Test critics will eat their words
In the past week we have witnessed poignant, provocative and demonstrative reminders of the strength and quality of the bond we share with our cousins 'over the ditch' – it's more than a close bond, indeed, as the war historians correctly identify, it's legendary. Sport has always been a key feature of that bond, and I'm told it's highly likely New Zealand soldiers participated at the first ANZAC commemorative sports day, held at an Australian base in Egypt in 1916.
The ANZAC spirit of courage, mateship and sacrifice was overwhelmingly embraced and celebrated in both countries last week, however public sentiment and media attention seem to be less enthused by the prospect of the rugby league Test on Friday night. To be honest, I can't see why. In my mind, there's a lot more to this match than just the contest, whether it turns out to be a tight contest or not.
There's the calibre of the Australian team – that word 'legendary' can be bandied around pretty disrespectfully at times, but few would query the right of at least 10 members of the Australian squad to be legitimately labelled legends of our great game. The Test has returned to Sydney for the first time in six years, and the opportunity to see the superiority and class of these iconic stars on home turf should not be underrated, nor passed up lightly.
Six great players who are aiming to be future legends of the game will don the New Zealand guernsey for the first time for this match. We wish them well, and hope to see a lot more of them on the world stage. Who knows – the fans rolling up to the Sydney Football Stadium for the encounter may well be leaving three hours later convinced that they were lucky enough to see the next Benji Marshall or Sonny Bill Williams star in their international debut!
Speaking of the world stage, the game is, of course, a rematch of the World Cup Final, won so emphatically by the Aussies at Old Trafford last year. Few accurately predicted the 34-2 score line in that one, and the Kiwis will undoubtedly run onto the field with a ferocious determination to restore some national pride.
Equally, the Aussie squad is eager to acknowledge that they are anything but complacent in their approach to the meeting. The magnificent unpredictability of 80 minutes of tortuous footy has been brilliantly evident thus far this NRL season, and any smart expert would acknowledge that a boil-over may not be on the cards, but is certainly possible.
I can't think of any special bond that doesn't include a bit of grief, as well as the good parts, and isn't our sporting rivalry with the Kiwis a superb example of that! Don't we on occasions love to see them beaten, but then find ourselves just a tiny bit disappointed for them at the same time? It's a complex relationship, but one that, as we have been reminded so recently, is underpinned by honoured and revered values and extraordinary experiences.
So on Friday night this magnificent struggle continues in its most popular form – on the sporting field, and even better, Allianz Stadium at Moore Park. Australian coach Tim Sheens believes the Australian team deserve a huge crowd and I couldn't agree with him more. This is an opportunity to acknowledge the greatness of this band of brothers – World Cup Winners – who are looking to wrap up a record 16th straight Test victory.
For me it's not at all about an experienced side against a rookie team, a lopsided contest or an uninspiring prospect. Rather it's a fantastic and very welcome opportunity to attend a game that promises to be intense, exciting, skilful and spectacular. Oh, and did I mention the best bit? It's a game between the fiercest of rivals, and the closest of friends.