Marc Hinton: Another dose of Bledis-woe could send Aussie rugby over the brink
OPINION: Australian rugby stands on the brink of tumbling into a dark abyss of irrelevance and indifference. It goes without saying the All Blacks are not the team you want to be playing in front of that sort of bleak backdrop.
But that is exactly the confluence of events in Australian rugby this week. With the game in turmoil and open revolt, with the big chief having fallen on his sword, his successor yet to grasp the poisoned chalice, with attendances and TV ratings plunging like a Kardashian's neckline, and the credibility of the game stretched to snapping point, Steve Hansen's men will sashay into Sydney for Bledisloe I against a Wallabies side they've lost to just once in the last 16 test matches.
You would have more hope campaigning for Metiria Turei as the beacon of honesty than you would making a case for the Wallabies getting one hand on the big silver trophy at the end of 80 minutes of footy at the Olympic stadium next Saturday night.
Remarkably, there has been a defiant optimism and peculiar confidence emanating from the Wallabies camp over the last week. That probably says more about the unique Australian sporting psyche and the pressure from HQ to talk up a contest that has become embarrassingly one-sided over the last, oh, decade and a-half, than it does about any sort of reality.
A first-up Bledisloe like this used to sell out in hours, if not minutes, in the good old days when John Eales, George Gregan, Matt Burke and co used to give as good as they took in the trans-Tasman rugby arm-wrestle.
Not now. Australia's woeful Super Rugby record over recent years, a similar plunge by the Wallabies in 2016, some damaging infighting, indifferent leadership and no discernible solutions coming in the form of talent development and retention have left the Australian rugby bandwagon bereft of passengers.
Which brings us to this week. Bill Pulver has resigned as ARU boss. The Force have been axed. Legal actions hover. And Australian players who managed not a single victory over a Kiwi opponent throughout the entirety of Super Rugby are charged with lowering the mighty All Blacks.
It has been hard to know whether to roll the eyes, or widen them in anticipation, over some of the rhetoric coming out of the Australian camp over the last few days.
They see weaknesses. If the Lions did it, so can they. They are fitter, faster and stronger than they have ever been. The All Blacks are on the decline. This is their time.
Maybe. But highly doubtful.
The All Blacks will be back to full strength, even if Owen Franks has to be nursed through his Achilles tendon issues. Dane Coles, Ben Smith, Sonny Bill Williams, Ryan Crotty and Rieko Ioane, who all missed the latter part of the Lions series, will return, making this a far more dangerous New Zealand side than that which limped home against Warren Gatland's men.
Coles, especially, will bring a different dimension, with his mixture of the efficient (lineout throwing) and the ebullient (running into gaps and popping passes like a midfield back) simply unmatched in the modern game.
They have also had their pride rather pricked. Back-to-back home tests without victory? That's the closest the All Blacks have come to a crisis since 2009's three straight defeats to the Springboks.
You get the feeling that they might just be ready to take their frustrations out on a few cocky Australians who might be wise not to puff their chests out too much over the next seven days.
It is going to be an interesting week in Sydney. The Wallabies have a lot to play for, not the least of which is the very future of their game. A crushing defeat, or spiritless showing, could light the fuse for an implosion.
Remember last time these two teams met? Some simmering discontent raised its head post-game in Auckland when Michael Cheika unloaded at my question about whether they would congratulate the All Blacks for achieving their record test win streak.
"Why should we congratulate them when they have no respect for us," asked Cheika, before unleashing a bizarre rant that included being blamed for the mystery bug at the All Blacks hotel.
Wouldn't you know it, the trial over that bug's legitimacy, or otherwise, is set to resume in Sydney midweek, and has the potential to add a distracting sidebar to the Bledisloe buildup.
Throw in Cheika sure to resume his media byplay, Australian players beating the drums to sell tickets, a general sense of desperation, and an All Blacks side with its own sense of purpose, and it all could get rather interesting.
Maybe even worth laying out for a ticket. There are plenty available.
- Sunday Star Times