The Darkest Hour

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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.

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

John Eales, left and David Wilson with the Bledisloe Cup after defeating the New Zealand All Blacks 19-14 at the Sydney Football Stadium, Sydney

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 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 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.”

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