‘Remember ’93’ became the battle cry for Fitzpatrick’s side
A Twickenham defeat 25 years ago hurt the All Blacks legend badly, he tells Oliver Brown
Defeats at Twickenham, rare birds though they are for the All Blacks, lodge in the Kiwi sporting psyche like poisoned daggers. Just ask Sean Fitzpatrick, who in 1993 presided over a 15-9 loss that he would come to regard as an indelible stain. “It became our battle cry, ‘Remember ’93’,” he reflects. “From that day on, we never wanted to go through the same experience again.”
For the latest New Zealand vintage, a similarly grim reference point is offered by the shellacking the team suffered in 2012. Variously attributed to the jet heels of Manu Tuilagi and some suspect takeaways from a Malaysian restaurant, which laid several players low, that 38-21 humiliation is one still serving as powerful motivation six years on.
“We don’t whinge about it, but we don’t forget,” Fitzpatrick says.
“It just shows you that if you take us on, there’s always the chance we might have an off-day. That’s what we now realise as All Blacks, that our opponents will often have the game of their lives. Look at England in 2012, or Ireland in 2016, when they beat us in Chicago.”
When studying Fitzpatrick’s own career, encompassing 92 Tests, 51 as captain, and a record 63 in a row without injury, the series win at Loftus Versfeld in 1996 – New Zealand’s first ever on South African soil, creating talk of those All Blacks as “Incomparables” – stands out as perhaps the defining feat. But it is the confrontations at Twickenham that he recalls with the greatest affection. “It’s a very intense environment. The crowd aren’t right on top of you, like they used to be at Cardiff Arms Park, but you feel the history of the game. As a young boy growing up 12,000 miles away, I never imagined I would be running out on to the same misty ground where the legends played.”
Four years in the making, this 41st meeting between the teams was once billed as a dress rehearsal for next autumn’s World Cup final in Yokohama.
All the latest evidence suggests, though, that England should harbour no such delusions of grandeur. The tailspin to which they succumbed earlier this year is a reminder of the fragility that the All Blacks could yet exploit with savage ruthlessness.
In Fitzpatrick’s view, the fault for this decline in form lies less with head coach Eddie Jones than with a system that wears players out through their sheer volume of commitments for club and country. “The pressure that’s put on England players to compete in both the Premiership and international rugby makes life difficult,” he argues. “Being centrally-contracted makes a huge difference. It’s no surprise that the two strongest countries in world rugby at the moment, New Zealand and Ireland, operate with central contracts.”
All that said, it is one of the glaring anomalies in sport that the tale of the tape between England and New Zealand remains so lop-sided. The All Blacks, whose philosophy, Fitzpatrick insists, involves nothing more complex than preparation and sacrifice, have won 32 matches to the mother country’s seven. It is a dominance that England are still no closer to threatening.
Fitzpatrick, who has succeeded Edwin Moses as chairman of the Laureus World Sports Academy, has a more rounded appreciation than most of the magic the All Blacks continue to weave. “In sport, Formula One drivers are probably the closest thing I have seen to the All Blacks, purely because everyone in those teams are dedicated to getting two cars over the line first,” explains the 55-year-old, who will be analysing for Sky at Twickenham.
“It’s the same with New Zealand rugby. Players could earn more money in Europe, but they think only of wearing the black jersey. Ultimately, that’s our job – to make sure the legacy continues. It makes you feel very humbled.”
Bad memories: ‘We don’t whinge, but we don’t forget,’ says Sean Fitzpatrick about defeats for the All Blacks