Monday 19 March 2018

Rugby Championship 2017: Aaron Smith sex scandal revelations no coincidence as Wallabies stew over 'Spygate'

12 months after a listening device was found in the All Blacks meeting room, the Rugby Championship once again kicks off under a cloud of controversy

Jack de Menezes

The revelations about what New Zealand scrum-half Aaron Smith sent to a lawyer that he was caught having sex with in a Christchurch Airport toilet coming a day before the first Bledisloe Cup clash against Australia is no surprise.

This has been a year in the making, and 12 months after the Wallabies were accused of ‘Spygate’, this was the response.

It did not come from the Wallabies camp, but the Australian branch of the Daily Mail as they published a string of explicit text messages between Smith and an unnamed Australian lawyer, as well as the ensuing attempts by Smith to cover-up the matter.

The scandal emerged in September last year when a video showing Smith and the woman entering the disabled toilet was published, leading to the scrum-half travelling home from South Africa ahead of a Rugby Championship clash.

It came just a month after a listening device was found in the All Blacks’ team room at the Intercontinental Hotel in Sydney, the week of the clash with the Wallabies, and while none of the All Blacks’ team directly accused their opponents of trying to bug their room in which tactical plans were openly discussed, the implication was made by the New Zealand media.

Time has passed since then, the British and Irish Lions have been and gone to the Land of the Long White Cloud, and Australia have managed to suffer their first ever defeat by Scotland.

Yet there is still a broken relationship between the Antipodean rivals, who it’s said are “best friends except when it comes to sport”.

On the face of it, the All Blacks should walk the Rugby Championship.

Australia are not yet on their level, the Springboks are trying to rebuild after a disastrous 20-month spell under Allister Coetzee and Argentina, for all their good points, have never beaten the All Blacks, with a 32-year unbeaten streak stretching back to their first encounter in 1985.

That is why the Australian media launched this bombshell in order to achieve maximum effect.

The Wallabies were not happy about the impression given that they were behind the bugging of the team room 12 months ago, with the All Blacks’ security guard Adrian Gard – an Australian native – cleared on Friday of fabricating the claims.

The Wallabies need any advantage they can get, and given that Kiwi head coach Steve Hansen stood by Smith following these latest allegations, they know that they can get at the half-back come Saturday’s encounter. The first match of the Championship will be crucial, as if the Wallabies lose their five-game winning streak over their close rivals, the title battle will be as good as done.

At least the Lions showed that the reigning world champions are vulnerable.

They were rattled in the second Test when Warren Gatland’s side clinched a thrilling victory in Wellington, and while they deserved to clinch the series in the third encounter, they could have easily seen the 15-15 draw turn into a first series defeat in 46 years.

Hansen’s plan is, of course, to do what no other country has done and retain the Rugby World Cup for a third consecutive tournament come 2019, but he does not accept losing tournaments along the way.

Given South Africa’s struggles over the last 12 months – with defeats by all three Rugby Championship opposition, England, Wales and Italy confirming that Coetzee is incredibly lucky to still be in a job – and Argentina’s close but not close enough history, it’s down to Australia to upset the apple cart for this year’s edition.

With the tournament compared to the Six Nations, an open affair that can normally be won by any one of four countries, the competition needs some sort of competitive edge to keep its reputation alive.

If Australia fail to do that, another All Blacks whitewash await, and questions will be asked whether the competition is actually living up to its name.

 (© Independent News Service)

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