The All Blacks and Wallabies will renew their storied 116-year rivalry for the 165th time in Perth this weekend, the first of two trans-Tasman fixtures preceding the main event of 2019, the World Cup in Japan.
It is one of the oldest and most treasured battles in international rugby, and in 1931, the inception of the Bledisloe Cup was made to acknowledge the special place that tests between New Zealand and Australia have on the global stage.
Since then, the All Blacks have had a distinct edge over their neighbours, winning 101 of their 143 Bledisloe Cup clashes.
That dominance has been particularly prevalent over the past 17 years, which has been the longest winning streak in the professional era of the Bledisloe Cup by either side.
Since Reuben Thorne lifted the great trophy aloft following the All Blacks’ 21-17 victory at Eden Park in Auckland on August 16, 2003, the Wallabies have never been able to recapture what is widely considered by Kiwis and Australians as the second-most prized possession in international rugby, behind the Webb Ellis Trophy.
Guided by legendary coaches Sir Graham Henry and Steve Hansen, and represented by a plethora of all-time greats – including Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Beauden Barrett, Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith, to name a few – reclaiming the esteemed silverware has by no means been an easy task for the Michael Chieka’s side.
That much won’t change as they prepare to host the reigning back-to-back world champions at the new Optus Stadium in Western Australia, with the All Blacks hot favourites to restore their crown as Bledisloe Cup champions for yet another season.
It’s a far cry from the golden era of Australian rugby in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
That was a time when the Wallabies were in control of not just the Bledisloe Cup, but the whole of world rugby.
Coached by Rod Macqueen, who came on board with the national side in 1997, the Wallabies overturned their 1995 World Cup quarter-final exit and hat-trick of Bledisloe Cup defeats to clean sweep the All Blacks across three tests in 1998.
It was the first time they had won the trophy back from the New Zealanders since 1994, and they made sure to hold onto it for quite some time.
Macqueen made it back-to-back titles in 1999, as the Wallabies inflicted the All Blacks with what remains their largest-ever defeat in test rugby – a 28-7 shellacking in Sydney – in the second of two Bledisloe Cup tests, before going on to claim their second World Cup crown later that year.
24 months of sustained success over their fiercest rivals saw legends evolve in the form of John Eales, George Gregan, Stephen Larkham and Tim Horan, all of whom, alongside Jason Little, Matt Burke, Toutai Kefu and Phil Kearns, were childhood idols of today’s Wallabies.
It was a phenomenal side at the peak of its powers, and coming into the new millennium, there was minimal evidence to suggest that their trajectory of success could take a turn for the worst.
Especially when facing the lowly All Blacks, a side which had built a formidable reputation for itself over many a decade, but had tasted defeat in five of their seven tests in 1998, lost both their Tri-Nations and Bledisloe Cup titles, and were stunningly dumped out of the 1999 World Cup by an inspired French outfit.
For them, the turn of the millennium presented an opportunity for a fresh start, and while they still had to face an Australian side that were in the best shape they have ever been in during the professional era, incoming coach Wayne Smith kept things fresh with some changes in squad selection.
Out went a raft of players, including Robin Brooke, Ian Jones, Glen Osborne, Andrew Blowers, Rhys Duggan and the late Dylan Mika, and in came debutants Doug Howlett, Leon MacDonald, Greg Somerville, Troy Flavell, Ron Cribb, Mark Robinson and Filo Tiatia.
The crux of new players combined well with veterans of the previous World Cup cycle – Jonah Lomu, Tana Umaga, Christian Cullen, Andrew Mehrtens, Justin Marshall, Taine Randell, Josh Kronfeld, Jeff Wilson etc – to sweep aside Tonga and Scotland in emphatic fashion in the June test series under new captain Todd Blackadder.
The same could be said for the all-conquering Wallabies, who blitzed Argentina across two matches in Brisbane and Canberra to set up a mouth-watering showdown at Stadium Australia in Sydney, the stage for the first Bledisloe Cup clash of the new millennium.
With the New South Wales capital set to host the Olympics in just two months’ time, excitement was brimming in the city, and thanks to the Wallabies’ World Cup and Bledisloe Cup successes, the popularity of rugby was of a much higher status than what is seen in modern-day Australia.
That much was exemplified when a world record crowd of 109,874 turned up to watch the world champions challenge the All Blacks, who were still recovering from their shock loss to France the year beforehand.
Many would have expected the Wallabies to control the ebb and flow of the game in front of their home fans, but it was the All Blacks who raced out to a rapid start, scoring three tries through within the opening five minutes.
First it was Umaga who capitalised on an error by Chris Latham, and after just two minutes gone, the All Blacks had themselves a 7-0 lead.
Immediately from the re-start, a Lomu break down the left wing again caught out Latham defensively, leading to a try to second-five Pita Alatini to double his side’s lead four minutes after kick-off.
Another rampant push up the park by the All Blacks forwards from the ensuing re-start was enough to get play back into the Australian half, and an Alatini line break yielded a try for Cullen, with the All Black fullback from scoring his team’s third try in just five minutes.
A Merhtens penalty goal followed, and at 24-0 down, the Wallabies needed a miraculous turnaround in fortunes, and found it in the form of a Stirling Mortlock try on the right wing following some magical ball-playing by Larkham.
10 minutes later, it was loose forward Jim Williams and Gregan who combined to send Mortlock over in the corner for his second try of the encounter, and a hard-earned Latham try to amend his earlier errors brought the Australians to within touching distance of their rivals near the half hour mark.
Another four minutes later, the wave of offensive attrition didn’t relent for the All Blacks, with Roff taking advantage of some handy field position to muscle his way over for a score-levelling try near half-time.
The scores remained locked up at the break, and despite all that the All Blacks threw at Australia inside the opening five minutes, the Wallabies had found a way back into the contest.
It was a testament to how good the Australians were at that point in time, but that didn’t stop the New Zealanders from scoring the first try of the second half.
“We have to just keep attacking. Regardless of the result, we are not going to give in,” Blackadder later said of his half-time team talk.
“Let’s go out and face them, eh. Don’t be intimidated.”
It seems like his advice was taken on board, as a scintillating break by Marshall early in the second stanza saw the halfback evade four tackle attempts to reclaim the lead for the All Blacks, and it was a lead they maintained at 34-30 with three minutes on the clock.
However, some lovely distribution by Rod Kafer deep inside the All Blacks’ 22 found replacement hooker Jeremy Paul, which was enough to put him away for a crucial five-pointer late in the contest.
Staring down the barrel of defeat, the All Blacks had to find a way to keep their Bledisloe Cup hopes alive, and did just that four minutes into injury time.
Parked up on the Australian 22 metre mark, a quick-thinking lob pass by Taine Randall to the unmarked Lomu spelled the end of Australia’s victory hopes, with the man mountain rounding Larkham’s tackle attempt and outpacing Gregan to score the match-winning try.
The final score read 39-35 in the All Blacks’ favour, and the game went on to be dubbed by many as the greatest game of rugby ever played.
Watch – The ‘Greatest Test of All-Time’:
Not everybody took so much joy out of the result, though, with Australia’s early lapse in defence a point of frustration for the home side.
“We lost it in the last two minutes, not in the first seven,” Wallabies skipper Eales explained post-match.
The result meant that the All Blacks’ chances of winning back the Bledisloe Cup were still alive, and all eyes were fixated on the return leg at the new Westpac Stadium in Wellington a fortnight later.
Similarly to the series opener in Sydney, the scoring began quickly in the New Zealand capital, after a Herbert line break set up Mortlock for his third try in two Bledisloe Cup outings early in the first half.
The visitors continued their lightening start with another try after 16 minutes, which came from some sustained offensive pressure and unrelenting continuity to set Roff away in the right-hand corner.
Down 12-0, the All Blacks had to be the next team to score, and, through Cullen, they did.
Just two minutes after Roff’s try, an unlikely grubber kick by No 8 Cribb inside the Australian red zone was enough for Cullen to latch onto, and with that, the Kiwis were back within striking distance.
It took just another five minutes for the next try to be scored, and it turned out to be one of the great modern-day tries.
An extremely intricate and complex backline move from a lineout near halfway saw Marshall, Mehrtens, Alatini, Ieremia, Kronfeld, Kees Meeuws, Lomu and Umaga all involved before Cullen was set away for a wonderfully-taken brace of tries.
Penalties were then exchanged between both sides throughout the rest of the match to inflate the score to 23-21 with the All Blacks in charge seven minutes into injury time.
Leading up to that point, there had been plenty of opportunities for either side to put the game to bed, but a lack of execution left the game hanging in the balance deep into referee’s time.
It’s an element of the game that the All Blacks must have rued when Jonathan Kaplan blasted his whistle for an infringement at the breakdown on the New Zealanders’ 22 metre mark in the final play of the game.
However, with no first-choice goal kickers on the park, the kicking tee was handed over to second rower Eales.
Tasked with slotting the final penalty from a slight left-hand angle and thus denying the All Blacks the Bledisloe Cup for a third straight year, the 30-year-old lock did so with no qualms, silencing the 36,000-strong crowd by curling the ball through the uprights.
“I did not realise Stirling [Mortlock] was not on the field. I assumed he would take it,” Eales said of his iconic nudge at the time.
“Then I think it was Jeremy Paul who said Stirling was off and it was up to me.”
Positioned behind him on the All Blacks bench was Merhtens, who was as distraught as any All Blacks fan about Eales’ cruel blow.
“It was not a great kick but it went through,” he said.
“I felt in about as much control as anybody here at the stadium in the last five minutes – none. It was hard to watch. Those last few minutes seemed like an hour.
“It was doom and gloom. It was a game we had and did not close off.”
Two exceptional games of rugby ended in jubilation for the Wallabies and heartbreak for the All Blacks, a sight rarely seen since Australia’s domination of the Bledisloe Cup came to a standstill three years after Eales’ unlikely goal kicking heroics.
But while that dramatic nature and competitiveness of the Bledisloe Cup hasn’t been emulated for quite some time, the chances of the 2000 series ever being matched for sheer entertainment and excitement value is highly unlikely.
Perhaps today’s woeful Wallabies can draw some inspiration from that side from 19 years ago, which will be remembered for retaining their title in the greatest Bledisloe Cup series of all-time.
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