After weeks on the backfoot, the tide may be turning for New Zealand rugby.
New South Wales relaxing their quarantine regulations, and the Rugby Championship schedule resolution which prevents the All Blacks quarantining through Christmas, paved the way for a much needed win, though not before New Zealand Rugby agreed a commercial compensation deal with its SANZAAR partners.
Off the field, as the All Blacks and Wallabies prepare for the opening Bledisloe Cup Test in Wellington this Sunday, NZ Rugby [NZR] has been smacked from pillar to post.
What started with a, shall we say, heavy-handed expression of interest process for Super Rugby next year culminated in septic backlash from near all quarters.
Navigating these times of major upheaval, widespread redundancies and brutal cost cutting exercises are not easy for anyone.
NZR believes it is acting in the best interests of the domestic game – looking out for No. 1, protecting their bumper $[NZ]500 million, five-year broadcast deal with Sky Television. This year’s supremely successful Super Rugby Aotearoa competition further enhanced their position of power view.
Yet the dismissive tone in which NZR approached the powerplay for control of the Southern Hemisphere game largely served to aggravate and agitate its long established partners.
The COVID-19 landscape, restricted borders and decimated airline industry, dictated the 25-year SANZAAR alliance would never be the same again. South Africa has engaged in long-distance flirting with the Northern Hemisphere for the best part of five years. Their four best Super Rugby teams joining the expanded Pro16 competition is, therefore, no surprise.
There are, however, ways and means of negotiating with partners. And then there is the dictatorship approach.
Setting aside Rugby Australia for a moment, NZ Rugby Players’ Association boss Rob Nichol last week led a chorus of criticism around the decision to exclude several Pasifika bids for Super Rugby Aotearoa next season.
NZ Rugby say neither bid stacked up from a financial or immediate competitiveness perspective, yet in the same breath announced plans to add three more teams – some of which are seen to be lightweight – to the five New Zealand franchises from 2022.
Nichol, involved with the Moana Pacific bid, labelled the expressions of interest process “blunt and ill-advised”. He would find no argument from South Africa or Rugby Australia, the latter affronted after being told to cut two-to-three teams before applying to join the competition, which they then refused.
Aside from the fraught future of Super Rugby, NZR watched helplessly as the Rugby Championship slipped from its grasp and into Australia’s hands after the New Zealand Government denied requests to relax strict quarantine protocols that vetoed the Wallabies, Springboks and Pumas training as full squads.
The pavlova then well and truly sunk with news the All Blacks would have to quarantine through Christmas on their return home from Australia, with an ugly public spat erupting over truth and alleged lies.
While the Mitre 10 Cup, New Zealand’s domestic competition, continues to showcase the strong production line, from an administrative perspective NZ Rugby has been on the backfoot for weeks.
With the Rugby Championship schedule agreement sorted and tensions eased, New Zealand and Australia can surely now work through their differences and align for some form of trans-Tasman competition, without the need for United Nations intervention.
Such a backdrop paints the new cycle canvass for this Sunday and the resumption of the eagerly-anticipated Bledisloe Cup, the first Test match of the year.
For NZR and, truth be told, everyone associated with the game, the first installment of Ian Foster against Dave Rennie was a welcome distraction from the board room shenanigans.
It’s now, thankfully, again the main event.
Despite the unknowns, with New Zealand and Australian Super Rugby teams not facing off this season and the All Blacks and Wallabies welcoming new management, a return to the Test arena brings a sense of comfort.
The All Blacks running out to a near full house is about as normal as it gets right now – and, yet, this is one of only two home Tests in 2020.
History suggests the locals will be celebrating Sunday afternoon and, likely, well into the evening.
The All Blacks have held the Bledisloe 17 years, and you have to go back further, to 2001, for the last Wallabies’ win over the All Blacks in New Zealand.
Rookie All Blacks lock Tupou Vaa’i, set to debut off the bench this weekend, was born in 2000.
A Wallabies upset is not the impossible dream but with many All Blacks harnessing the hurt of last year’s World Cup semifinal defeat, it certainly is a tall opening order for Rennie’s next gen squad.
Then again, Rennie loves a backs-to-the-wall challenge.
One All Blacks victory won’t absolve the off-field missteps and immediately pave the way for a bright and prosperous future.
But a win is a win.
And NZ Rugby hasn’t had many of late.