Towards five o’clock on a piercingly cold Cardiff afternoon, as the spectators in the steepling stands of the new Millennium Stadium at Cardiff roared, South African referee Andre Watson raised his arm dramatically to the closed roof and gave a resounding blast of his whistle.
The final of the 1999 Rugby World Cup was over. Australia had won the William Webb Ellis trophy for a second time, defeating France 35-12.
A magnificent Wallabies team, superbly coached, had scored the most points of any side in a final. The winning margin, 23 points, was the largest in the history of the tournament.
A list of the winning margins in all the tournament deciders provides an indicator of the significance of the Australian triumph.
1987: New Zealand 29-9 France
1991: Australia 12-6 England
1995: South Africa 15-12 New Zealand
1999: Australia 35-12 France
2003: England 20-17 Australia
2007: South Africa 15-6 England
2011: New Zealand 8-7 France
2015: New Zealand 34-17 Australia
Five of the Rugby World Cup finals have been decided by nine or fewer points. Two had a margin of 17. The only final decided by a margin of over 20 was in 1999, where it was 23 points.
That year’s Wallabies, with their record score in the final and their near-impossible feat of conceding only one try throughout the entire tournament, (the US centre Juan Grobler was the culprit), must be a strong contender for the greatest of the Rugby World Cup champion teams.
Rugby World Cups, like great battles, are won off the field before they are played on it.
The creation of this champion side was the product of a trinity of talent: John O’Neill, the master administrator; Rod Macqueen, the master coach; and John Eales, the master player and captain.
O’Neill had become chief executive of the then-Australian Rugby Union (now Rugby Australia) in 1995. A succession of administrators had failed to cope with the demands made on Australian rugby by the then-International Rugby Board’s (now World Rugby) decision to embrace professionalism.
A lawyer by trade, O’Neill had been just 35 when he was promoted to head the State Bank in New South Wales, their youngest ever CEO. Despite his age, which gave rise to the nickname ‘the boy banker,’ he had made a success of the bank’s operations.
On taking over as the ARU’s chief executive, O’Neill had inherited a rugby union that was virtually bankrupt, and overloaded with a plethora of committees too often used by officials and good old boys to promote their own interests. A tough-minded total reform of the organisation was needed.
O’Neill forced through a new board structure, which made decisions more open and gave rugby in Australia a broader base of expertise, especially in commercial skills.
He negotiated with the Players Association to claw back the absurdly large payments the players had been given during the Murdoch-Packer battle for control of television rights in 1996.
To widen the reach of rugby in Australia, he organised historic Tests in Perth and Melbourne and from 2000 shifted the Sydney Tests to the newly built Stadium Australia, which, with its capacity of 110,000 prior to the 2000 Olympics, gave an immediate boost to the code’s finances.
At the same time as he was turning around the literal fortunes of Rugby Australia, O’Neill was making equally timely interventions with the Wallabies.
Concerned Eales was not showing the leadership qualities he knew he had, O’Neill arranged to play a round of golf with him.
Towards the end of their round, O’Neill put two questions squarely to Eales.
“Do you really want to be captain of the Wallabies? Are you prepared to do whatever it takes to make a success of the job?”
Eales told O’Neill his greatest ambition in rugby was to captain the Wallabies.
“You can do your job, John,” O’Neill told him, “but you have to be a captain. That means putting the team before popularity with the players, if need be.”
That moment on the golf course would mark the beginning of the successful World Cup journey for the Wallabies as Eales, on and off the field, began to successfully exert his leadership qualities and ambitions on a squad that, at the time, tended towards playing for themselves rather than the team.
But there was still one other part of the trinity to be put in place. The Wallabies needed a new coach.
By the end of the 1997 Tri-Nations, it was clear to O’Neill that the Wallabies could not win the 1999 World Cup under Greg Smith.
This belief was confirmed at Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria on August 23, 1997, a day of infamy for Australian rugby, when a rampant Springboks side destroyed the Wallabies 61-22. The scored 43 points in the second half alone.
This was the side’s worst defeat in 352 Tests since 1899.
As he watched the disaster unfold, O’Neill decided he had to sack the coach.
This decision hardened in his mind when he observed Smith reading through a file of newspaper clippings faxed over from Australia while sitting on the bus taking the Wallabies to the airport, before drafting something on a piece of paper and passing it onto a player.
When he read the piece of paper, O’Neill realised that it was a petition to be signed by the players, supporting the embattled coach.
O’Neill ripped the petition up. “That’s a good way to get the sack,” he said.
Back in Australia, after some bitter negotiations both in private and in public, Smith’s contract was torn up.
Rod Macqueen was selected as the new coach. This was a recognition that was long overdue.
He had coached New South Wales in 1991 to an unbeaten season which included a tour of Argentina. The NSW contingent was an integral part of the Wallabies side that won the William Webb Ellis trophy in 1991.
Despite his 1991 success, Macqueen lost his job the following year.
In 1996, at the beginning of the inaugural Super Rugby tournament, he was again rejected by New South Wales. Greg Smith won the job and then, when he was appointed Wallabies coach, Chris Hawkins took over the Waratahs.
Macqueen was finally given the consolation prize of coaching a new Australian Super Rugby team, the ACT Brumbies.
I first met Macqueen at the beginning of the 1996 season, when I had been seated beside him at a lunch held by the Sydney Morning Herald to mark the inauguration of Super 12.
Using salt and pepper shakers, Macqueen had enthusiastically explained to me his continuity game he was going to introduce with the Brumbies.
Macqueen told me, too, that not enough lateral thinking had been done by coaches.
“I don’t need to be a rugby coach to make some money,” Macqueen told me.
“Why do teams always kick to the opposition’s designated catchers, who are primed to receive the ball?”
“And why don’t teams split their lineouts and force the opposition to put their best jumper in one of the splits?”
One other comment struck me at the time was crucial to Macqueen’s later success as a coach.
“I have a very successful business,” he said. “I don’t need to be a rugby coach to make some money.”
With their skilful, orchestrated, multi-phased game, the Brumbies revolutionised the way rugby was being played. Coaches from around the world flocked to Canberra to learn the side’s secrets.
Some ruthlessness had been involved, but the dream team, on and off the field, that had the combined talents to lead Australia to victory in the 1999 Rugby World Cup had been put in place.
John O’Neill, the ruthless and ambitious administrator. John Eales, a towering figure as a player and captain. And Rod Macqueen, a master coach with a continuity game that matched the physical skills and rugby smarts of a gifted generation of Australian players.
The Wallabies, who enjoyed once again the strong support of the locals in Ireland where they were based, made their way competently and without too much drama to the semi-final at Twickenham against the Springboks.
This shrewd and somewhat under-played buildup was designed to ensure the team peaked for the finals.
Rod Macqueen had decided to play the World Cup as a tournament, not a series of one-off games.
This canny approach, where not everything in the gameplan was revealed if it wasn’t needed to ensure a victory, disappointed some of the Australian commentators.
Former coach Alan Jones called on the Wallabies to be more direct and “less complicated” in their play. Macqueen had to unleash his team’s talented backline if he wanted to win the World Cup.
“We’re killing ourselves,” Jones complained.
Mark Ella, the legendary first five-eighth, agreed. After the pool rounds, he picked New Zealand to win the tournament and stated, like Jones, that the Wallabies were not using their heads.
“For a side with our supposed intelligence,” he wrote, “we’re playing very stupidly.”
The opposite, in fact, was the case. Rather than playing stupidly, the Wallabies were pioneering a new form of rugby – the continuity game – that Macqueen had devised.
The essence of this new-era rugby was that 70 per cent of rugby is played in phases, rather than in set pieces. Yet the conditioning and training of sides was mainly devoted to mastery of the latter, as were the tactics.
“That’s why,” Macqueen told the Herald’s Greg Growden after a training session, “probably 80 per cent of our training is with forwards and backs together. Most other teams would struggle to train together for 25 per cent of the time.”
Aside from not understanding the philosophic basis of the Wallabies’ game plan, Alan Jones and Mark Ella were wrong about the team’s performance in the pool rounds.
Most noticeably, the Wallabies had scored most of their points in the last quarter of their matches. Of the 135 points they’d put on the board, only 52 had come in the first half. Four of the tries had been scored in the first quarter of play, three in the second, five in the third and seven in the last 20 minutes.
The Wallabies had more difficulties with off-the-field problems, or potential problems, than on-field issues.
There had been an attempt, for instance, by officials to boot Toutai Kefu out of the tournament for foul play, with the player having to travel from Ireland to London for hearings. This disrupted the Wallabies’ preparation before the crucial quarter-final.
Next, the officials managing the Millennium Stadium at Cardiff ensured the stadium roof was allowed to stay open when they played the Wallabies despite the wet weather.
This was a blatant attempt to advantage the less skilful Wales side playing their boots-and-all rugby manner in front of a home crowd.
Then came an unfortunate moment towards the end of the semi-final against South Africa when Vernon Pugh, QC, the chair of the IRB, indicated the Springboks would ‘win’ by a technicality.
A minute before the final whistle, O’Neill heard Pugh say, “The Australians have just brought back on a player who had left the field. They will be disqualified.”
The Wallabies had more difficulties with off-the-field problems than on-field issues.
Pugh, who has since passed away, hated the playing dominance of the southern hemisphere sides. He was a fanatical supporter of Welsh and northern hemisphere rugby, in that order.
While in charge of the IRB, he retained a position on the Welsh Rugby Union, a clear conflict of interest, as he, a shrewd lawyer, must have known.
“What did I hear you say, Vernon?” O’Neill asked, trying to keep rising anger from his voice.
“Oh, nothing, John.”
“I heard you say Australia is going to be disqualified. Why?”
“Well, that last interchange,” Pugh replied, “where Ben Tune came back on for Daniel Herbert. Unless it was for a blood bin, you can’t bring a man back on.”
“Who would know whether it was a blood bin or not?”
“The referee [Welshman Derek Bevan] and the fourth touch judge.”
We will let Peter FitzSimons from his biography of John Eales take up the story and its conclusion:
Like a mad thing, O’Neill bolted down the stairs, burst into the referees room, where the fourth touch judge was just taking off his boots. The man looked up, wondering what was going on. Before he could utter a word, though, O’Neill burst out: “That last replacement, between Herbert and Tune, was it a blood bin?” “Yes,” he replied quizzically, still wondering what was happening.
“You bloody beauty,” O’Neill yelled out.
On their way to their semi-final showdown with the Wallabies, the Springboks had reverted to the ways of Bennie Osler, the drop-goal king of the 1920s.
England were defeated in the quarter-final at Paris with Jannie de Beer drop-kicking a record five goals for South Africa.
It was a measure of Rod Macqueen’s cunning as a coach and the mind-games he devised to unsettle the opposition that, early on in the semi-final, Wallabies star Stephen Larkham attempted a field goal. It was unsuccessful, but it reminded the Boks that two sides could play the drop-goal game. And when de Beer tried a field goal, his opposite number was on him quickly to charge down the kick.
With Larkham and other Wallabies putting pressure on de Beer, he was restricted to just one successful field goal from five attempts.
The Springboks flyhalf played to a gameplan that revealed the Springboks’ limitations. He kicked 28 times and passed only five times, while Larkham kicked on 18 occasions and made 23 passes.
With nine minutes to play and six points down, de Beer kicked a penalty – his fourth of the match.
Then South Africa were awarded another on the touchline about 40 metres out. A nerveless de Beer kicked a neat goal.
The teams were all square on points. Moments later, the full-time whistle blew. The semi-final headed into extra time.
At this moment, I noticed something remarkable.
John Eales immediately ran off the field. This gesture demonstrated to both the Springboks and his teammates that he was entirely focused as the captain on working out, during the short break, how the extra time period was to be played.
In other words, he was looking forward positively, rather than hanging back pessimistically in contemplation of what might have been.
While Twickenham was buzzing with chatter and expectation, my mind went back to the fateful conversation O’Neill had with Eales on a Sydney golf course.
For this was real leadership, great captaincy by Eales. It matched his on-field performance, where he had continually called himself in the lineouts and won them, despite the physical aggression shown against him by a brutal Springboks pack.
The Wallabies reorganised during the break, and Tim Lane, one of the assistant coaches casually mentioned to Larkham as he was going back on to the field that if he had the chance, he should go for a field goal.
Larkham had never kicked one in a Test.
It was therefore unexpected when he unleashed an attempt from just inside halfway. But it went over.
Larkham was swamped by his delirious teammates. The three-point lead was significant because it meant the Springboks had to score a try in the few remaining minutes to win the match.
Rugby World Cup rules stated that if the scores were level after extra time, the team with the fewest players sent off during the tournament would progress. Brendon Venter, the Springboks midfielder, had been red-carded in the pool-stage match against Uruguay. The Wallabies had had several players cited during the tournament but no one ordered from the field.
But scoring a try was beyond the Springboks. They had gone into the tournament, and this crucial semi-final, with a gameplan based on kicking their way to victory. They went down kicking to the end.
The next day, the Australian players and management watched the second semi-final on television and shouted in amazement as the French produced 30 minutes of magical play to destroy the All Blacks.
Rod Macqueen realised after the upset victory that he had a coaching crisis on his hands. All the planning and preparation before and during the tournament had been based on the premise that the Wallabies would play the All Blacks in the final.
During the tournament, in fact, Australia tried out some of the moves they had intended to play against the All Blacks, testing them under match conditions.
All this planning was now useless. In less than a week, the Wallabies had to learn the French approach intimately and prepare their own gameplan to defeat it.
As soon as the semi-final ended, Macqueen took his video expert, Scott Harrison, aside and told him he was in for a long night.
“The first thing tomorrow morning I want all the French lineouts and scrums on a CD, and all the ways the French set up tries,” he explained.
After examining the footage with his coaching staff and senior players, a plan was established.
“Jeff Miller, Tim Lane, John Eales, George Gregan and I decided we had to be careful about avoiding turnovers,” Macqueen later told me.
“We wanted to neutralise Olivier Magne, who was having a sensational tournament on the side of the scrum. We planned to use Toutai Kefu coming inside Tim Horan to run at Magne. Early on, too, Horan would be used as a dummy runner as the loose forwards aimed to take Magne out of the game by running at him continually.
“After 15 minutes, Magne had broken his nose and his impact had also been diminished by all the tackling he had to do.”
The coaching staff were struck, too, by the way the French had destroyed the All Blacks’ morale with their untoward tactics – which more than one New Zealander will say included eye-gouging.
Macqueen publicly called on Andre Watson, the South African referee who would run the Rugby World Cup final, to take a strong line with the French intimidation.
“It is very important,” Watson was told, “that action is taken on the field, rather than going through the citing process.”
It was decided by the brains trust that if the French started their dirty play against the Wallabies, John Eales would inform Watson that his team was leaving the field if the French were not stopped.
This was something the All Blacks should have done, and it proved successful in the final. Midway through the second half, the television microphones picked up John Eales, with his right eye closed like an oyster, saying to Andre Watson, “If this keeps up, I’m going to take my players off the field.”
Watson immediately penalised the French several times for foul play. The intimidation stopped and the Les Blues tamely surrendered to their fate, conceding two late tries.
In the dressing-room before the start of the final, Rod Macqueen read from the diary of a young Australian soldier who had been in charge of a machine-gun company during the battle of Villers-Bretonneux to his players.
The officer had been given instructions that his position had to be held, no matter what the cost. Conscious that the words he wrote might be the last, he had written: “If the section cannot remain alive, it will remain dead, but in any case it will remain.”
Infused with this glorious spirit of Villers-Bretonneux and resonating with those brave and stalwart words, the Wallabies made their way out on to the ground at the Millennium Stadium for the rugby battle of their lives.
The bare facts of the final tell of a game dominated by goalkicking, France taking a 6-3 lead through Christophe Lamaison’s boot before Matt Burke put Australia up 12-6 at the break. That six-point buffer was still there with the score 18-12 after an hour, only for the Wallabies to close it out through two more Burke penalties and the only two tries of the game, scored by Ben Tune and Owen Finegan.
Being there, though, gave me a different perspective, essentially personal, on what happened on and off the field during the torrid hours of matchday.
The final started with a series of galvanic scrums, as the Australian front row buckled like chunks of earth being thrown upwards after an earthquake. The initial fear was that the French pack would monster the Wallabies the way they had devastated the All Blacks a week before.
Some quiet and informed instructions from forward guru Alex Evans, who had been drafted into the Wallabies coaching staff, were sent out to the players. They were precise. The forwards had to concentrate on shutting down the gap between the packs at impact, keep their shoulders square, eyes steady, back straight and crouch low.
The disaster of a fractured scrum was immediately averted, and towards the end of the final it was the rampant Wallabies pack that was shoving the opposition backwards, virtually at will.
The two tries revealed the strengths of the side Macqueen had developed. The first demonstrated the power of the continuity game, the second the ability and presence of gifted players and their attacking talent.
There was also the fitness aspect that saw the Wallabies score many of their tries in the final 20 minutes of play throughout the tournament. Both tries in the final, too, were scored in the final quarter.
The first came when, after a long and intricate build-up, with switches of play and deft passing, Ben Tune dived through a mass of French defenders to score.
The second came from a barnstorming run by Owen Finegan, who had come on to the field as a substitute late in the game.
After a long throw to the back of the lineout, Finegan latched onto a superb George Gregan flick-pass and ran and ran and ran, with bewildered French defenders unable to prevent him from plunging across the tryline.
“I decided I wanted a bit of the action,” Finegan later told reporters, “so I told Jeremy Paul to throw deep to me. When I received the ball, a huge gap opened up in front of me. I began looking for support, but when the tacklers held off, obviously expecting me to pass, I decided to be selfish and just keep going.”
Finegan was too modest about his sensational run, for he scored one of the great tries by a forward in a Rugby World Cup final.
Always conscious of the feelings of his players, Rod Macqueen decided that every player on the bench would be on the field at some stage in the final.
Virtually on time, the last substitute on the bench, Chris Whitaker, George Gregan’s backup at halfback, was sent out for his moments of glory.
Afterwards, Whitaker was given a new nickname: ’29 seconds Whitaker’.
My seat at the final, watching the virtually perfect performance from the Wallabies, was at the very back of the enormous main stand. It was so far back I felt like a climber at the summit of Everest when I finally reached it.
It was not ideal for watching. But from this great distance, you got a tremendous overview of the ebb and flow of play.
The players looked like gold and blue insects bustling, burrowing and scurrying around on a green lawn.
As I was making my long march up the stands just before the start of the final, I was spotted by Bob Burke, Matt’s father.
Bob came across for a quick talk.
“Make sure that you give Matt a decent write-up.”
It wrote itself.
Burke played a blinder. Under the intense pressure of a final he kicked nine goals from eleven attempts, including a conversion from the sideline from Ben Tune’s try that put the Wallabies three scores in front with time running out for France.
At half-time, though, the final was still in the balance. Rod Macqueen had plenty on his mind as he made his way to the dressing room of the Wallabies.
The Welsh organisers of the tournament had sat the French and the Australian coaching staffs almost together, in an open section in the stand.
As a result, the two groups had to go down together in the lift to their respective dressing rooms at the break. The lift had stopped at the first level. A drunken Frenchman on his way to the ambulance room had staggered in and fallen to the floor, groaning and vomiting.
Macqueen said later this was the only time he had felt queasy on this, his most memorable day as a rugby coach. As it happened, though, the stricken Frenchman had provided a portent of France’s collapse in the second half.
When Macqueen got to his players, he told the backs to bring the wingers and Matt Burke closer to the centre of the field to force the smaller French backs to make front-on tackles.
The tactic worked. Tune’s decisive try came after Burke had made two separate attacking incursions in the same sequence.
The forwards, too, were instructed by Macqueen to take longer lineouts in the last 20 minutes, when they could be expected to punch holes in a tiring French defensive line.
And towards the end of the match, virtually as scripted, Owen Finegan grabbed the ball from a long lineout and charged 30 metres for a memorable try by the posts.
In their dressing room after the winning medals had been handed out, the exultant Wallabies revived a chant first heard after the 1991 final, when a player had suddenly called out, “Nick Farr-Jones, world champion!”
The dressing room in the Millennium Stadium now rang with the 1999 version of the chant.
“Steve Larkham, world champion!”
“Matt Burke, world champion!”
“Tim Horan, double world champion!”
“Jason Little, double world champion!”
“John Eales, double world champion!”
John O’Neill came into the dressing room. Before the tournament he had been in stiff negotiations with the Players’ Union over the size of the bonus if Australia won. The players, spotting his entry, dropped their chanting and took up a new cry, sung to the tune of Come on Aussie, come on: “We want a double bonus. We want a double bonus!”
O’Neill took the needling with good grace. He smiled at the players and said, “Well done.” Furthermore, he and ARU chairman David Clarke agreed to double the bonus on the spot.
The Wallabies arrived in Sydney on Flight QF2 a few days later, to be greeted by a thousand wildly enthusiastic supporters wearing green and gold and waving Australian flags. Advance Australia Fair and Waltzing Matilda reverberated around the terminal.
Journalists could not remember a more boisterous homecoming for an Australian sporting team.
John Eales, his right eye bloodied and almost closed from an errant French finger, emerged from the customs inspection with the William Webb Ellis trophy perched precariously on the top of his luggage trolley.
As he held the golden trophy aloft, there was a rapturous ovation. Amid the gold and green streamers, arms were punched in the air. Placards were raised in triumph.
One carried the simple message: “In Rod We Trust!”
Written by Spiro Zavos
Spiro is a founding writer on The Roar and long-time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that ran for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.
Design and editing by Daniel Jeffrey
Image Credit: All images are Copyright Getty Images unless otherwise stated.