During the golden age of Australian rugby, from 1998-2002, the Wallabies defeated the All Blacks eight times in 11 games to wrest back the Bledisloe Cup and hold it for five successive years.
They have played 59 matches since. The Wallabies have won just 10 — a 16.9 per cent win rate. Yet each year, the diminishing but loyal Australian rugby fan base approaches the Bledisloe series with cautious optimism.
So admirable that even after two decades of failure, Melbourne’s 55,000-seat Marvel Stadium has sold out for Thursday’s clash between the Wallabies and All Blacks.
Can 2022 be the year? It can because the All Blacks are not the team they were. But unlikely because the Wallabies remain the team they have been.
New Zealand hasn’t won two successive Tests this year.
But neither has Australia.
The inconsistency has been consistent, but the Wallabies started from a lot further back.
So to finally break the ugliest streak in Australian sport, the Wallabies must produce their finest attacking display since Dave Rennie took charge of the team in 2020.
They have shown glimpses in a number of games, but the time for “good patches” has come to an end and needs to be replaced by blanket rugby excellence.
To defeat a side that still has self-confidence issues after four losses from seven games, the Wallabies must outplay New Zealand with all-out attack, in the same manner Ireland did in June, and France did late last year.
Marika Koroibete, Rob Valetini, Andrew Kellaway and Jordan Petaia are all capable of brilliant X-factor plays that can rattle the Kiwi defence.
The foundations must be set first with the set-piece, meaning Dave Porecki and Folau Fainga’a can’t lose any lineouts, and the Wallabies can’t give an inch in the scrum.
That foundation can be reinforced with unflinching defence, led by Pete Samu, Rob Leota, Len Ikitau and Matt Philip.
If that can be achieved, Bernard Foley will have the ability to run a backline that has, at times, made the South African, Argentinian and English defence look meek this year.
These are not new ideas.
Australia has known for 20 years what needs to be done. They simply haven’t been up to the mark.
“We’ve got a couple of guys born the last year we won it, so it has been a long time,” Wallabies captain James Slipper lamented.
But he likes to see a positive in that: “I think it works in our favour as well, these young players coming through haven’t gone through the last 15, 20 years, or 10 years of playing the All Blacks — they’ve had some great teams over the last decade.”
When George Gregan, Stephen Larkham, Owen Finegan and Stirling Mortlock were bossing games from the late ‘90s to the early 2000s, Slipper was in his lounge room imitating them.
“They were some of my fondest memories, and one of the main reasons I wanted to be a Wallaby,” Slipper said.
“I grew up watching the likes of the late ‘90s, early 2000s being a really successful era for us as a country in rugby.
“At the end of the day we want to inspire rugby players around the country, and we’ve got a job to do, we know that.”
Their fans live in eternal hope.
Despite the constant “rugby is dead” chatter, aided by their awful record, the Wallabies still hold the ground attendance record at Accor Stadium (previously Stadium Australia), with 109,874 attending the Bledisloe match in 2000.
They also have the ground record for all football codes at Perth’s Optus Stadium (61,241 for the 2019 Bledisloe), and Marvel (56,771 for the British & Irish Lions Test in 2013).
Players from the 2002 Wallabies side addressed the current crop this week, and rammed home the importance of being accountable to each other in every practice drill, recovery session, and every moment of play in the game.
That accountability stretches to the believers in the stands, who have forgiven mediocrity and excuses to keep turning up, fearing more pain but dreaming of the day when it will all be worth it.
Originally published as Bledisloe Cup 2022: Wallabies vs All Blacks start time, latest news, scores