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
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