A fluke or did he mean it?
We finish our look at the Bledisloe Cup’s top 10 rugby Tests, with No. 5 up to No. 1.
5. New Zealand v Australia – third Test 1986
The 1986 Bledisloe Cup is a polarising triumph in the history of Australian rugby.
It’s polarising because the first Test was the famous ‘Baby Blacks’ Test, where many of New Zealand’s first-choice players were suspended for touring South Africa in the famous Cavaliers Tour.
However, several of New Zealand’s players in that first Test played better than many of the incumbents. An example of this was Mark Brooke-Cowden’s first Test performance. Some felt he should have been retained for the second Test.
It’s also forgotten that Grand Slam champions Roger Gould, Andy McIntyre, Brendan Moon, and David Codey were unavailable for this tour, as well as Cameron Lillicrap (yes, that’s his real last name) and Dwayne Vignes.
Things became more polarising after the second Test. Steve Tuynman was denied an obvious try, which is probably the worst refereeing decision I have ever seen.
This raises several questions. But for this decision, would Australia have won the Bledisloe Cup after two Tests? Would they have lost the first Test if the regular All Blacks side had played?
I will also say that neither New Zealand nor Australia (excluding Nick Farr-Jones) played particularly well in the first two Tests.
However, Australia were winning international Tests after getting beaten (and I mean ‘physically’ beaten, not defeated) in many provincial games. The Australian forwards had to survive that, and then play Test match rugby.
Simon Poidevin writes, “Jim McInerney, suffered the worst rugby wound I’ve ever seen. I went over for a look when it happened and a huge chunk of flesh was hanging from his leg. One could only wonder how an ordinary football stud could cause such a horrific injury.”
Whatever controversy that existed prior to this game was extinguished after the incredible third Test. This Test is notable for two things.
Firstly, it was simply astonishing for the running rugby that New Zealand produced. Australia had prepared for this Test expecting the All Blacks to play a forward-oriented style of rugby.
There were several instances in this Test where the All Blacks would run the ball from outside their 22 (unheard of back then), and find themselves at the other end of the field when the play broke down.
The running lines of support were great, and even Mark Ella on commentary for the ABC sounded exasperated.
But for the epidemic of dropped passes deep in Australia’s half, the All Blacks may have won this.
Secondly, this is one of the greatest defensive performances in the history of Australian rugby. There were many last gasp tackles that saved the day.
Australia’s master coach, Alan Jones, had forced the Wallabies to do extra defensive training before this game, and claimed beforehand that Australia had to tackle them out of the game.
Jones is a prophet.
The definitive defensive moment in the game came when Topo Rodriguez made a game-saving tackle on the in-goal-line, and drove Hika Reid metres backwards.
The irony of this game was prior to this Test, Australia was perhaps more well known for exciting backs, and New Zealand really hadn’t shown such incredible running rugby before.
This Test makes my list more because New Zealand were so exciting to watch, and less because Australia won a historic series. The latter aspect puts it high on my list.
In hindsight, this game was a prelude to what New Zealand would be like for the next three years.
The 1987 All Blacks played exciting and entertaining running rugby that no All Black side had played before. But you can go back to that third Test at Eden Park to see when they first attempted it.
Running rugby didn’t work in 1986, but it certainly worked from 1987-1989.
4. Australia v New Zealand – first Test 1992
In the history of the Bledisloe Cup, three All Blacks tries stand out to me as being incredible team tries. One was scored by Hika Reid in 1980 – a length-of-the-field try.
Another was scored by Christian Cullen in Wellington in 2000 – a very creative try. And then there’s Frank Bunce’s length-of-the-field try from 1992.
It began with Walter Little running down the sideline, waving the ball about, and unleashing John Timu, supporting like a good attacking fullback.
Some clever interplay put Mike Brewer into open space, who got the ball to Kirwan before being tackled. Inga supported Kirwan and passed the ball to Bunce for the try.
New Zealand could have won this Test earlier. With time running out, John Kirwan knocked the ball forwards, rather than falling onto it to score. The try would have put the result beyond doubt.
With a few minutes remaining and Australia attacking the All Blacks on their line, David Campese (who had been introduced to Inga earlier in the game – Inga scored a try!) slid into the five-eighth position, and ran at the All Blacks forward pack.
It was a move reminiscent of Jarryd Hayne’s try against the Dragons a few seasons ago, when the Dragons held off Hayne as he danced past seven players to score a try.
Campese stepped and danced, and an enormous horde of players converged on him, with Michael Jones holding Campese up just in time.
With numbers out wide, Farr-Jones got the ball to Horan, who got the ball to Little for an easy try.
3. Australia v New Zealand – first Test 2000 (Sydney)
So much has been written about this Test that’s it’s difficult to add much. I stopped watching this game after 10 minutes, after the All Blacks had scored three tries. I turned back just before halftime to see if there was any damage control. The scores were even!
It’s been called the Test of the Century. I wouldn’t go that far, but it’s a game I’ve re-watched many, many times. It’s just bizarre how everything fell into place in that game.
My favourite part of the game was Stephen Larkham slicing through the All Blacks defence and setting Mortlock up for a try. When people talk about Larkham’s ghosting runs, that’s the first memory that comes to mind.
The game was followed up by an entertaining Test in Wellington too. The 2000 Tri Nations was the most entertaining of them all.
2. Australia v New Zealand – second Test 1988
This Test comes ever so close to being number one on my list. Australia were demolished in the first Test of this series, and there were few people who were expecting them to rebound.
The All Blacks simply weren’t prepared for the intensity of the Australian forwards in this Test, and were immediately caught off guard.
The pace of this game in the first 20 minutes was ferocious, with the Australian backrow especially taking it to the All Blacks. Buck Shelford looked angry and frustrated, while Poidevin relished the intensity of Test match rugby.
Australia led at halftime 16-6, a deficit no All Blacks side had come back from before.
Stan Pilecki once said of New Zealand that they win games in the last 20 minutes. That’s when their forwards take control and their supreme fitness shows.
This is a story all too common in the amateur era, and the last 20 minutes of this Test are as intense as I’ve ever seen in a rugby Test.
The superior fitness of the All Blacks showed and they came home strong. Grant Fox had a chance to kick the winning penalty goal from a very kickable angle, and surprisingly missed.
It was almost fitting the game should be a draw, since both sides played incredibly well.
I forget which rugby league coach said this, but he noted afterwards that it was the best game of rugby or league that anybody will see all year.
There were two unlikely Australian heroes in this Test.
The first was Andrew Leeds. Leeds was brought in as a safe option at fullback. With Michael Lynagh injured for this game, Leeds took on the goal-kicking responsibilities, which wasn’t a role I believe he usually filled.
He kicked beautifully on this day, and at fullback he did a wonderful job legislating for Grant Fox’s kicking ability.
The second was Lloyd Walker, Randwick’s inside centre, who replaced the injured Michael Lynagh for this game. He played an incredible game, and was even retained for the third Test when Lynagh was fit again.
In many respects it was an Ella-esque performance, standing flat and immediately placing the All Blacks under pressure. One can almost get melancholy that Ella retired in 1984, because Walker really troubled a fantastic All Blacks side.
I don’t mind saying it: as great a rugby nation as New Zealand are, I think they generally struggled against Mark Ella.
1. Australia v New Zealand – second Test 1992
Sadly this Test is best remembered for Richard Loe falling on Paul Carozza with his forearm, breaking Carozza’s nose. It’s a terrible shame this incident overshadowed the excitement of this game.
Carozza scored the first try. Later on, Lynagh made a tremendous tactical kick that forced the All Blacks to carry the ball into the in-goal area. From there, Australia had a five metre scrum.
The ball came to Jason Little, who was tackled by John Timu. The ball popped up to Kirwan, who passed the ball to Bunce. Bunce ran down the field and Kirwan supported. When the ball came to Kirwan he burst through an attempted Tim Horan tackle and scored.
Another length of the field try in this series!
Shortly after this there were shades of the famous 1990 third Bledisloe Test at Eden Park. Sean Fitzpatrick threw to the front of the line-out, the ball spewed forward. Phil Kearns booted the ball forward, and running at full pace he booted it again.
The ball bounced into the in-goal area and Kearns appeared to have fallen on the ball first, however he was denied what he later claimed was a try.
Late in the game Lynagh put up a high ball that came back to Australia. The ball was quickly recycled to him, and he moved the ball wide to Carozza, who scored the winning try in the corner.
I’ve watched this try over and over and I still can’t tell if Kirwan did enough to get Carozza into touch.
Late in the game Lynagh kicked the ball down the middle of the field. John Timu made an attempt to catch it diving forward.
The ball bounced forward off his chest and Horan kicked the ball downfield.
A mad chase ensued as Paul Carozza booted the ball forward again. This led to a desperate scramble between Horan and Little to reach the ball first. If Horan reached it, he would score the Test-winning try. End to end stuff.
Little had a head start, but as both approached the ball Horan hit the lead. Both dived at the same time, and the ball had just gone into touch.
With a few minutes remaining, and the All Blacks just inside Australia’s half, Fox attempted a drop-goal, without any pressure being applied by the Australian players.
The field-goal attempt was a beautiful one, and slid across the left upright post. Campese would later remark the field-goal attempt missed by only three inches.
Campese went up to Fox after the game and said, “Good game, you okay?”
There were several players from both sides who played incredible rugby, but if I had to look at one it would be Lynagh.
His performance was outstanding, and without some of his tactical kicks Australia wouldn’t have come close to winning this game.
When the Aussie forwards were moving forward, he placed the All Blacks defence under immediate pressure, sometimes receiving the ball on the gain line.
This was the art of five-eighth at its best.