other seven tests since the last World Cup have been heavily one way.

The All Blacks have rarely had to dig out Bledisloe Cup victories. They have rarely had to find ways to hang in there or be inventive about scoring their points.

The Wallabies have rarely managed to shut them down, or smother them the way Ireland and England did in recent weeks and there is some truth now to the feeling that the Northern Hemisphere has the more intense and competitive rugby set-up.

Rieko Ioane of the All Blacks scores a try against the Wallabies. Photo /Getty
Rieko Ioane of the All Blacks scores a try against the Wallabies. Photo /Getty

The last two weeks have shown that a relatively experienced All Blacks side can be rattled and that may be because for all the test they have played, not many have really taken them to the edge.

"I was thinking about that this morning," All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said when he was asked if the demise of Australia has hurt his side.

"There is no doubt the style of game that is played by South Africa is similar to the style played up here.

"I still believe Australia are a really good rugby side. There is definitely something missing because they are not quite right and are not performing to the level they can.

"But the more we play teams like South Africa, Ireland and England, France which we have done this year it is good for us. We have had a bit if a preview so to speak."

The truth is now inescapable that the All Blacks need their Southern brothers to step up. South Africa have done that and in doing so, brought the best out of the All Blacks this year.

The Boks forced the All Blacks to look deep into themselves to find the answers they needed to win.

They gave the All Blacks that vital ingredient of exposure to real and sustained pressure.

The intensity of those two fixtures this year has been hugely beneficial to the All Blacks and now they need Australia to make the same conversion and find a way to fix whatever problems they have.

A tough Australia is good for New Zealand and they don't need to copy England, Ireland in South Africa in style to put the All Blacks under pressure.

They just need to find their own way of playing and perfect it so that there is real edge restored to the Bledisloe and so that the All Blacks have to encounter more adversity in their staple diet of test fixtures.