They call it the greatest game ever played. It’s 8pm local time and 109,874 fans are packed into ANZ Stadium in Sydney, then known as ‘Stadium Australia’. It’s an attendance figure never matched by any game of rugby before or since. Perhaps it was a good omen. The reason for the mind boggling attendance was the greatest rivalry in the history of the game and the teams did not disappoint.
All Blacks vs. Wallabies is a huge game at the worst of times, but upon closer reflection New Zealand’s dominance of the fixture over the past 80 years devalues the rivalry slightly. Since the Bledisloe cup was first awarded in 1931, the Kiwis have racked up 41 series victories to Australia’s 11, while this autumn the will be seeking to make it an unprecedented 12-in-a-row.
The years around the turn of the century, however, were what made the fixture truly legendary. Australia managed five series victories in-a-row between 1998 and 2002, and of the 10 matches in those years, only three were won by more than a score. That balmy evening in Sydney, New Zealand kicked off the new Tri-Nations season as defending champions. Despite winning the previous two Bledisloe cup titles, the Wallabies had never won the Tri-Nations. What they had managed to win was the 1999 World Cup, less than 10 months earlier. New Zealanders called it the world champions vs. the best team in the world. The All Blacks had a chip on their shoulder and the Wallabies had a point to prove.
The team line ups were the stuff rugby wet dreams are made of. The world champions were led from the front by captain and second row John Eales, distinctive as ever with his permanently bandaged head, and a pre-Munster days Jim Williams at no.8. Marshalled by their legendary half back pairing of George Gregan and Stephen Larkham, the boasted the powerful and blisteringly quick Joe Roff and Stirling Mortlock on the wings, all overseen by a Bledisloe cup debutant at full-back named Chris Latham, who would go on to score 40 tries in the gold jersey.
The All Blacks fielded a similarly star-studded team. They too were led by a second row in the form of Todd Blackadder, fresh from leading the Crusaders to a 3rd straight Super 12 title. At half back Justin Marshall and Andrew Merthens would both go on to win over 80 caps in 10 year careers, but it was in the back 3 where this All Black team could really strike fear into the opposition. On the right wing was future captain Tana Umaga, who when he wasn’t driving Brian O’Driscoll’s head into the ground, was terrorising opposition defences in every position right across the backline. Full back was soon to be record try-scorer Christian Cullen, at the time on 34 tries from 44 caps, while on the left wing stood the greatest player ever to play the game, the terrifying, the phenomenal, the incomparable Jonah Lomu. Five years on from bursting onto the scene at the 1995 world cup, there was tragically only 2 years remaining in Lomu’s test career, which would ultimately be cut short by health issues.
As if the tension needed to be built anymore, Maori flanker Taine Randall led a particularly enthusiastic Haka amid jeers from the Aussie crowd. If theres one thing any All Black team don’t enjoy it’s disrespect of their war dance and the started the match with appropriate enthusiasm. 80 seconds in a partially blocked kick was not dealt with by the Aussie back 3, and in a flash Umaga latched onto the bouncing ball to blaze in under the posts for the opening try. The shell shocked Larkham kicked off to New Zealand right hand side, and within 10 seconds the Kiwis had switched to the opposite side of the pitch, where a delectable shimmy and pass from Merthens gave Lomu a few yards of space just outside his 22. In a flash the big man was away with that mixture of power and pace only he was capable of, bulldozing through Roff’s tackle before an O’Driscoll-esque pass over his head as he was bundled into touch gave centre Pita Alatini a free run in for a second try and 14-0, 24 seconds after Larkham had struck the restart. Clearly rattled now, his next restart didn’t go the required 10 metres, but play carried on as the ball was claimed by Blackadder. Off the first phase of possession Alatini took an inch perfect line which saw him burst through the Australian midfield, and though he was eventually caught by the retreating defenders, he offloaded to Cullen who cantered in under the posts. This time the ball was touched down a total of 20 seconds after Larkham put boot to ball. 5 minutes in and the world champions were heading for a pasting. Again Larkham kicked off and again the ball was shifted wide to Lomu, who made 60 metres and destroyed 2 tacklers before being hauled down by a magnificent desperation tackle by Gregan, this time Australia infringed and gave away a penalty, which Merthens kicked for 24-0. With his 4 kick offs, Larkham was the only Australian who had touched the ball.
Having finally gained possession when New Zealand knocked on the restart, the World champion’s back-line finally got the ball and Larkham had seen enough. His scintillating break through the middle was topped by a fine pass to Mortlock who cantered over the line before converting his own try. 24-7 after 10 minutes. A revitalised Australia managed to exert some pressure and a Williams’s break brought them within inches of the line, before Gregan popped to Mortlock who had the simplest of finishes for his second. The conversion was missed but the momentum was with the gold jerseys now and more pressure allowed Latham to barrel over under the posts to make it 24-19. New Zealand were in disarray now as Australia, starved of possession for the opening 10 minutes protected it with their lives, and were clinical once inside the 22. 5 minutes after Latham’s effort Gregan put Roff over from close range for 24 all, Eales stepped up to take the kick but missed to leave the game level at half time.
The scoreboard operator got a well-deserved break as the game continued to to and fro; Mortlock edged his side ahead with a penalty before Marshall broke from just inside the Australian half for New Zealand’s 4th try. Merthens added the 2 points and traded penalties with Mortlock for 34-30 in New Zealand’s favour with 5 minutes remaining. The game seemed to finally have been settled in their favour until Gregan had his final say. The diminutive scrum half broke from the halfway line and passed wide, and though the Wallabies attach was eventually stopped 5 metres short, the ball was funnelled wide to substitute Jeremy Paul who scuttled over in the tightest of gaps. In these days of TMOs the replay would have been shown endlessly, but live action was good enough for the referee to award the try. Debutant substitute Andrew walker missed the conversion for a one point game.
New Zealand managed to work a lineout 10 metres from the Wallaby try-line, but when the line out was lost it seemed their last hope had evaporated, a poor clearance kick, failed to make touch and was collected by Cullen and New Zealand advanced down the right hand side before being stopped right on the 22. With 79:13 on the clock and the full width of the pitch to play with, there was only one option they were ever going to take, as the ball worked its way left through New Zealand hands the home supporters roared encouragement for one final effort, finally a sumptuous skip pass from substitute Byron Kelleher found Randall, leader of the Haka, who drew two tackles before popping the ball over their heads to Lomu, in space, on the 22 metre line. He took the ball in a stationary position but such was his God-given acceleration it was irrelevant. Larkham found himself the one place no out half ever wants to be, as the last man covering the world’s most physical winger. The great man spared him the ignominy of bursting through the tackle by dancing around him and along the touchline for the winning try… and 110,000 people caught their collective breath.
13 years on from that game and Australian rugby is in something of a crisis. They haven’t beaten the All Blacks since 2002 and only 1 Australian team has won the Super 15 title since 2004. With the capacity of ANZ stadium being reduced to 80,000, no rugby stadium in the world can hold the crowed that attended this game. For now the All Black Wallaby rivalry is a lame duck, and it’s unlikely any game will come along in the coming years which can compare to this one for legendary status. Back in 2000 however, these teams continued to battle it out, 3 weeks later Australia went to Wellington and beat the All Blacks in their own back yard. By a point. With the last kick of the game.
Gary Walsh, Pundit Arena.