Stadium Australia, Sydney
Saturday 3 August 2002 9pm (NZT)
Referee: Andre Watson (South Africa)
"They must bring the Cup home" wrote this correspondent two weeks ago. "New Zealand expects every one of them to do their duty."
Well, by that reckoning, the All Blacks failed miserably in their last-minute 16-14 loss to the Wallabies at Stadium Australia on Saturday night.
Failed because they needed nothing less than a draw to bring back the Bledisloe Cup last based in this country in the year 1998 (Just before Rugbyheads was established, if this correspondent is correct).
Failed because they lost it by a last-minute penalty goal, recalling the misery at WestpacTrust Stadium in 2000 and Toutai Kefu's last minute try in 2001.
Failed because after a season of promise and expectation, with so much depending on this game, the All Blacks could not come through, when it counted, at the final hurdle. Again.
To say that this situation is getting monotonous for New Zealand rugby fans would be a supreme understatement. But this correspondent does not want to expand on that description too much because firstly, mindlessly abusive comments, however tempting, are unlikely to change the final result.
Secondly, discerning Rugbyheads would not think much of a correspondent who doesn't offer anything constructive instead.
Finally, the All Blacks have to play South Africa at home next weekend and their only chance of salvaging some progress from this season is to win there. If not, it will be another year when the wheels fell off for New Zealand international rugby.
But let's all be frank: the All Blacks blew it again. Unlike last year, when Anton Oliver was almost inconsolable about the loss, Reuben Thorne seemed more stoic. Just as well, with the South African game ahead. But there was the same story: not penetrating the Australians line, allowing the Wallabies back into the picture in the crucial final moments, getting into a position of weakness where one infringement or mistake could cost them the game.
Of course, the All Blacks just about won back the Bledisloe Cup. But to repeat a sadly all-too-familiar tune: "just about" says it all. When will the All Blacks finally come through when it counts? Is this what the country can expect from our team in the 2003 Rugby World Cup? Nice play, good attacking strategy, clear teamwork but nothing to show for it at the end?
It came down to a penalty goal which was the subject of much conjecture where this correspondent was watching: was it for playing the ball on the ground? Interfering with the Australians access? The replay seemed inconclusive, although this correspondent noted that referee Andre Watson was fairly quick to blow up perceived infringements. A try to the Wallabies was disallowed in the second half because of their obstruction on the All Blacks. Relieved as most New Zealand rugby fans were at that point, it did look a fairly marginal situation, at least from this correspondent's point of view. But we could live with it.
Looking at it from the replay, the final penalty looked more apparent (if that) than real. A rather big call for Referee Watson and not one that New Zealanders are likely to forget. Andrew Mehrtens has reportedly called his performance one to be ashamed of. But why was New Zealand in that position in the first place?
In front of 70,000 fans at Stadium Australia, both anthems were well received. Hayley Westenra sang both Maori and English versions of "God Defend New Zealand" with her usual finesse and articulation. The locals however, decided to put some oomph into their rendition. "Come on, Australia" called the soloist for "Advance Australia Fair" as she prepared to sing. The crowd responded with predictable feeling. The All Blacks haka, not as fearsome as it often is, was nonetheless competently performed. Yet, as the Australians sang "Waltzing Matilda", one got the feeling that the home side was going to defend the Bledisloe Cup as best they could.
Down 8-3 at halftime after a Nathan Sharpe try and penalty goal to the Wallabies, followed by a penalty to Andrew Mehrtens, the All Blacks were behind but in control. True, both sides were missing kicks but the margin was not insurmountable. Yet, one factor stood out: the Wallabies had penetrated the visitors line. The New Zealanders hadn't.
So, it was good to see the All Blacks back on attack in the second half with Doug Howlett, Christian Cullen and the rest of the backline combining well. The forwards were holding their own, too. Yet, whether because the Australians defended too well (or didn't go back 10 metres when the All Blacks got the ball) penetrating the Wallabies just didn't happen often enough.
Once McCaw scored however, things started to look up. And with two penalty goals by Mehrtens on top of that, at 14-8, the situation looked encouraging for the visitors.
As long as the Wallabies weren't let back into the game.
Which, sadly, they were.
As the All Blacks defensive effort has improved this year, it was easy to forget a vital lesson from the past two seasons.
"If the Australians are given a chance to win, they will."
With shoddy All Black tackling and Wallaby persistence, the home side crossed five minutes before time, with Mat Rogers leaping with evangelical fervour to the skies, proclaiming the Good News of salvation, at least as far as Australian rugby fans were concerned.
What a pity it seemed for Rogers' prophetic reputation, therefore, that Burke's conversion was missed from an all-too-easy position. Far too easy. Not that any All Black fan was complaining. But a part of this correspondent hoped that the fate of the Bledisloe Cup would not rest on this misplaced kick.
It was now up to the All Blacks to take the ball downfield and to hold out with all the strength at their disposal. "Tackle, tackle, tackle" went the cry. "Don't let them through and you can do it."
And indeed they appeared to be doing it. Remarkably, their defence did hold. Like Jade Stadium two weeks ago, the All Blacks at last showed their tenacity and ability to hold out for 80 minutes. With that persistence, the Bledisloe Cup was finally coming home.
Except for one thing which was easy to forget: what happened if they infringed? Or were seen to be infringing? Which in the long term, can have the same result. When Andre Watson blew his whistle inside the All Black 22, this correspondent thought it was something the All Blacks could do without.
When the camera pulled back and it was evident how close the kick would be to the posts, the danger of the situation was mind-numbingly familiar. Even worse, time was undeniably up on the clock. There would not even be sufficient space for any reply at all from the All Blacks.
As All Black fans on both sides of the Tasman and around the world sat back in disbelief, Matt Burke stepped forward. Perhaps he could miss. Perhaps the Wallabies could lose at the last moment for a change. Forget those previous thoughts about how unfortunate it would be for the fate of the Bledisloe Cup in 2002 to rest on a misplaced kick.
It wasn't, it rested on a well-placed kick. The flags were raised, the game was finished, the Wallabies rejoiced and the All Blacks had, by allowing the Wallabies to get too close to their line, cost themselves any chance of restoring the balance in the Trans-Tasman rivalry. Australia 16, New Zealand 14.
This correspondent wrote a fortnight ago that any result other than a win or draw would not be acceptable for All Black fans. This result is not acceptable. What the All Blacks have shown once again is that their offensive ability against the current World Cup holders does not match the latter. They played generally well right up to the final moments, then blew it. So much for the "second place is nowhere" comments by coach John Mitchell.
Were the All Blacks out-psyched by the Wallabies and their supportive home crowd? Maybe, but surely they should have prepared for it. Enough New Zealanders were there chanting "All Blacks" with real fervour. Beside, big crowds at Stadium Australia have happened before. Was the controversy about not meeting people after they got off the plane, damaging to their morale? Not for the All Blacks, one would hope.
When they did hold their press conference, the All Blacks seemed composed but unaffected by the pre-match publicity (jokes about sheep included). Andrew Mehrtens remarked words to the effect that the absence of the Bledisloe Cup from the New Zealand trophy cabinet was something they were keen to address. Did this come across as arrogant? Did the Australians use this as a spur to carry them to victory on Saturday? Or did it just come down to a convenient kick at the right time for the Wallabies? Maybe all these factors worked together in the end result. Either way, the result is still depressing.
Tana Umaga and Christian Cullen gave a good Wellington input into the Canterbury dominated backline. Form or no, though, it was disconcerting to see Jonah Lomu in dress uniform with the rest of the squad. His presence on the field may have distracted the Australians enough for the All Blacks to hold out against the Australian attack. They may have been too preoccupied with marking him to decide what to do with the ball themselves. Or perhaps this correspondent is just clutching at straws.
But as coach John Mitchell has said, the team just has to go forward from here. The Tri-Nations are wide open and it is the responsibility of the All Blacks to beat the South Africans at home next week. At least in that respect, our team would be able to claim something from a now-precariously placed season.
It may seem unfair that a few seconds has the potential to undo what has been a generally healthy comeback for the All Blacks this year. But that could so easily happen again in 2003, when an otherwise healthy tournament can see the All Blacks lose out at the most crucial stage.
There is a positive that could come out of Saturday night's game: the All Blacks lost the Bledisloe Cup in 1986 and drew a series with France later the same year before going on to win the 1987 World Cup. Maybe this loss is enough to offset complacency in the New Zealand camp. But it is still a bitter pill to swallow and the All Blacks would be wise not to let the comparision go to their heads in the lead-up to next year's tournament. There is still too much work to do. Beating the South Africans at home for a start.
The Wallabies have had retirements and changes this year and we've still only scored one try against them in two tests. They are still the World and Bledisloe Cup holders. Any rugby fan in this country who thinks the All Blacks are ready for the ultimate challenge next year would be well advised to think again. Against the best, they were unsuccessful. The rest of the season is now a chance for them to show that defeat is not the start of an irreversible decline, but a spur to greater things.
What say you, Reuben, John, Robbie and friends?