It was the night the All Blacks blew it and they, their management and their fans know it all too well. Their last minute 29-26 loss to the Wallabies at Stadium Australia on Saturday night was a triple blow for a struggling New Zealand team, costing them not only a game, but the Tri-Nations and any redemption from the already-lost Bledisloe Cup series.
The galling defeat after a fine comeback against the Wallabies, at a stage when one might have thought they were down-and-out, was particularly disappointing for the team. Captain Anton Oliver's visible devastation after the game was justified and some sympathy can't be avoided for him.
Yet, this does not change the situation: the All Blacks had the game in their grasp and failed to keep it. For those who watched their last-minute loss to the Wallabies at WestpacTrust Stadium in 2000,including this correspondent, it was with a sense of disbelief that they saw the same thing happening again.
True, this was only the second loss the All Blacks have had this year, and they showed far more attitude than in their previous encounter with the Wallabies at Carisbrook. But this only emphasises the pattern our national side has shown over the past few seasons: an inability to rise to the occasion when they needed to.
The All Blacks definitely needed this one. Instead, they threw the game away when they had it in their grasp, the straw which has broken the back of their 2001 season. Soul-searching within the top levels of New Zealand rugby is most definitely called for ahead of the end-of-season tour.
After both sides traded penalties, Norm Maxwell was sin-binned for what some called a disputable offence and during those 10 minutes, Matt Burke kicked a penalty and Chris Latham scored after a well-aimed kick by Stephen Larkham eluded a rather casual-looking Jonah Lomu. The Wallabies, at one point ahead by 16-3, were up 19-6 at halftime. If ever a comeback like the game at Stadium Australia last year was called for, it was then.
The All Blacks responded to the challenge with great spirit, with Doug Howlett scoring a try and Andrew Mehrtens adding the conversion, along with a penalty goal. With only three points in it, hopes of New Zealand fans started to rise.
They weren't disappointed, with Jonah Lomu and Leon MacDonald sending Pita Alatini in for his try, which the All Blacks greeted with great enthusiasm. After Mehrtens added another conversion, All Black fans were starting to feel very hopeful indeed, especially after a penalty goal gave their side a further lead.
Complacency was out, but the feeling seemed to be that the All Blacks could take the game, if they avoided giving the Wallabies a chance. But they did, another penalty to Australia making the score 26-22. Anyone who watched the game in Wellington last year knows that if the Wallabies are given a chance to win they will. Surely the All Blacks knew it, also. Yet despite their tackling, it was not enough to stop Toutai Kefu crashing down by the posts in the last minute, with the conversion all but a formality. It may rank as one of the most soul-destroying moments of All Black history along with George Gregan's tackle on Jeff Wilson in 1994 and South Africa's one-point defeat of the 1976 All Blacks at Johannesburg, depriving them even of a shared series.
The effect on the All Blacks was immediately evident. Even though, hypothetically, they could still have won at this point, Mehrtens kick-off failed to reach 10 metres. From the scrum and ensuing play, the Wallabies kicked for touch. For them, another triumph. For the All Blacks, nothing. Somehow, some way, things went badly wrong for the All Blacks on the night. In one of the most incoherent lineout displays of the year, if not in all history, the All Blacks lost possession even on Oliver's throws. Oliver readily conceded that their calls were the wrong ones on a number of occasions and that the game strategy failed to fire. He is absolutely right.
It is true that some of referee Taape Henning's decisions seemed disputable. No one likes to see question marks over refereeing calls, particularly in an important game like this. But this does not change the final score. The All Blacks lost their final game against South Africa in 1998 by a last-minute try that many, including the "try-scorer", considered to have been bounced over the line and lost forward. We just remember that the All Blacks were defeated and that is what we will remember from Saturday's game. New Zealand should not have been in a position to lose in either fixture.
Of the All Blacks, the selections made for the South African game seemed to generally perform well. Mehrtens strategic role has definitely justified his selection, but his goal-kicking is still suspect. It was also a pity that Jeff Wilson had to pull out as most of us would agree that on his day, he can change the course of a game. Justin Marshall seemed to have some more nervous moments when he came on late in the piece and it wasn't a good sight. It was good to see Christian Cullen come on to the wing briefly, but his time to shine again may not come until the end of the year.
Yet, all those negatives cannot disguise a fact which must be repeated again: not only COULD the All Blacks have beaten the Wallabies, they SHOULD have beaten them. Anton Oliver agreed with this after the game. Australian captain John Eales said as much as well. Some might say that it was inevitable that the All Blacks would lose, given the atmosphere of the occasion for the Wallaby lock.
Eales himself remarked that there are several top teams in the world today and it is just a matter of which team takes it out. While this was good grace on his part,it is not one that New Zealand rugby fans will swallow easily. The Wallabies deserved to win and deserve their world championship status. But notwithstanding that,the All Blacks should have emerged in triumph. The fact that they didn't is one that they must not forget.
Anton Oliver's pride in the All Black jersey and his captaincy is genuine. But he may well pay the price if results on the end-of-season tour aren't more positive. The position of coach Wayne Smith, facing re-election at the end of the year, must also be shakier after Saturday night. But it is still worth remembering that even the much-maligned Laurie Mains came incredibly close to coaching a World Cup-winning side. The New Zealand Rugby Football Union may well wish to bear that in mind before contemplating mass sackings. But the patience of the New Zealand rugby public must be wearing very thin, like the All Blacks pickings over the past three seasons.
There were signs of hope in the All Blacks' performance and now that John Eales, Joe Roff and Michael Foley are retiring, perhaps this augurs well for the All Blacks, given that a similar change of personnel helped spark the bad performances of recent years on this side of the Tasman Sea. Yet surely most All Black fans would have wanted their wins with all those players on deck: the best of our team beating the best of theirs. It is surely not satisfactory for us to wait for retirements for the All Blacks to fire.
Again and again it must be said: the All Blacks had the game in their grasp and let it slip, repeating a pattern of recent years. If that happens in a major World Cup game in 2003, the All Blacks are finished.
At the risk of seeming melodramatic, the oft-quoted words of a famous orator now come to mind. Surely they represent the attitude New Zealand rugby must now adopt:
"You ask what is our aim? I will answer in one word: victory. Victory at all costs ... Victory no matter how long and hard the road may be."
(Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill, 1940)
That speaker didn't know it, but he had to wait five years to achieve his goal, whereas New Zealand rugby knows it has only two years to prepare for its ultimate challenge. Yet, like Sir Winston, only victory can now be acceptable and like Sir Winston, surrender is not an option.