Sunday 15:00, September 20th, 2023 Abbaye Sainte-Marie de Fontfroide
Coupe du Monde de Rugby 2023.
Pool A: Australie vs Nouvelle-Zélande au Stade de Toulouse.
Saturday morning, 17 September, Hotel d’Orsay. We had our coffee and croissants in the dining room, and while the others were upstairs getting their gear I was chatting with Robert, the concierge. We called him Uncle Bob as in ‘Bob’s your uncle’. I think he might have had a sense of humour. Uncle Bob referred to me as ‘Monsieur Neighbours‘.
The game was at 19:45 at the main Stadium in Toulouse on an island splitting the River Garonne. Founded in the fourth century BC by a Celtic tribe, the town later became a secondary city of the Roman Empire. Later on Toulouse grew to be the third-largest city in Roman Gaul.
Uncle Bob mapped out a kind of pub/church crawl down alongside the river with three stops. On the River Garonne, Notre-Dame-de-la-Daurade is home to the Black Virgin, decked out in all her finery in dresses designed by Christian Lacroix and Jean-Charles de Castelbajac. Next stop was a spiritual awakening at the Black Lion Pub. Bob had booked us a table to watch Fiji vs Canada and then walk to Stade de Toulouse for what felt like the most significant game we had seen since the 1999 RWC Final in Cardiff.
By 2023 both teams were a mixture of old and new, with players from the under-20s World Cup coming up through the ranks and the Wallabies new NRL stars. The All Blacks were predictable, with the pack coming from the North Island Super Rugby teams, captained by Sam Cane. The team was coached by Leon McDonald, assisted by Dan Carter, a former All Black, now journeyman, playing club rugby in Lower Hutt, and their ace, Wayne Smith. The backs were a mixture of the best and fastest from the Highlanders, Saracens, Hurricanes and Auckland City.
The Wallabies, following the workout arrangements from receivership in 2021, had a restructured administration chaired by Nick Farr-Jones, CEO George Gregan and Rod Macqueen, John Eales, Phil Kearns and Dave Rennie running the Wallabies. Macqueen had implemented a unique mentoring system for this RWC, with each player having a one-on-one mentor from World Cup-winning teams of the past. Ewen McKenzie, Jeremy Paul, Phil Kearns, John Eales, Rod McCall, Gareth Davis, Owen Finegan, David Wilson, Simon Poidevin, Tim Gavin, Nick Farr-Jones, George Gregan, Stephen Larkham, Michael Lynagh, Tim Horan, Jason Little, Anthony Herbert, David Campese, Matt Burke and Ben Tune.
The Wallabies included League stars James Tedesco and Tom Trjobevic from Sydney City Roosters and 19-year-old Joseph Suaalii from Sydney City RFC. One of our troops was Bob Trjobevic, Tom’s uncle, who played for the Narrabeen Sharks in the infamous Junior League under-19 grand final in 1968 against Collaroy SLSC captained by Rod Macqueen.
We were excited and loved the experience but weren’t feeling that confident as we walked over the bridge from Boulevard des Récollets to the Stadium. It’s not a big stadium – capacity about 48,000 – but who was to know what an epic encounter this was to become. The All Blacks were floating, along with their interest rate, backed by a syndicated loan in British pounds brokered by Oakwell Sports Advisory, linked to CVC Capital and the City Football Group with an investment in NZ through the Auckland City RFC and both Sydney sides, The Sydney City RFC and Sydney City RLFC.
Both countries had their domestic Super Rugby competitions, but then Australia broke ranks and the NRL stepped in to help the ARU. Who saw that coming?.
It’s not easy to explain the passion and nerves that arise in Wallabies fans against New Zealand. It must be a mixture of the history of the Bledisloe Cup, the rivalry of little brother beating big brother (like The Ashes), the drama of close games, skill, daring, tight decisions – all that. Here we are, the anthems, the haka, and it’s time for kick-off.
It’s like the time my wife was in the operating theatre having our second daughter and I was in there too. That’s stress. What cannot be cured must be endured (old Sri Lankan proverb).
The All Blacks closed ranks after losing to Fiji. Both sides played like it was a Sevens game and Leon McDonald was close to being imprisoned in La Bastille. Someone had a chat with him because the run-on team was tight, forward driven, box kick stuff, trying to isolate Tom and Teddy, but they held their own with positional changes, protecting them for an attack.
Australia stretched the All Blacks defence a couple of times and Nic White ran or passed directly into two ‘lazy runners’ from the ABs, disrupting the Wallabies attack. The Kiwis nearly lost it when they received a yellow card. They’ve been lazily running for centuries. From 40 metres out the Wallabies won the line-out, straightened the attack and Jordan Petaia went over in the corner, converted by Will Harrison.
The All Blacks were stung into action. With three minutes left in the first half it was deja vu when they scored to take a 10-7 lead into the sheds. I have the sick feeling I’ve been here before. So near, so far. It’s agonising to watch. Don’t the Wallabies know the All Blacks are going to ramp up their high-speed pressure game in the last 10 minutes of the half? We do.
To win you have to keep them out before half-time and for ten minutes after half-time, and then you have a chance. If you’re still leading with ten minutes to go, it better be more than ten points, because they are coming for you. If they score after half-time, it will be 17-7 and it’s all over.
I closed my eyes and prayed. “I hope we can make a go of it in the second half. Please, God. I know I stopped going to Collaroy Plateau Presbyterian Church when I turned 14, but mum kept going. Is that enough?”
“It’s New Zealand leading 10-7, and that’s half-time. What did you think of that half, Prime Minister Kenneally?” asks Kearnsy.