Sydney (AP) — An increasingly acrimonious rivalry between the All Blacks and Wallabies has become more pronounced ahead of their first test of the Rugby Championship on Saturday.
A sex scandal involving All Blacks scrumhalf Aaron Smith has been revived by an Australian newspaper on the eve of the Bledisloe Cup match at the Olympic stadium, as well as a Sydney court hearing a case concerning the discovery of a listening device in the All Blacks’ hotel before the corresponding test in Sydney last August.
New Zealand Rugby has moved quickly to try to shut down the Smith scandal by appointing an independent lawyer to review its handling of the matter when it first arose last year.
The bugging controversy, which ended Friday with the security consultant involved found not guilty, was more complicated and did more than anything else to sour relations between the Australian and New Zealand teams.
In the week before last year’s Bledisloe Cup test, the All Blacks claimed to have found a listening device embedded in a chair in their team room at a Sydney Hotel: the room in which tactics are often discussed.
The discovery was made by an Australian security contractor, Adrian Gard, who had worked with the All Blacks team for more than a decade.
The All Blacks informed hotel management early in the week, but opted against calling in police until the morning of the match — when the story was reported by a New Zealand newspaper.
In the Downing Centre Local Court on Friday, Magistrate Jennifer Atkinson found Gard not guilty of making a false representation resulting in a police investigation, saying there was not enough evidence.
Atkinson did, however, find Gard guilty of a second charge of acting as a security consultant without the proper license.
The incident last year caused friction between the neighboring teams, with the Australian Rugby Union angry the All Blacks kept silent on the incident for so long and suspected they leaked it to media for a match day distraction.
Australia coach Michael Cheika was more incensed, thinking the All Blacks had implied the Wallabies were in some way responsible.
“They had that the whole week. That showed a lack of respect,” Cheika said. “I wouldn’t be smart enough to get that sort of stuff organized. I am too busy working on my own thing.”
Cheika has had a frosty relationship with his All Blacks counterpart Steve Hansen as he maintains his conviction that the bugging plot was hatched to discredit the Wallabies.
Hansen is adamant the All Blacks have never implied the Wallabies were involved in the bugging incident.
“I don’t know where they feel the inference was,” Hansen said. “We don’t know who put it there. I said that at the time and that hasn’t changed.”
The Smith controversy has also intruded into the All Blacks’ match preparation.
A newspaper quoted a woman who had a sexual encounter with Smith at Dunedin Airport last September as saying Smith encouraged her to lie about the incident.
Smith was suspended for a week after being sent home before a test match in South Africa but the newspaper alleges New Zealand Rugby didn’t have the full facts when it levied punishment. New Zealand Rugby has opened a fresh inquiry to consider the new evidence.
At his news conference Thursday, Hansen raised the Smith issue before reporters asked.
“Obviously the incident happened last year. We dealt with it and we feel that we dealt with it decisively,” Hansen said. “There’s nothing more that I can add to that but if there is anything else that needs to be spoken about, it will come from the New Zealand Rugby Union.”
The issues swirling about the All Blacks might help decrease pressure on the Wallabies at a time of turmoil in Australian rugby. The poor performance of Australia’s Super Rugby teams and the failure of the Australian Rugby Union in the process of cutting one of those teams next season has damaged the sport.
A heavy loss by the Wallabies might compound those problems but Cheika has been able to prepare his players in relative quiet while the All Blacks have had to deal with off-field issues.
Cheika was able to name his team without undue scrutiny of his decision to include on one wing Curtis Rona — a rugby league convert who has played 80 minutes at winger in his short rugby union career. The All Blacks team announcement, which could have concentrated on a reorganized back three and the dropping of veteran flanker Jerome Kaino, instead was overshadowed by Smith and bugging.