Big Brother is Listening

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An already fraught and tense build up to the opening Bledisloe Cup test of 2016 took a sinister twist when it was revealed the All Blacks had found a listening device planted in the team room of their hotel. GREGOR PAUL reports on what was the biggest integrity breach world rugby has seen.

The All Blacks perform the Haka before the Bledisloe Cup Rugby Championship match between the Australian Wallabies and the New Zealand All Blacks at ANZ Stadium on August 20, 2016 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

The build-up to the first Bledisloe Cup test of 2016 was destined to be a little spiteful and bad tempered.

The relationship between the All Blacks and Wallabies had been on the rocks for a long time – maybe a decade or so. And there wasn't much sign of things improving following the arrival of Michael Cheika as coach of the Wallabies in November 2014.

Cheika had taken over from Ewen McKenzie and had an immediate impact in solidifying and unifying a Wallabies side that had become one of the game's great under performers.

Cheika was also engaging, direct and challenging in the way he fronted media and he and his All Blacks counterpart, Steve Hansen, created great theatre between them.

It was obvious that as much as both men had a grudging respect for one another, they were also keen to trade verbal blows.

Hansen managed to strike the first blow in that regard long before the game in Sydney on August 20. It was during the June series, when the All Blacks were playing Wales, that Hansen was asked what he thought of events across the Tasman where Australia were trailing 2-0 in the series against England.

“Cheika has not come back, he's let Eddie [England coach Jones] have a free reign to the point where he's actually allowed Eddie to bully him in the media,” said Hansen.

“I don't know if that's because they know each other that well that there's a pecking order from the old days...but that's gone on to the park, hasn't it?”

It was a comment that Cheika took personally and wormed its way under his skin. He was clearly riled by it and felt the need to respond the day before the All Blacks arrived in Australia.

Cheika said: “I don't know what he's upset about,” Cheika said of Hansen. “I think we know how we're thought of. We know they think we're no chance to do anything and they're validated, I suppose, we haven't beaten them for ages in the series so it's understandable that they would think that.”

He then went on to suggest that he felt the All Blacks, world champions and unbeaten in 10 tests and holders of the Bledisloe since 2003, were under more pressure. His final dig was to say that Hansen had plenty of his own problems to worry about – such as, who to play at openside flanker and first-five. The tension was mounting – the animosity between the two sides becoming increasingly apparent.

Given his chance to respond later in the week, Hansen struck back with some well-timed, well-aimed shots.

“If anyone looks at our record, and we’ve been reasonably successful, you don’t be successful if you don’t respect the opposition,” Hansen said.

“So I think they’re kidding themselves if they don’t think we’re respecting them.

“If you look at what they’re saying and that, they’re building their own siege mentality and that’s fine, that’s what they’ve got to do. But we certainly respect them, they’re a good side and they’re full of world class players and at home they’re hard to beat.

“If you look at what’s happened to them recently — I think they’ve lost their last four games — that’ll create pressure. They haven’t won the Bledisloe for the last 13 years, that’ll create pressure. There’s as much pressure on them as there is us. They’re kidding themselves if they don’t think they’ve got pressure.”

As build-ups go, this was one was memorable. The verbal sparring was terrific, didn't so much allude to tension as confirm it: hammer home the fact there were two sides who didn't like each other about to do battle.

The Wallabies had lost their last four tests and there was added pressure given the disappointing form of their Super Rugby teams and subsequent drop in public interest.

Wallabies players stand for their national anthem during the Bledisloe Cup Rugby Championship match between the Australian Wallabies and the New Zealand All Blacks at ANZ Stadium on August 20, 2016 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

The All Blacks were under just as much pressure. They were the world champions and had swept Wales 3-0 in June, but they were still trying to find their way under new captain Kieran Read and his wider leadership team.

The stage was set for an epic encounter and then, out of the blue, an incredible revelation emerged on the morning of the test.

The New Zealand Herald dropped a bombshell just hours before kickoff when it reported that earlier in the week the All Blacks had found a listening device hidden in their team room at the hotel they were staying at in Sydney.

They had been bugged. This was the biggest breach of integrity that world rugby had ever seen. The secret, intimate details of the All Blacks' gameplan had almost certainly been picked up by the planted device.

Someone was so desperate to learn about the All Blacks' intentions that they had been prepared to break the law to hear more. The story was almost too hard to believe.

Having arrived in Sydney on the Sunday before the test, the All Blacks had a teem meeting that night. Hansen typically sets out the plan for the week – the themes he wants the players to focus on, the key tactical, technical and mental priorities. This was done in the room that the hotel  - The Intercontinental in Double Bay – had set aside for them for their private use.

The following day, the security detail looking after the All Blacks had swept the room for bugs as they are sporadically prone to do. In doing this, they found a listening device had carefully been cut into the foam of a chair and then sewn up. It was virtually undetectable visually and wouldn't have been found but for the surveillance equipment.

The All Blacks management were shocked but not necessarily all that surprised. There had been concerns that they may have been bugged during the World Cup, but they couldn't find any evidence.

They constantly feel that their secrets are coveted by others and that their security has to be taken seriously at all times. But to actually find a listening device – this was a new experience that left everyone a little uncertain about what to do next.

Initially the All Blacks had asked the hotel to investigate – to see if there was a quick explanation. When it became apparent that wasn't going to emerge, New Zealand Rugby Union chief executive, Steve Tew, took the matter to the police on the Saturday of the test.

“The hotel immediately launched an investigation, we have informed the Australian Rugby Union and jointly we have now decided to hand over the investigation to the Australian police,” Tew said after the Herald had run their story.

“There was an All Blacks team meeting there earlier in the week. If the device was working properly - and we don't know that for sure - then they would have overheard that [information]. But we don't think it's a catastrophic issue for the game. We're going to get on with it.

“We haven't made any accusations of anybody so there’s no room for denials. We are taking this issue very seriously and given it will be a police matter, it would not be prudent to go into further details.”

Despite labouring the point that no accusations had been made and that the NZRU genuinely had no idea who might have put the bug there, Australian Rugby Union chief executive Bill Pulver made a curious and aggressive response when he was asked about it.

“I just think it's a ludicrous concept that there are listening devices being placed in team rooms,” he said. “I don't know how that could happen. I simply don't know the background but I'm clearly disappointed it gets out to the media on the day of a Bledisloe Cup match.”

The plot had never been so intriguing ahead of a Bledisloe Cup test. This was unprecedented and the build-up moved into almost surreal territory when the New South Wales Police arrived at the Intercontinental a few hours before kickoff.

They were there to begin an investigation that cast a dark cloud over rugby. A listening device conjured all sorts of sinister possibilities. The worst of which was the prospect that it had been put there by an illegal betting syndicate to solicit some kind of inside information about the All Blacks.

That was the greatest fear for everyone involved – that the tentacles of organised crime had wrapped themselves around a sport that prided itself on its purity, integrity and credibility.

But the sight of Rose Bay local area commander superintendent Brad Hodder addressing an increasingly large media throng, was a sight that was as worrying as it was unusual.

“We will be looking at all the avenues and what part of the legislation it comes under, in particular with the electronic device that was located we'll look at telecommunications offences and the Listening Devices Act,” he said.

He also suggested that had been far from helpful that the NZRU had not notified them until Saturday when they had discovered the bug on Monday.

The rugby, when it came, was light relief for everyone except the Wallabies.

A 42-8 win for the All Blacks suggested that the New Zealand players hadn't been distracted by any of the pre-game antics. The All Blacks were ruthless and devastatingly good, but the media were never going to dwell on the quality of the performance for as long a they might have.

They wanted answers from Hansen about what was quickly dubbed 'spygate'. Why, for instance, had it taken so long to get the police involved?

“The reason that we didn't go there straight away was because we went through a process with the hotel and our CEO was away at the Olympics,” Hansen said.

“He arrived and he needed to be spoken to and fully briefed on it. Once he was fully briefed, he said 'righto, we need to take this to the police'. Whether it was right or wrong, it's what's happened so we all have to accept that and deal with it.

“Lots of people are speculating about who's done it and who hasn't and I don't think that's fair because no one knows who's done it and obviously there's plenty of people who could do it.

“So I think until the Inquiry's done by the police, we should sit back and that's it, let them do their job and certainly not speculate on who planted it there because no one knows. We certainly don't know.

“It's not something that we wanted, but it happened. It's like an injury, isn't it. You've got to deal with it and it's not in your control. But how you react is in your control and we've just got on with our work and passed it over to the powers that be and they'll deal with it.”

Cheika followed him, glum and despondent about his team's performance and in no way interested in offering much wisdom about what had happened earlier in the day.

“I don't think anyone accused us of putting it there, did they? It's got nothing to do with us,” Cheika said.

The following morning after the test, assistant coach Ian Foster was asked whether he felt the All Blacks were paranoid. In the space of 24 hours, it was apparent the media, or rather the Australian media, were keen to start portraying the All Blacks in a negative light: to put them, as victim, under some scrutiny.

The question was designed to suggest that the whole listening bug discovery wasn't such a big deal – that it was only being talked about because of the paranoid delusions of the All Blacks.

It was a strange line of questioning given that the discovery of a listening device was surely categoric proof that the All Blacks were anything but paranoid. “I'm interested you used the word paranoia, because I think you can kick that word for touch,” Foster said with some bite. “All teams are protective of the way they want to go about things and so that's just something we've done occasionally for obvious reasons.

“It's shocked everyone. We understand a few mixed emotions and it's not great for the game but it's happened and it's out of our hands now and we'll move forward.”

Almost two months on and it still wasn't apparent how far anyone had moved forward. The police were quiet. They continued to merely say they had a number of lines of inquiry to pursue and that they were making progress.

It didn't feel like it, though. There was no new information or hot lead that they were closing in on. And now we still have no clue as to how the single largest breach of integrity the game has known is going to end.

There may never be an answer. Who put the listening device in the All Blacks team room may end up being one of the game's greatest mysteries.

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