Jade Stadium, Christchurch
Saturday 13 July 2002 7:35pm
Referee: Jonathan Kaplan, SA
Four penalties to two may not seem like a great game, but New Zealand rugby fans will not be complaining too much after the All Blacks 12-6 win over the Wallabies on Saturday night.
The much-needed victory after mixed performances against Italy, Ireland and Fiji was a valuable boost for the home side. For four long seasons, the All Blacks have scraped up only the odd win against our Australian neighbours and the victory will provide good impetus for the second encounter with the Wallabies in early August.
Rain poured down on the packed Jade Stadium, affecting both the handling and arguably the quality of the game. For recent converts to rugby, used to an era of high-scoring matchplay and multiple tries, a tryless game may seem the antithesis of what good rugby should be. Those who recall the All Blacks 6-3 win over the Wallabies at Eden Park in 1991 will remember comments that the game seemed to recall another era.
This correspondent understands those sentiments, but the bulk of All Black supporters will not be too worried. The All Blacks needed a win on Saturday night and despite a few nervous moments, they provided it. Complacency must be stamped out with vigour, but the All Blacks finally justified their selections and proved their ability to mix it with the best in the world.
Even All Black captain Reuben Thorne, a normally reserved and unassuming skipper who looks ahead to the next game, seemed to have a trace of effusiveness on his face in the post-match interview. The burden he has borne for months of being team captain of a sporting side in a country shaken by their team's lacklustre performances in recent years, seemed a little lighter. For thousands of rugby fans throughout the country who have stood by their side in some of the leaner times of its history, their burden seemed a little lighter, as well.
New Zealand was not counting on an All Black victory on Saturday night. Putting aside their recent record, Jonah Lomu and (less questionably) Tana Umaga's omission from the squad seemed to reduce the All Blacks attacking options. Then during the week, Norm Maxwell and Taine Randall were omitted for injuries. With both forwards and backs depleted, going up against the World Cup holders seemed a tall order.
Yet, for all the difficulties of the past three or four seasons, the Jade Stadium faithful were in good heart in the lead-up to the match, jeering as Deborah Wai Kopehe finished "Advance Australia Fair" (perhaps not particularly sporting but certainly leaving no doubt as to where their sympathies lay), and joining her with distinct audibility during the Maori version of "God Defend New Zealand" concluding the English version in full voice.
It was something of an adjustment to see Caleb Ralph lead the haka, which seemed to lack its usual intensity. Still, it was performed competently and it was the 80 minutes on the field that would leave the greatest impression for visitors and home side alike.
Wallaby skipper George Gregan was clearly disappointed after the match, yet philosophical and sporting. It shows that the Trans-Tasman rivalry is, despite the occasional flare-up on the field, essentially an honourable one.
The first half was essentially hard grind with two penalties to Andrew Mehrtens and one to Matthew Burke leaving the All Blacks ahead 6-3 at halftime. Burke missed a couple of goals during the game, one during the first half from a relatively easy position.
Christian Cullen, despite an early knock-on, seemed to play well and was well supported by the other members of the backline. The forwards also held their own, but it was disconcerting to see the All Blacks still concede lineout ball on their own throws, uncomfortably recalling last year's Stadium Australia debacle. It was fortunate that the game on the ground was otherwise fairly even, with the All Black defence playing a vital role in events late in the game.
It was too close on the scoreboard at halftime and the sheer effort required from the All Blacks, going on past events, would be substantial. As the rain continued to pour down, another Mehrtens goal made it 9-3 but Burke cut this back to 9-6. This margin left no room for errors and even Mehrtens' goal putting the All Blacks out to a 12-6 lead still meant that a converted try would put the Wallabies back into the match and in all probabilty, keep the Bledisloe Cup back in Australia for a fifth consecutive season.
After the last-minute loss to the Wallabies at WestpacTrust Stadium in 2000, the comprehensive defeat at Carisbrook last year and the galling defeat at Stadium Australia after Toutai Kefu's match-winning try a few weeks later, expecting the All Blacks to defend their line seemed almost too much to ask.
Even worse, with less than 10 minutes to play, Mark Robinson was given a yellow card. Down to 14 players, with a Wallaby team still capable of beating them and plenty of time to go, the effort required was considerable.
But for the first time in several years, the All Blacks responded and defended their line with full conviction. They tackled and tackled again, as the minutes ticked by. With the Wallabies making several inroads into the All Blacks 22-metre line, the latter refused to yield. It was a defensive effort of substantial proportions as the crowd cheered every turnover in the home side's favour, the final hooter and at last, the final whistle.
At fulltime, the All Blacks and their supporters applauded the 12-6 win as one of the most pleasing results in New Zealand rugby for some time. The dominant feeling was one of relief: the All Blacks could still play and beat the top sides.
Coach John Mitchell, whose own appointment was almost as controversial as his subsequent selections, will feel partial vindication from Saturday night's win. His no-nonsense approach to the game can be shown to have produced dividends: namely a victory against the World Cup holders.
Looking ahead to next Saturday's match against South Africa at WestpacTrust Stadium, it would be good to have dry weather and a few tries from the All Blacks. But that's not a priority: what the All Blacks need is to sustain a winning momentum. Taking their eyes off the ball at this stage will almost certainly cost them any chance in next year's World Cup, as it did in 1991, 1995 and 1999.
John Mitchell, Robbie Deans, their players and supporters must know that their job is only part done. If they do not sustain their momentum from Saturday's game, the consequences for All Black rugby could be profound. Another season like the last four is unacceptable: the All Blacks must prove their ability to succeed in every game.
All Black supporters have every incentive to keep the pressure and encouragement on the team: the return of the Bledisloe Cup this year and World Cup victory in 2003.
It is vital for New Zealand rugby at all levels that the All Blacks live up to their tradition: to put it simply, their game and their country are counting on them.