To fully appreciate the greatness of the Wallabies era of 20 years ago, Stirling Mortlock says look no further than their defeat in rugby’s ‘Test of the Century’.
To this day, it takes some serious searching to find a more compelling game than the All Blacks’ 39-35 Bledisloe Cup win in Sydney in 2000.
Played in front of world record-sized rugby crowd of just under 110,000 at the newly-built Stadium Australia, it took place exactly two months out from the venue’s staging of the Sydney Olympics opening ceremony.
The exhilarating showpiece was a rare example of the spectacle matching the occasion.
Mortlock said never in his 80-Test career did he again experience the crowd roar that greeted the teams when led out by John Eales and Todd Blackadder.
“There was an immediate sense of understanding that it was something special,” Mortlock told AAP.
“I remember it clear as day. Goosebumps all over, hair standing on the back of my neck. A sense of expectation.
“But the thing was, the crowd stayed in it for the entire game, probably because of what unfolded.”
Incredibly, the All Blacks clocked up three tries in the opening five minutes and were 24-0 clear soon afterwards when Eales gathered his team tight – most of them the same players who were crowned world champions eight months earlier.
The message was clear and without panic.
For rookie Mortlock, playing just his fourth Test, it became obvious why the Wallabies had been such a dominant force through the late 1990s.
“Ealesy got us together and I just remember how much confidence he instilled in the team, and belief, even when we were that far down,” Mortlock said.
“New Zealand had played unbelievably well to score their three tries but we hadn’t put any pressure on them yet.
“Then we did that. It was just an amazing team and an amazing period of time in Australian rugby with a lot of cool heads that could get a team out of that scenario.”
From the next kick-off, it was Mortlock who began Australia’s fightback, scoring on the right wing and he doubled his tally soon afterwards.
With halves George Gregan and Stephen Larkham running the show, the hosts had drawn level at 24-24 by the break.
A breathless second half looked like ending in favour of the hosts before the late All Blacks great Jonah Lomu tip-toed down the left touchline to score four minutes after the hooter.
The fact that Lomu emerged as a matchwinner wasn’t lost on Mortlock, who had spent the lead-up to the game in a spooked state after learning he would be marking the metaphorical rugby giant on the wing.
“It was one of the most surreal weeks of my life – my first Bledisloe Cup Test and I was marking Jonah Lomu,” Mortlock said.
“That New Zealand backline was absolutely electric as well. You had (Christian) Cullen, Tana Umaga, they were a formidable outfit. A younger, leaner, more head-of-hair yours truly was quite nervous.”
Mortlock admits he didn’t mark Lomu as well as he had hoped, his performance not helped by a draining night battling a stomach virus on match eve.
Only cleared to play close to kick-off, Mortlock and was replaced during the second half, meaning he at least wasn’t to blame when Lomu scored down his wing.
If Australia weren’t going to win, the end was fitting as it could be, a reflective Mortlock said.
“The legend that Jonah was … such a great man. To have shared some moments on the field against him, I cherish that now.
“He was devastating and to score the match-winning try just made the whole thing I suppose.”
Mortlock who went on to lead Australia in an 80-Test career believes those who labelled the 2000 Test among the greatest ever played were on the money.
He remembers he and teammates pinching themselves as they walked from the field.
“It was literally the most phenomenal Test match that went backwards and forwards, counterpunch, counterpunch after an amazing start from the Kiwis.
“It was the greatest of all time from my perspective.
“It will go down as possibly one of the best of all time – in the top five or 10 no doubt.”
Australia recovered quickly from defeat.
Under coach Rod Macqueen they went on to retain the Bledisloe Cup courtesy of Eales’ late penalty against the All Blacks in Wellington.
They then snared a first Tri-Nations title when Mortlock’s sideline penalty snatched victory against South Africa in the final game at Durban.
Were it not for the Sydney defeat, that team would have set an Australian record of 16 successive wins.
Mortlock appreciated being part of a winning culture all the way through to their loss at the 2003 World Cup final.
“We were the world champions and it was a time when every trophy we played for, we held. It was a golden era in Australian rugby,” he said.
“But that match in Sydney stands out. We lost but we didn’t feel like we could have given much more than what we gave out there.”