At half-time in the thrilling Rugby League World Cup final, Australia had established a 18 -16 lead over New Zealand and it looked to me as though they would run away with the match in the second half. So I turned on the video and went for our usual night-time walk with my wife.
We got back forty minutes later to see scenes of Kiwi players leaping ecstatically around, high-fiving, jumping into each other’s arms, hugging coach Stephen Kearney and Wayne Bennett, with the old stone-face cracking up with smiles.
It was clear from all of this that the Kiwis had won.
So I ran the tape back to see how the miracle had happened. And it was obvious watching the video that the Kiwis had harnessed the most powerful driver in big time – momentum – or the Big M, as US sports commentators like John Madden like to call it.
The momentum came right after half-time when the Kiwis decided to throw everything they had into the first fifteen minutes of the second half to see if, perhaps, possibly, hopefully, the Kangaroos might get rattled and give away points that would seal their fate.
On the first Kangaroo play, the ball was coughed up. Then after the relentless pressure of hard-shouldered running, tackling and field position, the Kangaroos did crack.
Billy Slater arrogantly threw the ball in-field near his try line, as if his side were 30 points in front. Minutes later the Kangaroos conceded a penalty try.
With thirteen minutes of play left, the Kiwis were 14 points in front.
They had the advantage of a big lead, which got bigger as time ran out. The Kangaroos tried to force plays, and played inpatiently, which in turn lead to mistakes and increased the pressure to force plays.
Listening to the Channel 9 television commentary, knowing the result, was a fascinating exercise.
Phil Gould particularly and even Peter Sterling had not really understood how the colour of the game had changed from green to black.
Here are snippets from the comments in the second half as the game, in reality, but not in the minds of the commentators, plunged away (rather than slipped away) from the Kangaroos:
Gould: “New Zealand has hit the wall mentally, they’re struggling at the moment …”
Gould: “Australia can sense the New Zealand run is coming to an end. New Zealand are out on their feet.”
Sterling: ‘The New Zealand body language is negative. They’re very vulnerable at the moment.”
It was clear that both commentators had missed the Kiwis Big M. Even with less than ten minutes to play, Gould was suggesting the Kangaroos could pull off a victory.
There were, to my mind, a number of similarities with the stunning upset victory by the Kiwis and South Africa’s victory in the 2007 Rugby World Cup.
These sort of tournaments do not actually reveal who is the best team in world rugby league or world rugby. They do tell us, however, who is the best team in the tournament.
Like the Springboks in 2007, the Kiwis found that the six weeks or so together for their World Cup created the chemistry to bond the players into that special entity: a team whose entity vastly outrates its individual parts.
As one of the oldest mantras in sports suggests that a champion team will always defeat a team of champions.
The Kangaroos, too, suffered the same sort of difficulties that the All Blacks faced in their 2007 RWC campaign: too many easy victories in matches that were not life and death encounters.
The Kiwis, like the Springboks in the 2007 RWC, had several must-win matches in the World Cup tournament, including the semi-final against England (while the Kangaroos were playing Fiji). These must-win matches gave the Kiwis (and Springboks) the experience of being tested and coming through the test, rather like the way steel is tempered by putting it through the blazing fire.
The other similarity was that the coach of the Springboks, Jake White, appointed Eddie Jones, a former coach of the Wallabies, to give him and his players insights into the culture of another successful Test side.
This role for the Kiwis was played by the greatest rugby league coach in the last twenty years, Wayne Bennett.
Bennett had a point to prove at the international level.
He was dropped from the Kangaroo job after losing a Tri-Nations tournament to New Zealand. Ricky Stuart was appointed to succeed him. Stuart proceeded to insist that Bennett had done a poor job with the Kangaroos.
This Kiwi victory over a Kangaroos side that had been proclaimed by the commentators, even during the final, as one of the greatest Australia has ever put on the field, was a sweet vindication for Bennett.
If the current Kiwis and Kangaroos played a sequence of ten matches, my guess is that the Kangaroos would win all ten of them.
But when the World Cup is on the line in just one match?
Anything can happen if the underdog gets the Big M working for it, which is what happened at Lang Park on Saturday night.