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The path to rugby Valhalla: The Bledisloe Cup and 1981

Tony Shaw playing for the Wallabies (Photo: Rugby.com.au)
Expert
7th August, 2015
38
2294 Reads

One of 10 kids growing up on a dairy farm on Queensland’s darling downs, I used to dream of being a warrior.

I would imagine performing glorious deeds on the battlefield and being judged brave enough by both my peers and adversaries that when I died, I would be entitled to take a sit at the table within the halls of Valhalla.

As life took its many twists and turns, I got that opportunity in New Zealand in 1982. I had returned with the 1981 Wallabies from our UK tour, to face the might of the All Blacks six months later on a two-week tour of the land of the long white cloud.

In those days, rugby was amateur and as a consequence of our long UK tour nine of our incumbent Test team ended up not going to New Zealand, for one reason or another.

Of those nine, seven were in the Test forward pack and two were in the backs. Absent in the forwards was Mark Loane, Tony Shaw, Greg Cornelson, Peter McLean, Tony D’Arcy, Chris Carberry and Declan Curran. In the backs, Michael O’Connor and Paul McLean weren’t there.

Our Test experience in the forwards amounted to a handful played by flanker Simon Poidevin and Test lock Steve Williams.

New Zealand, on the other hand, had at the time one of their most experienced Test teams in New Zealand rugby history.

We lost the first Test 23-16 in Christchurch and faced a do-or-die battle in Wellington two weeks later to level the three Test series at 1-1.

In the two weeks leading up to that Test I can remember thinking back to when I was that 12-year-old kid milking cows and dreaming the dreams that young boys do. And here I was now part of a team that was facing the biggest battle in world rugby against the mightiest foe in world rugby.

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By God, it felt great.

Losing was not an option. But this was easier said than done.

In those days Athletic Park was ‘windy Wellington’ personified, and such was the strength of the winds blowing from goalpost to goalpost in our pre-game field inspection, we estimated that if we won the toss and ran with the wind, we would have to be in the lead by 20 points at half-time – just to be in the hunt.

Simon Poidevin, Peter Lucas and I formed the back row for that Test, and we were facing All Black captain Graham Mourie, number 8 Murray Mexted and flanker Mark ‘Cowboy’ Shaw.

For us, we knew that in your life come moments of truth – where you get the chance to find out what you are really made of.

And this was ours.

Having played the first Test against the All Blacks I now knew why they were so difficult to defeat. They played at the highest intensity for every second of every minute for the entire 80 minutes, and the subtleties in their game were such that you almost needed to be on the field to realise what they were.

For example, in the first Test I had made it my mission to get to the New Zealand flyhalf, only to find my path blocked by Mourie, who ran interference from every set piece.

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The subtlety of the line was such that he did nothing to unlawfully obstruct me, but delayed me by a fraction of a section, just enough to ensure that I could not mount the degree of pressure I was hoping to exert at that point in the All Back backline chain. In Test match rugby, seconds count.

Come the second Test, I do not think there was anyone in our team that did not realise it would take a Herculean effort to overcome the black tide.

We won the toss, and took to the battlefield with the gale-force wind behind us. I cannot express fully what it meant to be young and fit, listening to the national anthem in the biggest arena of your life, in the green and gold of your country’s colours.

I thought to myself, ‘Wow – from the farm to here. If I die today from exhaustion, I don’t care – I will leave this earth a happy man. But no matter what happens I will give my all – and do my part in whatever it takes to defeat the All Blacks.’

We turned at half-time 19-3 in front.

Not quite 20 points in front, but close.

To say that the second half was the longest 40 minutes of my life is an understatement. The All Blacks, as they always do, steadily built pressure and clawed their way back.

With five minutes to go New Zealand had come back to 19-16 and was camped ten metres from our try line, with the wind at their back. You could not hear for the wall of sound that came from the New Zealand crowd that seemed to engulf the stadium, as they urged their beloved All Blacks to victory.

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At full time – the score was 19-16 to the Wallabies. Against seemingly impossible odds, we held our ground, maintained our discipline and defeated the mighty All Blacks. And while New Zealand went on to win the third Test, I will take the memories of the second Test and the commitment shown by every member of the Wallabies squad to my grave.

And I will die a happy man.

To the lads that face New Zealand this weekend forget about everything else – there is only once place to look for victory and to find out what kind of warrior you are – and that is within.