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'South Africa would give you a physical battering': Ex-All Black great Bunce recalls late 90s rivalry

By Adam Julian
Frank Bunce of New Zealand charges forward to score a try during the Tri-Nations match at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, South Africa. The All Blacks beat the Springboks 35-32. (Photo by David Rogers /Allsport via Getty Images)

Frankly, the Springboks are the ultimate.

The only things harder than maintaining a successful midfield partnership are playing the Springboks and marriage, laughed affable and legendary All Blacks centre Frank Bunce (All Black, 915).

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Before Ma’a Nonu and Conard Smith became a redoubtable pair in the All Blacks midfield, Walter Little and Frank Bunce were synonyms with midfield stability.

Together Bunce and Little played 32 Tests, including 18 out of a possible 21 Tests between 1995 and 1996.

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The All Blacks dominated the 1995 Rugby World Cup, only to lose the final continuously in extra time to hosts, South Africa.

In 1996 the pair helped reverse that disappointment beating the Springboks four times in five Tests to win the inaugural Tri Nations championship and Test series in the republic.

“Australia would run you all over the place and sometimes you didn’t have a clue what was happening. South Africa would give you a physical battering and then you had to run them all over the place,” Bunce responded when asked to surmise the Springboks style.

“South Africa was and still is the ultimate challenge. I grew up listening to stories of all the great players and rivals.

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“The build-up to Springboks Tests was so intense and back when I was playing, we were neck and neck in terms of wins so that added an ever greater edge.

“There’s no way we would have won the series in ’96 without a second squad. By the end of the tour, we’d play the matches on Saturday and be walking again on Wednesday. We were only training once a week.”

It was in 1992 that Bunce had his first exposure to South Africa. When apartheid ended the All Blacks returned, winning four mid-week matches and the ‘Return Test” 27-24 at Ellis Park, Johannesburg on August 15.

The All Blacks were up 20-3, a late rally courtesy of two Pieter Muller tries saving some face for the hosts.

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“That was a wonderful tour and a real eye-opener,” Bunce reflected.

“The size of their guys was enormous, but lacked our match hardness, nous, and fitness because they were stuck in time a little because of isolation.”

“We got wonderful support as the All Blacks. We were delighted to reconnect the rivalry and I think they felt the same way. I didn’t experience anything out of the ordinary from the crowds. You got similar in every country you went.”

By 1995 the Springboks were resurgent. Under Kitch Christie, they won all 14 Tests including the World Cup final (15-12) at Ellis Park.

The All Blacks alleged food poisoning, any conceivable methods to shut down Jonah Lomu, and the Joel Stransky drop goal are all part of a profitable, but critically lukewarm, Hollywood movie Invictus.

Bunce features briefly, shaking the hands of a historically transformative figure.

“It wasn’t announced that Nelson Mandela was going to meet the teams before kick-off. It was a huge moment for them and us, what an honour to have a man like that acknowledge rugby,” Bunce reminisced.

“Nelson hit the nail on the head. He kinda got everything right politically. I have a photo of him shaking my hand, I’m proud of that. Eric Rush later joked about the haka, if that’s your biggest worry, you’ve properly got other issues.

“Japie Mulder was one of the hardest players I marked. He was a typical South Africa, tough as they come. He was a little bit shorter than me but man he was solid.”

The Springboks had issues containing the 1996 All Blacks, the genesis of whom were born in 1995. The All Blacks won the three-test series before a decider was required.

The stubborn defense, hanging on grimly, at Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria is an enduring theme of All Blacks folklore.

“I was beside the posts next to Walter. It was all forwards. I was thinking I hope the ball doesn’t come out here, but God if it did, I better be ready. I don’t want to be that guy,” Bunce said.

“It’s hard to recall specifics against the Springboks, all the games are kinda of a blur. I think the All Blacks of ’95 to ’97 are one of the great teams. It was a privilege to play alongside blokes like Fitzy, Zinzan, Goldie, and Cullen.”

Bunce belongs in the ‘greats’ conversation and when it came to linking with Walter Little specifics were unsaid.

“We were similar enough to work together and different enough to cause problems.

“Walter deserves a lot of credit. He was so skilled, had great natural ability, and is a big rugby brain. He carried a lot of injuries throughout his career including a knee issue from 19.

“We played for North Harbour, the Chiefs, and the All Blacks together. He knew what I was going to do, and I knew what he was going to do. It’s hard to explain, but we were a natural combo even if were different people. That’s what Ma’a and Conrad have. That’s what Retallick and Whitelock have, and I know nothing about locks.

Ironically Bunce’s most meritorious performance for the All Blacks was beside Lee Stensness at Ellis Park in 1997. He scored two brilliant individual tries (accessible on Sky Sport Now archived highlights) in a 35-32 win against South Africa in 1997.

“That was one of my most satisfying tests. The team played brilliantly ,as did the Springboks. I don’t remember a lot about it. All the games against the Springboks are a blur. It’s hard to explain, but it was intense.”

The discussion about who’s ideal an All Blacks midfield combination is intense.

Bunce believes Jordie Barrett and Rieko Ioane are a suitable pair with Ioane especially effective on the “outside break.”

He sees Anton Lienert-Brown and Jack Goodhue as “more 12’s than 13’s,” “really solid but not as much X-Factor as the likes of Ioane.”

 

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