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A Bledisloe breakthrough the hope for rugby's lapsed believers

The Sydney suburb of Avalon is roughly 35km from ANZ Stadium in Homebush. But it may as well be 3500km.

Nestled at the far end of the Northern beaches peninsula, it's the kind of place where you'll see teenagers in wetsuits on bikes, balancing a surfboard under the arm. Retirees sipping coffee after an early morning swim. Tradies sneaking off the job for a lunchtime surf at "North Av" a break made famous by a young American who spent much of winter in his twenties here. A fella called Kelly Slater.

It's the type of place that once you move to, you never leave. Many never have.

But last week, you saw something else amongst the barefoot denizens of Avalon. Something not seen for some time. The classic 2003 era Wallabies jersey was spotted crossing the main street. Then another. And in Woolies, a third.

At the opening of the nippers season last weekend, the chat amongst the dads on the beach was not about the NRL finals and the lack of Manly Sea-Eagles - almost a dirty word now in these parts - but nudges and questions about the rugby and the Bledisloe.

"Did you watch the game?"

"Geez the Wallabies went alright."

"Reckon they can do them today?"

"Where you watching the game."

The surf club, which usually has 4pm Sunday sundowners, opened its doors 3 hours early last week to screen game 2 of the Bledisloe. It was packed to its COVID-Safe rafters. All for The Game. No-one had to ask what game. Everyone knew.

Such was the impact of Bledisloe 1 in Wellington, a game not just for the oft quoted true believers. But a game that may have reignited the passion in the lapsed believers. The ones that exist outside of the clichéd "Ra-Ra" set in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, the private schools and the 'leafy lower north shore'.

This old guard have again captured the negative headlines thanks to Nick Farr-Jones comments that Australia doesn't have a major problem in relation to "the discrimination of coloured people". Not only is the comment tone deaf and a part of a sadly anachronistic discussion, but it does a disservice to fans of the game from across the country, and a team that is becoming more multicultural by the year, and a supporter base that, in many places, is beginning to reflect that along with the lapsed believers.

The believers from areas like the Northern Beaches, where the 15-man code largely reigns over rugby league. From Porters Oval, squeezed between the Bilgola escarpment and the ocean at Newport and home of the 2020 Subbie Club Champions no less, to Rat Park a boisterous, passionate home of the 2017 Shute Shield winning Rats, down to Manly Oval, the home ground of the Wallabies skipper the most famous Marlin.

It's here that the clichéd view of rugby falls down. This is not the home of RM's, BMW's and a bottle of Grange. This is flannelled shirts, boardies and a can bar on the Hill. A Hilux in the driveway and kids running around in the Newport or Narrabeen Colts sides. More builders than bankers. This is modern rugby country and its constituents, for so long focused on the local game, finally have reason to believe and look beyond the famed 'Insular Peninsula'.

And they are not alone. Across the country there are swathes of the rugby fraternity in this mould, many of whom have been disengaged from the top end of the sport, and desperate to believe again. That time is now.

Two performances of character and belief have done this. Two performances that suggest better days lie ahead. These are the green shoots for the sport that have energised communities that never fell out of love with the game, but had certainly lost the spark in the relationship.

On the eve of the Tri-Nations, the glint in the eye has returned. The fresh air blowing through Dave Rennie and a new breed of Wallabies is bringing life back to those who previously went all misty eyes about That Kick from John Eales. Or That Tackle from Greegs.

At Homebush on Saturday night, the scene of more sepia tinged memories - a famous Stirling Mortlock intercept try in 2003 and George Gregan holding the Bledisloe Cup aloft a year earlier, and yes it was in That Shirt - all the promise and hope for new beginnings will be put to the test. The community is yearning for a meaningful result. A win in a live Bledisloe match. A win that would mean more than just an entry in Wikipedia.

The desire to believe in these Wallabies is there. Saturday can finally offer the reason to believe.