In 1992 All Blacks centre Frank Bunce was lucky to get away with a reckless cleanout at a ruck that forced New South Wales loose forward Michael Brial to leave the field injured. When the two players met four years later in a Bledisloe Cup clash in Brisbane, Brial exacted his revenge.
Barely six minutes into the 1996 Bledisloe Cup encounter in Brisbane, Wallabies flanker Michael Brial launched a sustained and violent attack on All Blacks centre Frank Bunce.
It was nasty. Brial had the back of Bunce's shirt in one hand – holding him tight and steady and with the other, he landed between five to 10 punches. Bunce, a hard man, defended himself best he could and didn't retaliate. There seemed to be no doubt that Brial would have to be shown a red card. And yet referee Jim Fleming did nothing, incensing All Blacks coach John Hart who said: “The referee saw what happened. Brial was punching Bunce uncontrollably. There was no possible excuse for what the player did, but the referee did nothing. That’s unacceptable.”
It did appear to the crowd and TV viewers that Brial had launched an unexplainable attack that was without any provocation.
But to Brial's way of thinking there was justification. He was gaining some kind of revenge for an injury he sustained four years earlier when New South Wales had played the All Blacks.
In 1992, Brial was at the bottom of a ruck and the ball was stuck. Bunce, seeing what was happening from his position in the midfield, charged in, hard and fast and launched himself at a body that he thought was trapping the ball.
It was an aggressive and dangerous hit. There were no arms involved and it looked like Bunce had flown in with a specific goal to make his presence felt. It looked like he wanted to make sure that the New South Wales forwards got the hint that they couldn't slow down the All Blacks' possession. Which they did – as Brial was hurt.
The big loose forward stayed down for nearly three minutes and then eventually got to his feet. But once he was up, he couldn't stand properly and was clearly sore, dazed and most likely concussed. He couldn't play on and back then, that was a big deal. Players only went off if they were badly hurt and it was obvious that Bunce had hurt the 22-year-old who was seen as a Wallaby in the making.
A game against the All Blacks was his big chance to prove himself ready to take the step up but instead, he was staggering off 23 minutes into the game after being a victim of what could easily be viewed as a needless and deliberate assault.
Brial wasn't going to forget what happened that day at the Concord Oval in Sydney. Bunce was in his sights and whether the All Blacks centre knew it or not, he had made an enemy. The two were going to be rivals, even if only one of them really knew that.
Brial was happy to bide his time before he took his revenge. He waited four long years for the chance to come up and when he was selected to play for the Wallabies against the All Blacks in August 1996, he knew he'd be able to exact his revenge.
And in case he needed his wrath nursed along, Bunce managed to provide a little reminder of their festering relationship.
“I'll tell you what started it,” Bunce said in 2009 when he was interviewed by a radio station. “I elbowed him. Just before he started punching me.”
That partly explains why Bunce seemed to accept his fate when Brial was going a bit nuts. After the game, Bunce would only say: “I couldn’t believe it. He went right over the top.”
But he didn't elaborate or profess any great outrage – largely because he knew the role he had played in provoking Brial and the bad history between the two.
And also because Bunce had the last laugh in the rivalry. After the early incident, the game settled and was an absolutely corking test. The score was tied at 25-all with two minutes remaining – a time for the All Blacks to pull a rabbit out of the hat.
They executed a neat wrap around move with first-five Andrew Mehrtens taking it off Bunce before scorching through a hole and feeding Christian Cullen. When the fullback was tackled two metres short, Bunce was on hand to pick up and dive over.
“He [Brial] was the first person I saw as I was getting up and I gave him a little wink,” recalled Bunce. “And he bumped me with the shoulder. There was one more part because we both got drug tested afterwards and we had to sit in this room.
“I walked in and he was already there and we didn't say a word. We sat opposite each other and for 40 minutes we sat like that...not saying a word.”