Why this 'different' Bledisloe opener is Australia's most significant yet

A couple of weeks before Christmas last year, Rugby Australia summoned the code's media contingent to its Moore Park headquarters.

The reason? To share in a bit of festive cheer, of course. But only after a 90-minute presentation that pointed out some of the game's good-news stories in what had otherwise been a torrid year for the 15-man code, highlighted by the sharp decline of the Wallabies.

Under Michael Cheika, Australia had lost nine of 13 Tests; they had lost a home series to Ireland for the first time; been swept 3-0 in the Bledisloe Cup and only narrowly avoided finishing last in the Rugby Championship.

Having begun the 2018 season on a bright note via a grinding 18-9 win over Ireland, Australia signed off terribly in a 37-18 hammering from England; it was Cheika's sixth loss to Eddie Jones' troops in as many games. The Wallabies coach survived an RA review, his assistant Stephen Larkham didn't.

Still, Rugby Australia's crew of department leaders did their best to point out the surge in playing numbers in the women's ranks; an increased participation in school rugby programs and a general feeling that community rugby boasted many good new stories.

They needed it, too, as the Wallabies had endured their worst season since 1958. Unfortunately, there was more bad news to come in 2019.

In hindsight, we probably should have all seen Israel Folau's social media resurgence coming. But when the now former Wallabies fullback decided to pick up his phone and post anti-gay remarks - among other targets - to both Twitter and Instagram, few could have imagined the saga that would play out, and continues to do so today.

Folau's unfair dismissal case against Rugby Australia - from whom he is seeking $10m and an apology - will likely land in Federal Court while the Wallabies are working their way through Pool D at the World Cup in Japan.

It's difficult to know which storyline Rugby Australia should be more nervous about: A Folau win would significantly impact the game's finances while a first-ever Pool stage exit - don't laugh, Wales are ranked No. 2 and Fiji will be no snack - would see the Wallabies sink even lower than the horror show that was 2018.

The double-whammy could be seriously dire.

But before either of those scenarios play out, Australian rugby is preparing itself for its annual moment in the winter sporting spotlight - or at least a brief appearance stage left - with its home Bledisloe Test.

For many Australian rugby fans and even those with a passing interest in the game, the trans-Tasman series has become little more than a reminder to duck for cover; the need to avoid even the briefest of conversations with the Kiwis that seemingly exist in every Australian workplace.

But with Perth hosting the Bledisloe Cup for the very first time, things feel a little bit different.

Not bad different, just different.

And why shouldn't the West Australian capital be given an opportunity to host rugby's answer to State of Origin or the AFL grand final? The fact that Saturday's Test sold out in under a week when tickets went on sale last year suggests interest in the code remains strong in the west despite the Western Force's banishment from Super Rugby.

Some anger understandably remains, but the hundreds of kids that turned out at a Wallabies and Wallaroos fan-day on Sunday can only be a positive sign. The Force, too, have done a fine job in moving on from the ugly episode with the advent of Global Rapid Rugby, an exhibition series that will close out its second season on Friday, in the first game of a double-hit of rugby for the people of Perth.

There is one catch with the capacity crowd that will make its way to Optus Stadium on Saturday night however: Just how many of the 60,000-strong crowd will actually be supporting the Wallabies? The All Blacks received a big welcome when they themselves touched down in Perth on Sunday, while the Force's Super Rugby games against New Zealand opposition were consistently some of the better attended fixtures in the franchise's 11-year existence.

Back on the east coast of Australia, promotion of Saturday's Test has virtually been confined to Fox Sports. Channel 10 will also broadcast the game live but the lack of marketing and general awareness for the fixture appears to be at an all-time low.

The Test's predicament hasn't been lost on The Betoota Advocate either, the satirical online newspaper taking aim at the contest in an article entitled "The Pigeon Running Rugby Australia's Marketing Forgets Bledisloe is on this weekend - again."

Even the most unwavering Wallabies supporter would find it difficult not to have a chuckle at the Advocate's handiwork, though it doesn't in any way represent what should be a momentous week in Perth's sporting history.

But it has been four years since the Wallabies made a game of Bledisloe I. Over the last three years, the Australians have lost the series opener by an average of 27.3 points.

It was, however, a new beginning of sorts, that kick-started the Wallabies' unlikely run to the last World Cup final. Playing a Bledisloe Cup match under Michael Cheika for the first time, Australia caught the All Blacks on the hop with a 27-19 win at ANZ Stadium.

Perhaps a first ever trans-Tasman showdown in Perth can inspire something similar, or at least sees the Wallabies make a genuine contest of the match for the first time in four years?

The Wallabies certainly need a victory for their World Cup campaign - particularly with a trip to their Eden Park graveyard to come a week later -- but so too does Rugby Australia and the wider game itself.

For Rugby Australia's administrators can highlight the growth of the women's game, promising figures in community rugby and even the $5.2 million operating profit it announced for 2018 earlier this year all it likes, but the code's narrative in Australia will always be tied to the Wallabies.

And good news stories don't come much better than a Bledisloe Cup win. The World Cup, maybe, but you have to walk before you can run.