Twelve months after “bug-gate” rocked the Bledisloe Cup, the scandal seems destined to dominate another build-up to the annual trans-Tasman showdown after the case returned to the courts on Monday. And it’s just what the game needs.
All Blacks security guard Andrew Gard was at Sydney’s Downing Centre on Monday to answer a charge of misrepresentation to police after the discovery of a listening device at the InterContinental Hotel, where New Zealand had been based ahead of Bledisloe I last year.
The All Blacks will stay at the InterContinental Hotel again when they hit Sydney next week, but any hope coach Steve Hansen might have had about avoiding the issue was scuppered early when he was quizzed about the case on Monday.
Sonny Bill Williams is free to play in the Bledisloe Cup opener after successfully arguing that a warm-up clash on August 11 should count towards his ban.
Julian Savea is the major omission from the All Blacks’ 33-man squad for the Rugby Championship, while Nehe Milner-Skudder has been welcomed back into the Test fold.
Fronting the media after unveiling his 33-man squad for the Rugby Championship, Hansen shared an, at times, tense exchange with two reporters who asked him about the bugging scandal and the court case unfolding in Sydney.
“It’s a good hotel … there’s potential bugs in every hotel, even your one,” Hansen said when asked whether the All Blacks would again stay at the InterContinental.
“The hotel suits our needs and we don’t think it’s the hotel’s fault,” he added. “In fact we don’t know whose fault it is. All we know is it was there so we’ll continue to do what we always do and be cautious and do the best we can and get on and play rugby. That’s what we are, we’re a rugby team.”
On Tuesday, it emerged that the All Blacks were asked three times whether they wanted the matter raised with the police before they eventually reported the issue on the morning of Bledisloe I.
That decision that clearly still irks Wallabies coach Michael Cheika, who admits the relationship between the two nations remains frosty ahead of the Rugby Championship-opening game in Sydney.
Michael Cheika Cameron Spencer/Getty Images
“How I found about it was on that Saturday morning when the [Australian Rugby Union] CEO [Bill Pulver] rang me; he’d obviously had a call from the CEO on the other side [New Zealand Rugby boss Steve Tew],” Cheika told The Daily Telegraph’s Payto & Panda podcast in reference to ‘bug-gate’.
“I want to play the game as hard as it can be, slugging it out, the physicality of the game, even sledging sometimes if it has to be, or the mindgames. But I reckon that bringing in police and all that business, and making a clear inference, is crossing the line.
“I said that before and I’ve said it to the New Zealand coach personally; I feel it’s crossing the line.”
With the case being heard in Sydney, Cheika’s decision to take the Wallabies to Cessnock, in New South Wales’ Hunter Valley region, has at least put some distance between his squad and the potential distraction it could present this week.
On the flipside, the choice of Cessnock is interesting in itself given the region is a rugby league stronghold, highlighted by the fact it is the hometown of Immortal Andrew Johns and his brother Matthew.
Yet it could be the best location from which Cheika attempts to add a hardened edge to his Wallabies, who were well off the pace in all three Bledisloe encounters from 2016.
He looks to have learned a thing or two from that series personally as well, and more recently the fashion in which British & Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland handled his clown depiction by the New Zealand Herald.
Cheika suffered a similar fate during last year’s Bledisloe series, and he originally slammed the Herald’s cartoon as ‘disrespectful’, and linked the publication directly with the All Blacks, but he appears to have changed his tune with the value of hindsight.
Kurtley Beale Mark Kolbe/Getty Images
“It’s good fun, don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy that conflict and that challenge,” Cheika told the Payto & Panda podcast while discussing the clown depiction of Gatland.
“It would be much easier for us, because we’ve been beaten for many years now for Bledisloe, to cower away and go ‘Well we shouldn’t say anything or we should be all rosy behind the scenes because we don’t have the right to stand up because we’ve been getting beaten’.
“But I don’t believe that. We’ve got to do our absolute best and be fully accountable for everything that happens on the field, but that doesn’t mean we can’t stand up for ourselves as well.”
The Bledisloe Cup once was the hottest ticket in Sydney, but it could be in line for its lowest ever crowd at ANZ Stadium. Last year’s attendance of 65,238 was the worst crowd figure in Sydney since the fixture was moved from the Sydney Football Stadium, but it could slip even further given the negativity around Australian rugby this year.
Hence any pre-game verbals that Cheika and Hansen can stir up ahead of Saturday — rehashing bug-gate included — could help ticket sales, with the Australian Rugby Union already offering Adult tickets at Junior prices ($36) across the silver and bronze categories.
Supporters often rally when their team is up against the odds, and they don’t come any longer that those the Wallabies face in just over a week’s time. Over to you, Wallabies fans.
www.espn.co.uk – RUGBY