Sporting rivalries don’t come more prickly than the one between trans-Tasman neighbours Australia and New Zealand.
Whether it’s rugby union, rugby league, football, cricket, horseracing or netball, the oneupmanship can dominate the national conversation and sideline other issues of the day.
It’s on again in Sunday’s Rugby World Cup semi-final between the feisty rivals.
New Zealand, with a population of 4.4 million, has been tagged a small country with a huge inferiority complex, while Australia, a larger nation of 22.7 million, is seen as cocky and brash.
Australia is an over-achiever on the world sporting stage: among the top six nations in medals at the last three Olympic Summer Games, producing champions in rugby, swimming, athletics, tennis, golf, motorcycling, field hockey and cricket in recent times.
‘Little brother’ New Zealand has also aspired to have its place under the sporting sun and celebrates its achievements as a source of national pride.
New Zealanders jealously guard their own and often accuse Australia of trying to take the credit for Phar Lap, the champion racehorse of the Great Depression era, Oscar-winning actor Russell Crowe, international rock band Crowded House, even the meringue-like pavlova dessert.
The sporting rivalry can spill over with some nasty consequences, none more so than the infamous underarm bowling incident of 1981.
Australia captain Greg Chappell instructed his brother, Trevor, to roll the last delivery of the match along the ground to prevent New Zealand from hitting a six which they needed to tie a one-day cricket international in Melbourne.
New Zealand’s then Prime Minister, Robert Muldoon, said at the time the Chappell brothers were responsible for “the most disgusting incident I can recall in the history of cricket”.
He added: “It was an act of true cowardice and I consider it appropriate that the Australian team were wearing yellow.”
More recently, the Aussies cheekily even claimed a part of New Zealand’s unbeaten yet fruitless run at last year’s football World Cup with a newspaper headline: “Australasia 1 Slovakia 1″ as the Socceroos crashed to Germany 4-0.
Yet the light-hearted sentiment was lost on this side of the Tasman, with one paper replying: “Dirty Aussies lay claim to NZ’s World Cup glory.”
The Kiwis took special delight when they upset the Socceroos 2-0 in Sydney to grab their place at the 1982 World Cup finals in Spain and plunge Australia into despair.
Nowhere though is the rivalry more pronounced than on the rugby field, with the top-two ranked nations, New Zealand’s All Blacks and Australia’s Wallabies, facing each other at Eden Park on Sunday for a place in the World Cup final.
Since 1903, the All Blacks have had the upper hand over the Wallabies.
This weekend will be their 168th international meeting, with the All Blacks winning 115 times, the Wallabies 47 and five matches drawn.
But the Wallabies, who have not won at Eden Park for 25 years, have had some significant victories along the way.
John Eales kicked an extra time penalty goal to claim a 24-23 victory and the Bledisloe Cup in Wellington in 2000 and scrum-half George Gregan brought off a famous try-saving tackle on All Blacks wing Jeff Wilson to win the 1994 Cup in Sydney.
Only a month before this World Cup, the Wallabies downed the All Blacks 25-20 in Brisbane to claim their first Tri-Nations crown in a decade.
And as the Wallabies keep reminding the Kiwis they have won both their two World Cup games against the All Blacks, in the 1991 and 2003 semi-finals.
“Whilst the All Blacks have dominated Australia in the last couple of years on the scoreboard as far as statistics go, there’s no doubt the team will know you’ve never beaten us in a World Cup, you’ve lost in two-semi finals to us,” Australia’s former World Cup-winning skipper Nick Farr-Jones crowed.
Meanwhile an extra, and intriguing, sub-plot this weekend will be the tactical jousting between All Blacks coach Graham Henry and the Wallabies’ Kiwi boss Robbie Deans.
In July last year I wrote :
It's on the lips of most New Zealanders`. "Will NZ win the 2011 Rugby World Cup ?" To find the answer, I spent last Saturday at Pareora, a small farming community in South Canterbury seeing if I could come up with an accurate prediction.
At Pareora I observed how strong 'grassroots' NZ rugby is and through a constant stream of talented players coming from small communituies like Pareora which has contributed hugely to our current strength at many levels of national rugby. The rules have allowed the All Blacks to play exciting, well constructed and fast running rugby which is our natural game. We've beaten South Africa twice in 3 weeks and Australia beat the Boks on Saturday night which that proves the dour Springbok and English kicking game does not win rugby in 2010.
Rugby is strong at grass roots in rural New Zealand and it was from small communities like this that Richie McCaw, Daniel Carter and andrew Hore came.
The NZ Maoris have beaten Wales, Ireland and England this year and the NZ under 20s recently won the world cup. Never before a year out from the Rugby World Cup have we had this depth.But the depth is from north to south. Southland took the coveted Ranfurly Shield from Canterbury last year and has pumped new life into provincial rugby.
That was over a year ago, and although we have been beaten recently by South Africa and Australia, these are factors which makes coaches and players dig deep, to strive for perfection. This is the full details of this posting.
I am quietly confident New Zealand will win, but it is not going to be easy. England, Australia and France are all in with a chance, and South Africa, Ireland and Samoa lurking round the edges.. Rather than go in to fine detail on my prediction, I would like to quote David Kirk, Captain of the winning rugby world Cup All Black team in 1987.
"It seemed so easy in 1987. We went into the tournament with an inexperienced team after a difficult time. We had a squad of 26 players, two hookers were all we could afford, and before the tournament even started we were down to one.
Three of the 15 that would play and win the final had not played a single test match before the tournament started. Six more had played no more than five tests.
It seems incredible now but two-thirds of the players in the only All Blacks team ever to win the Rugby World Cup had played less than six tests each before the tournament started. Our preparation was ordinary. And yet it seemed so easy back then.
It wasn't easy of course but it was rare. A quirk of timing. The old stagers, who had served New Zealand so well since the late 1970s, finally gave way and onto the stage strode some of the best players that the best rugby-playing nation in the world has ever produced.
We may have made it look easy but it wasn't. All we really did was the basics well but we did them so well and for so long that we were irresistible.
The chemistry of 1987 was rare indeed, as we were to learn. In 1991 we hoped the glories of the past would be enough. They weren't. In 1995 we were good enough to win, but we didn't. In 1999 we fell foul of freakish rugby. In 2003 we learned that good, unlike brilliant teams, can't afford to make any mistakes. In 2007 we showed that enough mistakes will stop any team.
For the first time ever in the history of New Zealand rugby the captain and coach of a team that failed at a World Cup are back. If we, the supporters, have been on a long journey, picking ourselves up and going on after every unexpected defeat, cursing the useless buggers for a week and cheering them on again as the years roll by, think what the journey has been like for Richie and Ted. The waiting is over, the hour has come round again, but will it be our hour? Will we finally put to rest 24 years of disappointmen