It is 20 years since the All Blacks su ered five de­feats in a row. We look back on that in­cred­i­bly, hor­ri­ble time and see what was learned.

IT IS 20 YEARS SINCE THE ALL BLACKS SUF­FERED THEIR WORST RUN IN HIS­TORY OF LOS­ING FIVE CON­SEC­U­TIVE TESTS. LYNN Mc­CONNELL LOOKS BACK AT WHAT WAS AN AMAZ­INGLY DIF­FI­CULT PE­RIOD FOR THE NA­TIONAL TEAM.

NZ Rugby World - - Contents -

What is it about New Zealan­ders that we tend to re­mem­ber the losses be­fore we cel­e­brate the vic­to­ries?

Gal­lipoli, Pass­chen­daele, Greece, Crete, North Africa [ pre the sec­ond bat­tle of Alamein] and in rugby, 1937 the Spring­boks pum­mel New Zealand with their scrum, 1949 South Africa and Aus­tralia beat the All Blacks in six tests, 1971 the only se­ries loss to the Bri­tish & Ir­ish Li­ons and 1998 five con­sec­u­tive test losses.

Former All Blacks coach John Hart raises a valid point when con­tacted to talk about those days 20 years ago. While there were plenty of phone calls from jour­nal­ists want­ing to talk about the mis­eries of 1998 there had been none want­ing to ac­knowl­edge the great year of 1997 when the All Blacks were un­beaten to send off some of the great names in the coun­try’s rugby pan­theon.

It’s the old ar­gu­ment where agony is of­ten re­mem­bered ahead of the more de­serv­ing ecstasy. That may have some­thing to do with the ex­pec­ta­tions sur­round­ing the All Blacks but it doesn’t make it eas­ier for those try­ing to avoid it hap­pen­ing out in the mid­dle.

Just as a re­minder, here’s what hap­pened: NZ ver­sus Aus­tralia, MCG, July 11, 1998. Lost 16-24.

New Zealand had been on a 14-test win­ning streak but that ended in Mel­bourne. It was the first time they had lost in the Tri Na­tions and it was their first loss to Aus­tralia since 1994.

For cap­tain Taine Ran­dell it was his first loss in four years in the All Blacks. Aus­tralia had a new coach in Rod Mac­queen who had the good luck to pick a team un­changed for its fourth con­sec­u­tive test match.

The All Blacks won enough ball up front but the backs had a night off with han­dling is­sues, in­ef­fec­tive kick­ing, es­pe­cially at goal, and bad op­tion-tak­ing.

Matt Burke was the Aus­tralian hero, scor­ing all 24 of their points from two tries, a con­ver­sion and four penalty goals. NZ ver­sus South Africa, Ath­letic Park, July 25, 1998. Lost 3-13. Changes were rung for the All Blacks with Jonah Lomu re­in­stated in place of the dropped Joeli Vidiri, Mark May­er­hofler re­placed Scott McLeod while Car­los Spencer started in­stead of Andrew Mehrtens.

South Africa were the more com­pe­tent com­bi­na­tion un­der new coach Nick Mal­lett and com­mu­ni­ca­tion is­sues and han­dling were prob­lems for the home side again.

That wasn’t with­out the try scor­ing chances that went beg­ging. Only one try was scored, to South Africa, when half­back Joost van der Westhuizen passed to first five-eighths Henry Honi­ball and then moved to dou­ble around him. How­ever, Honi­ball slipped an inside pass to blind­side wing Pi­eter Rous­souw who ran in the try with ease.

It was the first time since 1971, on the same ground against the Bri­tish & Ir­ish Li­ons, that the All Blacks had been held to three points in New Zealand.

NZ ver­sus Aus­tralia, Jade Sta­dium, Au­gust 1, 1998. Lost 23-27.

Aus­tralia had waited 40 years to win a test in Christchurch and it had been eight years since they had won in New Zealand, but they made no mis­take in this con­test.

They were far more su­pe­rior than the fi­nal score­line sug­gested, the All Blacks ben­e­fit­ing from two late tries to Lomu and Chris­tian Cullen.

The Aus­tralians were up 17-3 at one stage, their best try scored by full­back Matt Burke af­ter a near length of the field demon­stra­tion of con­trol and ex­e­cu­tion that would have done some of the great All Blacks teams proud.

New Zealand lacked the fi­nesse and con­trol of the Aus­tralians al­though one player who had spe­cial cause to re­mem­ber the game was Cru­saders coach Scott Robert­son, he made his test de­but on his home ground, run­ning on as a re­place­ment.

NZ ver­sus South Africa, Kings Park, Au­gust 15, 1998. Lost 23-24.

Every­thing pointed to­wards the end of the los­ing streak when the All Blacks were 23-5 up in Dur­ban. But in the midst of a hor­ror slump things could not be guar­an­teed to go their way.

So when No 8 Isi­tola Maka left the field, it re­quired a re-jig of the loose for­wards as Robert­son took on the open­side flank while Ran­dell went to No 8.

As the de­fen­sive ad­just­ment was bed­ding in, van der Westhuizen took ad­van­tage and sniped over for a try that pulled the mar­gin back by seven.

Then Bobby Skin­stad scored and for the last seven min­utes the All Blacks were at­tempt­ing to hold back the tide as if on the broad Dur­ban beach just down the road.

Un­for­tu­nately, hooker James Dal­ton was in the mid­dle of a rolling li­ne­out maul with the ball and was deemed to have touched it down.

Justin Mar­shall didn’t agree claim­ing he had dropped it, and Dal­ton, af­ter the se­cu­rity of the fi­nal whis­tle sound­ing, agreed.

NZ ver­sus Aus­tralia, Syd­ney Foot­ball Sta­dium, Au­gust 29, 1998. Lost 14-19.

Some­times the weight of his­tory can be cruel and the All Blacks were look­ing to avoid los­ing to Aus­tralia three times in the one sea­son when play­ing their last game of the year at the Syd­ney Foot­ball Sta­dium.

They led 11-0 at the break, thanks to a Cullen try but the tall fig­ure of lock John Eales loomed large. He as­sumed goal-kick­ing du­ties and not for the last time booted his way into the All Blacks psy­che by land­ing four penalty goals and a con­ver­sion of a Burke try to deny the All Blacks yet again.

Not since 1929 had Aus­tralia

HOW JOHN EALES CAN GET UP OFF THE BOT­TOM OF A RUCK AND WIN LI­NE­OUTS AND KICK GOALS IS RE­MARK­ABLE. WHEN YOU TALK ABOUT THE BEST IN THE WORLD, EALES IS UP WITH THE BEST OF THEM.’ JOHN HART

com­pleted a hat-trick over their ri­vals. They were well on their way to to­wards achiev­ing a sec­ond World Cup win, lit­tle more than 12 months later.

Lit­tle won­der that Hart com­mented af­ter the game: “How John Eales can get up off the bot­tom of a ruck and win li­ne­outs and kick goals is re­mark­able. When you talk about the best in the world, Eales is up with the best of them.”

Ge­orge Gre­gan later re­lated in his 2011 book Half­back, Half for­ward the story of the try in Christchurch where they held the ball for 18 phases and han­dled it 14 times. “The way it’s of­ten writ­ten up, we were like chess play­ers as we sys­tem­at­i­cally moved down and across the field, but in truth we weren’t sure what we were do­ing for much of it – we knew we were hang­ing onto the ball and we were de­ter­mined not to turn it over, but we were re­ally just

PEO­PLE PROB­A­BLY FOR­GET THAT WE LOST SEAN FITZ­PATRICK, ZINZAN BROOKE, MICHAEL JONES MID­SEA­SON, FRANK BUNCE. IN THOSE DAYS THEY WERE PRETTY TAL­IS­MAN LEAD­ERS OF THE ALL BLACKS AND WE HAD A BIG GAP IN LEAD­ER­SHIP WHICH PROB­A­BLY SHOWED UP THROUGH ‘98.’ JOHN HART

hop­ing a hole would ma­te­ri­alise. Even­tu­ally, we worked down to the cor­ner, near their try line, and Burkey went over.”

Hart said a key fac­tor in 1998 had been the loss of so much ex­pe­ri­ence. “Peo­ple prob­a­bly for­get that we lost Sean Fitz­patrick, Zinzan Brooke, Michael Jones mid- sea­son, Frank Bunce. In those days they were pretty tal­is­man lead­ers of the All Blacks and we had a big gap in lead­er­ship which prob­a­bly showed up through ‘98.”

Ran­dell had been ap­pointed cap­tain. He com­mented in Be­hind the Sil­ver Fern: “When I look back, I re­alise how much I didn’t know about cap­tain­ing a side. I didn’t do well for my­self or the team. It was a team un­der­go­ing a lot of changes and I prob­a­bly wasn’t the right per­son for the job. I didn’t know what I could have done to change things. I was try­ing my hard­est but didn’t know what to do.”

Bunce hadn’t helped his sit­u­a­tion when go­ing to France to as­sess an of­fer dur­ing a week off, but hadn’t told Hart. A pi­lot strike in France meant he missed con­nect­ing flights and he wasn’t in New Zealand and Hart, who was pre­par­ing an All Blacks trial, had no idea where he was. It ef­fec­tively ended his ca­reer.

Wing Jeff Wil­son said 1998 sucked the life out of the play­ers who re­mained. Some great play­ers had re­tired and taken a lot of lead­er­ship with them.

There had been an ex­pec­ta­tion young play­ers would step up but that wasn’t some­thing that just hap­pened.

Prop Craig Dowd said: “It was a hor­ri­ble, dark year. Los­ing five games on the trot was just un­heard of. But those Aus­tralian and South African sides that year were the best they had been. You look at the Gre­gans, the Eales and Ho­rans, and Lit­tle and Latham. Aus­tralia were a good side and like­wise with the South Africans with Mark An­drews, Gary Te­ich­mann, Joost van der Westhuizen, Henry Honi­ball, Peter Ros­souw, Ste­fan Terblanche and Percy Mont­gomery.

“We had some re­ally good com­pe­ti­tion that year and you have to ask were we re­ally that bad? I think we need to re­spect that the op­po­si­tion in 1998 were bloody good,” he said.

Ho­ran backed that up in his re­marks af­ter the third win: “There is enor­mous po­ten­tial here which is bubbling to the sur­face. We have to push on with it, but there is some­thing spe­cial emerg­ing.”

Hart said there was also a per­cep­tion of look­ing at 1998 and com­par­ing it with 2018.

“If you had had the re­sources of 2018, and you had the con­trol they have now, it is a to­tally dif­fer­ent en­vi­ron­ment. In 1998 we were try­ing to es­tab­lish the All Blacks in the pro­fes­sional era, which was very young. We had a man­age­ment team of seven or eight peo­ple, I think they prob­a­bly have 25 now.

“They have re­sources that were just not pos­si­ble [then] and the All Blacks’ coach in 2018 has to­tal con­trol of the play­ers and to­tal con­trol of the en­vi­ron­ment ef­fec­tively in terms of what hap­pens in Su­per Rugby. And that cer­tainly wasn’t the case in 1998.

“You were deal­ing with a Su­per Rugby sit­u­a­tion where all the coaches were look­ing af­ter their own sur­vival and there was none of the pro­cesses in place from the rugby union you see to­day. That’s the evo­lu­tion of time and all its ben­e­fits.

“I think we’ve done pretty well and I have tremen­dous ad­mi­ra­tion for what Steve Hansen’s done. He’s done a fan­tas­tic job as have his se­lec­tors. Their strength is clearly that they have de­vel­oped a strong depth of play­ers over the years and we have a lux­ury to­day of tremen­dous depth in our player base.

“That wasn’t quite the same in 1998. Pro­fes­sion­al­ism and the ad­vent of pro­fes­sion­al­ism, and high per­for­mance, and all the things that go with it in terms of grow­ing peo­ple and the time that you have with them, is very dif­fer­ent.

“In 1998 we were ba­si­cally the same as when we were am­a­teur. We’d get to­gether a week be­fore a game or five days be­fore a game what­ever it was and that was it.

“Peo­ple will never un­der­stand the dra­matic changes that needed to be made and that was one of the things that I had to bat­tle with in lead­ing that change be­cause a lot of them had come straight from the am­a­teur game to pro­fes­sion­al­ism.

“It changed the re­quire­ments on them and many of them didn’t adapt to that or strug­gled with it. It took time. And it takes lessons to get there.

“The thing I would like to re­mind peo­ple, but they won’t want to hear it, is had we had video refs we would pos­si­bly have won three of the five tests we lost.

“We only lost one test com­pre­hen­sively and that was against Aus­tralia in Christchurch. We were beaten by a try on full­time in Na­tal against the Boks when Dal­ton clearly dropped the ball over the line from a li­ne­out in the 80th minute and the video showed that after­wards.

“Jeff Wil­son scored a try in Welling­ton at a cru­cial time in that match against the Boks which would have changed that sit­u­a­tion be­cause he was al­leged to have gone over the dead-ball line and in fact it showed it wasn’t.”

Hart said the Rugby World Cup wasn’t the fac­tor it is now. To­day that had changed with the cy­cle all about World Cups. The 1998 losses didn’t make it easy in pre­par­ing for the 1999 World Cup. They had ba­si­cally the same squad with only Royce Willis as a new player, yet 1999 was a re­ally suc­cess­ful year.

“We won the Tri Na­tions again and prob­a­bly fell over at the last hur­dle when we prob­a­bly had one eye on the World Cup in­stead of the Bledis­loe Cup against Aus­tralia.

“And we played some very good rugby in the World Cup un­til we got beaten by a team that played un­be­liev­ably for 25 min­utes.”

THE THING I WOULD LIKE TO RE­MIND PEO­PLE, BUT THEY WON’T WANT TO HEAR IT, IS HAD WE HAD VIDEO REFS WE WOULD POS­SI­BLY HAVE WON THREE OF THE FIVE TESTS WE LOST.’ JOHN HART

BIG EF­FORT The All Blacks didn’t lack for pas­sion or e ort in 1998.

HARD DONE BY There is no doubt that had the TMO been around in 1998 the All Blacks may not have lost five in a row.

NEW FACES At the heart of the All Blacks’ prob­lems was the sud­den loss of many ex­pe­ri­enced play­ers in 1997.

EASY DOES IT The Wal­la­bies would love for life in 2018 to be like it was in 1998.

BET­TER DAYS The All Blacks have learned how to deal with pro­fes­sion­al­ism and make the most of it.

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