Kelleher, Randall and Lomu, has he done it? Larkham … Lomu has won the game surely for New Zealand! This has been a magnificent comeback from the All Blacks after all they’ve lost. And it’s that man Jonah Lomu, the human juggernaut.
That was the match-deciding play in the 2000 Bledisloe Cup opener between the Wallabies and All Blacks on July 15 at Sydney’s Stadium Australia, as described by veteran rugby commentator Gordon Bray. The clash would later come to be known as the “Great Test Ever Played” after the 79 earlier minutes had enthralled a crowd of 109,874, a world record for a rugby match, and ensured no one in attendance would forget the incredible spectacle anytime soon.
Twenty years on the match is a window to a far rosier era for Australian rugby, and remains an example of how good rugby can be when it is played in the right spirit by two teams at the top of their game.
Calling the game for Channel 7 Bray had one of the best seats in the house that night, while Wallabies Daniel Herbert and Jeremy Paul were in the thick of the action.
Here’s how they remember it.
Just nine months after the Wallabies’ World Cup victory, the All Blacks were desperate to prove a point and take down the No. 1 team on the planet. Australia, meanwhile, was riding the collective wave of their success and the countdown to the 2000 Olympics, which was now just two months away.
Did you get the sense during that week that something special lay ahead?
Paul: You’ve got to take into context, too, the last couple of years; 98 when we won 3-0 to take the Bledisloe Cup back and then obviously we’d won the World Cup in 1999…Australian rugby was on a roll and we were starting to get some momentum for crowd numbers; our participation numbers were also up, which statistically happened after both World Cup wins. But we had the Bledisloe Cup at the time and the All Blacks, they were filthy, they wanted the Cup back and in this new stadium, with the Olympics coming, Australian sport was amazing to be a part of at that time.
Herbert: Knowing that the Olympics was coming and the potential was there to have a world record crowd was great, and the stocks of the Wallabies and All Blacks were pretty high at that stage. We’d had a couple of years of really close battles and, from memory, we had a sense that it was going to be big crowd. But we didn’t really talk too much about it in those days; in the middle of a performance environment the last thing you’re thinking about is the crowd. You hope it’s a big crowd, it’s good entertainment, but it wasn’t something we were talking about.
Bray: I think because of the history of the World Cup victory, and people forget the year before in 1999 we beat the All Blacks 28-7 in front of 107,000 at Stadium Australia, so we knew the record was going to be broken and that added all the extra anticipation. And just the fact that the All Blacks are the All Blacks, they hate losing, they can’t handle losing, we knew that with Jonah Lomu as the human juggernaut, they were going to come out and throw everything at the Wallabies. But this was the world champion Wallaby team, supposedly No. 1 side in the world, so there was a lot of patriotism and pride on the line, which added up to a delicious, enticing contest.
THE ALL BLACKS’ EARLY ONSLAUGHT
In one of the most breathtaking starts to a game of Test rugby, the All Blacks scored three tries inside five minutes. Tana Umaga was first to cross, the centre intercepting a Chris Latham pass after the Wallabies fullback had scooped up a partially charged Andrew Mehrtens kick. Then, almost immediately from the restart, Lomu was into the game as he thundered down the left touchline and popped a ball back inside to Pita Alatini for the All Blacks’ second try. Again, virtually from the kick-off, the All Blacks were back on the attack as Alama Ieremia poked his head through the line and offloaded to Pita Alatini, who found fullback Christian Cullen looming up in support. It was 21-0, but it could have easily been 28-0, too.
It was a crazy start to that Test, talk us through what was going on?
Bray: Three tries in the first five minutes, this is crazy, this is surreal. I kept asking myself is this really happening? And my thoughts went back to 1996 in Dunedin, when the Wallabies were down 36-0 at halftime, and then thankfully they came back with 24 unanswered points in the second half, but the pride of Australian rugby, the world champions, basically in those first five minutes were reduced to rubble, it was a real meltdown. The players were panicking, the defence was in disarray, the only Australian player to touch the ball in the first five minutes was fullback Chris Latham. But it was just horrendous. You’ve got to acknowledge the greatness of New Zealand’s play and this amazing freak of nature Jonah Lomu on the wing. And what people don’t recall is, after about eight minutes, George Gregan was in the last line of defence against Lomu and the score was at that point 21-0, and if Gregan hadn’t tackled Lomu then it would have been 28-0 after seven minutes and you would say there is no way back from there.
Paul: It was quite interesting because you knew what was being said, even on the bench, you knew what was being spoken about at the time. And this is what made John Eales such a special leader on the field, his composure. And then also the leaders around underneath him, like George Gregan, but the line that came after we were down 24-0, Ealesy said: “We haven’t had the ball yet, boys, let’s get the ball and we’ll use it.”
Herbert: The script that we were well behind, I think it was 24-0 after eight minutes, and then we worked our way back. And New Zealand could score points very very quickly, and we knew that we couldn’t score points as quickly, and we just had to stay in the contest and we would eventually grind our way back into it. But it wasn’t going to be eight minutes, we wouldn’t put on 24 points in eight minutes, we just didn’t have that points-scoring ability that they did. I do remember that huddle [after the third try], I don’t exactly know what was said, but we hadn’t touched the ball and we came together and said ‘guys, we’ve just got to get our hands on the ball’.
THE WALLABIES’ COMEBACK
Restarting for the fourth time in nine minutes following a Mehrtens penalty, the Wallabies at last got their hands on the ball. Stephen Larkham stepped off his right foot to break the All Blacks line and then fired a perfect spiral pass to an unmarked Stirling Mortlock. The comeback is on. Mortlock gets his second on 19 minutes after a powerhouse run from Jim Williams before sustained build-up allows Chris Latham to charge onto the ball from close range. When Joe Roff scores the Wallabies’ fourth try, the scores are levelled at 24-all.
That was an incredible comeback from the Wallabies, how did you see it unfold?
Bray: The forwards got their act together. The mark of a great team is its composure and I think once they had panicked a little early they regained their composure very quickly. And it’s credit to John Eales and the leaders in the team; David Wilson had actually captained the Wallabies in that win over the All Blacks the previous year. But the forwards got their act together; big Jim Williams was an inspired selection at No. 8, and the impact of Stirling Mortlock, his ball carrying and ability and his finishing were fantastic in that game. I’d made the comment in the broadcast that we’d never seen a start to a Test match like this and I can also say we’ve never seen a comeback like we saw that night. For Australia to come back to 24-all at halftime was brilliant. The game was just oscillating between fantasy and reality, I think, and we were all numb. The Australian crowd was gobsmacked after the start but then we were all on a high when it got to halftime.
Herbert: I think the first time we got our hands on the ball we scored as well when Larkham tore through and put Stirling over. All of a sudden it felt like game on and, from memory, Latham stepped up, Stirling again, and before we knew we had a pretty close Test match on our hands. There was never any panic within that team, certainly through that era when I played of ’98 through to around 2002, during that time we just had a very calm team. Never at any stage, in any team, can I remember being rattled, even when we were being beaten soundly. But there was never any panic, it was always just ‘this is what we need to do and we can’t control everything. We didn’t mind teams scoring out wide against us, but it was ‘just don’t let them come through the middle’; we took that as a bit of a badge of honour. We had some good leaders obviously in John Eales and George Gregan, and players with experience like Larkham and David Wilson, who’d been around for a while. So it was always a very calm, collected unit, the squad of that era.
Paul: The back half of that second half where Bernie [Larkham] slides through and Stirling Mortlock scores a try…Roffy was outstanding, too, and Daniel Herbert, who was such a powerhouse back for the Wallabies, his penetration to get us over the advantage line and attract defenders, it was a very experienced side that knew if we could just get the ball we could get back into it. So going into halftime at 24-all, the conversation was very much boys it’s 0-0 and I was unlucky enough to come on after halftime.
THE SECOND HALF, A RETURN TO NORMALITY
Mortlock kicked two penalties either side of a brilliant solo try from Justin Marshall and two Mehrtens penalties. While only Marshall crossed the line heading into the final 10 minutes, the enterprising play continued, before Gregan eventually answered Marshall’s run with a brilliant break himself, setting the stage for Paul to handle twice in quick succession and score out wide. The Wallabies took the lead, 35-34.
What do you recall about that try on 73 minutes, and did you think that might be enough to get the win so late in the piece?
Paul: George had made a break and he actually passed me the ball in support, I think I got kicked in the head when I was a tackled so I was a bit dizzy. But the play then went back left after George passed it to me and Joe Roff handled there. But it came back to the blind and Rod Kafer threw me an awful ball, I think I picked it up off my bootlaces, but it found me and I just dived over in the corner. I was just s— scared that Lomu would be there to be honest. When you retire they give you a photo of each of the years from your career and one of them for me is the try from this game and my eyes are almost closed with Lomu almost ripping my head off. There was only one bloke who put fear into you on the rugby field and that was Jonah Lomu. We used to love going back to Billy Young’s pub and I remember after that try thinking, ‘oh my god, how much p— am I going to drink at Billy’s pub tonight?’ And now I just laugh at those thoughts, because it’s just such an immature, silly thing to think when the game was still alive.
Herbert: I can’t speak for others but I know my sense was that it wasn’t over until he blew the whistle. Never in any game did I have a sense that we’ve got this, until the whistle went you are kind of just in the zone. We scored, they scored, we scored, they scored, it was just tit for tat. And I don’t think at any stage, I was certainly thinking we’ve got this or we haven’t; it was just okay we’ve got our noses in front and we better wait for the counter blow because we know it’s coming.
LOMU HAS THE FINAL SAY
With time shrinking down to the final minutes and the All Blacks trailing by one point, Lomu took a pass from Taine Randell, skipped on the outside of Stephen Larkham, tip-toed down the sideline and runs into score the tenth try of the game and the match-winner. The Wallabies are left to lament a couple of key mistakes as the late, great Lomu, added yet another moment to his collection of amazing memories. New Zealand wins, 39-35.
How do you remember Lomu’s match-winner?
Paul: I actually was there coming across in cover and I congratulated him for scoring and virtually winning the game. But there was two critical points before that; Andrew Walker came onto the field, and it’s nobody’s fault, it’s just how the game panned out, but he had the chance to kick the ball out and he missed touch, and the All Blacks came back towards our line. And I remember talking with Jason Little after the match, he was filthy because he came up on Taine Randell, who threw the pass over the top to Lomu, and Bernie couldn’t get him and he crossed over and they won. But I remember both Walker and Little were both pretty filthy after the game. It came up in the review; all we had to do was kick the ball out, get them back down into their half or at least be out of our 22, but they worked the ball back up and scored.
Herbert: It’s just one of those images that you look up and see that he’s there. So you just kind of look up and think about getting back into position and hopefully you get another shot at it. But that didn’t happen, that was it.
Bray: I do remember the call. Taine Randell produced an amazing pass, it was like a basketball pass, he sucked in a couple of defenders, I think the Australian defence panicked. Bernie Larkham came across with the last ditch tackle, but how do you stop Jonah Lomu? He must have busted 12 or 15 tackles in the game and that’s just unheard of in a game of rugby, but that’s how devastating he was with a scent of the goal line and the scent of victory. Although he had work to do, it wasn’t his most spectacular try ever. But I’m sure he rated it highly regardless. It was stunning a climax and quite fitting that Lomu should score that try, he’d been so humble when the All Blacks had been eliminated in the World Cup semifinal the previous year. But if you take out the first five minutes of the game, the Wallabies actually won the game 35-18 and that’s quite incredible, if you take out those first five minutes. So the Wallabies came back brilliantly but New Zealand still found something. It was Jonah’s night; he was the spearhead.
After Australia bungled the restart and then saw the All Blacks negotiate one final sequence before the hooter, referee Andre Watson finally blew for fulltime. As history tells us, the Wallabies were able to hold onto the Bledisloe Cup that year thanks to John Eales’ unforgettable penalty in Wellington in three weeks’ time.
But they were also aware that they had played a part in something truly special, a match that would go on to be known as the “Greatest Test ever played”. And it remains an unforgettable experience for Bray, too.
Paul: It’s irrelevant at fulltime, but once you’re back in the sheds and you’re talking, you think ‘wow, what a game.’ It’s quite nice, from a nostalgic point of view as well, to know you were part of a wonderful bit of history; especially now some 20 years later and the predicament we’re in now, it was never even a thought back then. Australian rugby was on a high, we were playing such good rugby.
Herbert: I remember being in plenty of pain because I’d popped a rib after running a switch and running straight into Norm Maxwell. But I can remember being the dressing room talking to some journalists and them saying, ‘how do you feel’? And I remember saying ‘I don’t feel too bad’ because as a loss goes, you’d felt that you were part of something special. And there was such a buzz around the crowd that even though we’d lost the people almost felt like it had been a win because it had been so entertaining and they felt like they were part of something. Not only was it a world record crowd but it was a game that had a really interesting script. But then the next week we put it in the memory bank and moved on.
Bray: It’s the greatest Test match I’ve ever called and it was just a real thrill to be part of a great team with Chris Handy and Simon Poidevin, both great Wallabies, who also entered into the spirit of the occasion. After the match, for me, the result was only a sideshow, because we’d seen this fantastic contest. It was a Test match played in the twilight zone. I saw the Barbarians and the All Blacks in 1973 on television, that was called the “greatest rugby match ever played” but that was more of an exhibition match, that was a celebration. This was a Bledisloe Cup game played at the highest level, played with incredible intensity, the pace was frenetic throughout. And when you’re getting a point a minute for the whole game; it was just a titanic sporting contest.