Fortress Eden Park

As New Zealand pre­pare to de­fend their 23-year un­beaten record in Auck­land, Mick Cleary re­veals its se­crets – and talks to those who con­quered it

The Daily Telegraph - - British & Irish -

Philippe Saint-an­dré had no sense of an in­tim­ida­tory fac­tor at Eden Park 23 years ago when he fielded a ball in­side his own 22, close to the touch­line with the clock tick­ing down and his side trail­ing the All Blacks. The France wing and cap­tain looked boxed in and seem­ingly had few op­tions. In fact, he had no op­tion. Run­ning was the only course of ac­tion.

“I had just told my guys that we had to have a go, have a crack, do some­thing to win this game,” Sain­tan­dré told The Daily Tele­graph from America. “I was cap­tain. I had just given Jean-luc Sadourny a rol­lick­ing for play­ing safe and kick­ing. The ball came to me and the sit­u­a­tion did not look good. There were black shirts all across the field. It was maybe not the right de­ci­sion. But in my head, I heard only my words that I had given to the guys, the call to give it one last shot. I had to be true to my­self. I needed to do some­thing. So I did.”

Boy, did he. Saint-an­dré swerved past a cou­ple of tack­lers, up to­wards the 10-me­tre line. His team­mates had been gal­vanised into ac­tion. Into the ruck they charged, the ball was fired away through sev­eral pairs of hands, reach­ing the right flank, Ab­del Be­nazzi was in­volved, so too Emile N’tamack, Lau­rent Ca­bannes, Christophe Dey­laud, one more pass and there was the self-same Sadourny in sup­port, the sup­pos­edly timid one, to round off what was dubbed ‘The Try From The End of the World’, help­ing give France a 23-20 vic­tory. It is con­sid­ered one of the great­est tries ever scored.

That was on July 3, 1994. Since then no other team have beaten the All Blacks at Eden Park. South Africa drew, 18-18, later that year. And that is that: 37 straight wins, 38 un­de­feated since Saint-an­dré’s won­der­ful mo­ment of mad­ness.

“I don’t know why Eden Park has been so pow­er­ful a ground for New Zealand,” said Saint-an­dré. “It is their gar­den, their home. But no way did I think that day that in 2017 they would still be un­beaten there. No way.”

The Spring­boks came close, but had to set­tle for a draw. All Black wing John Kir­wan was in the side that day, as he had been against France. But never again. He was dropped. Those were his last games in the black shirt, bring­ing to an end a glit­ter­ing ca­reer.

“Thanks for re­mind­ing me,” said Kir­wan. “There were way more good times than bad at Eden Park. It is our spir­i­tual home. The place is not with­out its faults. A pal of mine said it is eas­ier to get out of [the nearby] Mount Eden prison than it is the ground.

It’s hemmed in by res­i­den­tial streets. But as

As New Zealand changes it is vi­tal that we have a spir­i­tual home and Eden Park is that place

New Zealand changes, and we em­brace Maoridom and our Pa­cific broth­ers, and we morph into a new, ex­cit­ing mix, it is ever more im­por­tant that we do have a spir­i­tual home when it comes to rugby. Eden Park is that place.” Quite how an opposition breach that strong­hold has baf­fled many a team. The Wal­laby World Cup­win­ning cap­tain of 1991, Nick Farr-jones, got close ear­lier in that year only for Australia to go down 6-3.

“We vowed that day that we would never let those Kiwi bug­gers off the hook again, and we didn’t when it came to beat­ing them later in the World Cup semi-fi­nal at Lans­downe Road,” re­calls Farr-jones. “But as for Eden Park, it mys­ti­fies me why it has proved such a fortress. The struc­ture of the ground it­self is not par­tic­u­larly in­tim­i­dat­ing. Look, we had de­cent suc­cess when we played them in Welling­ton. But Auck­land, no. I played the last time we de­feated them there. And that was in 1986!”

That was New Zealand’s pre­vi­ous loss at Eden Park so the run is 50 matches with one loss back to that point. Of course, the All Blacks use other venues in New Zealand, pri­mar­ily Welling­ton and Christchurch, al­though the lat­ter has dropped away since the earth­quake ef­fec­tively de­stroyed Lan­caster Park.

There was a well-backed project to build a new sta­dium on the dis­tinc­tive Auck­land water­front for the 2011 Rugby World Cup but the NZ$256 mil­lion (£146 mil­lion) scheme was re­jected late in the process and ca­pac­ity added in­stead to Eden Park. The sta­dium can hold 60,000 but only when tem­po­rary seat­ing is erected. The ground is open at both ends so has noth­ing like the closed-in, at­mo­spheric feel of the Mil­len­nium Sta­dium nor the grandeur of Twick­en­ham. Yet it boasts the best home record in in­ter­na­tional rugby.

“When we played there were a few bleach­ers and one main stand,” re­calls Roger Ut­t­ley, part of the Eng­land side who won there in 1973 – the last time they did so. “The ma­jor­ity of peo­ple were stand­ing fairly close to the pitch. It is the teams, ul­ti­mately, that cre­ate this aura around sta­di­ums.”

One thing is clear. These All Blacks will not want to be the one wear­ing the shirt when they do lose at Eden Park, to be part of “neg­a­tive his­tory”, as Kir­wan puts it, a view re­in­forced by for­mer All Black player and as­sis­tant coach Rob­bie Deans.

“Eden Park is part of the his­tory and the ac­count­abil­ity of the All Blacks,” said Deans. “The players have the great­est re­spon­si­bil­ity not just for what has gone be­fore but also the teams that will fol­low. That is it in a nutshell. A fair amount of be­lief comes for­ward be­cause of the his­tory. They find ways to win as their op­po­nents find ways to bot­tle it and lose.”

Spir­i­tual home: the mighty All Blacks have re­mained un­beaten at Eden Park ever since France earned a last-gasp vic­tory there in July 1994

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