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31 August 2014
THE BEST GAME: People often ask me ‘what was the greatest game you ever saw?’ As a younger reporter I used to say it was the magical King Country v Hawkes Bay game for the Ranfurly Shield in Napier in 1968 (Colin Meads’ King Country team just got pipped by Kel Tremain’s Magpies by 19-16; 8 tries in the game! – a real thriller!)
(To put that into perspective for you, you ought to know I had been born in Te Kuiti and King Country was then ‘my’ team!)
But nowadays for my ‘bestest’ game I always go back to the glorious memory of the All Blacks v South Africa game in Pretoria in 1996. I know a lot of you also do but there was so much at stake that day and the game more than matched its expectations.
INTRO and BACKGROUND:In December 2011 'New Zealand Rugby World' Magazine asked me to write about the best game of rugby I have seen played. It was a task I really enjoyed thinking about. The magazine put certain 'topics of review' for me to discuss in my reply. And here it is....
HOW IT PLAYED OUT: The game was part of five tests between the two great rivals in seven weeks. Each of the tests was a game of the highest order of rugby expression and physical commitment. Four of the tests were played in South Africa and after winning the first two there New Zealanders sensed there was chance the Sean Fitzpatrick/John Hart All Blacks could become, if they played at their very best, the first team to beat the previous year’s world cup winners in a full test series on South African soil.
At the end of one of rugby’s most dramatic afternoons the All Blacks won a truly great game by 33-26. Each of the 51,000 in the crowd at Loftus Versfeld Stadium had-been well-versed beforehand in the ‘meaning’ behind the result so the noise and tumult has never died. For New Zealnders anyway. The last moments when the All Blacks hung on grimly and denied attack after attack from the Springboks became for me the most exiting rugby I had ever commentated.
WHAT MADE IT SPECIAL: The day before the game I had ‘called a meeting’ with my co-commentator, that proud Otago man and ex-All Black Wayne Graham, in my hotel room. We had a chat about the game the next day. I outlined to Wayne how I, as a kid, had avidly followed the 1956 tour of New Zealand by the mighty Springboks of that year. I detailed to him the excitement engendered by that tour and how the little nation of New Zealand roared its approval, when on my tenth birthday, the All Blacks clinched the first ever ‘home’ test series win on Eden Park. It was best birthday present ever.
I also told Wayne about Peter Jones’ great try, of the massive 62,000 crowd and of Jonesy’s ‘speech’ to the crowd afterwards in which he reflected that he was absolutely ‘buggered.’ Radio New Zealand banned the replaying of that tape for 30 years!
In other words I detailed to Wayne the importance of the game we were to broadcast in 24-hours time. I even told him how he and I must be ‘ready’ for all the drama that was bound to unfold. It was kinda like a commentator’s team talk I suppose.
MOST MEMORABLE MOMENTS: But get the video of the commentary the two of us did the next day and fast-forward through to the end. There we are; two usually dignified people, shouting our absolute nuts off as the Springboks tried to deny ‘us’ and the All Blacks their first ‘away’ test series win. ‘Hold on New Zealand! Hold on!’ we both yell over each other as Fitzpatrick, Dowd, and Zinzan Brooke - and all the rest of that great team that day - threw themselves at the repeated assaults on their line. The New Zealanders gave everything in those last moments and were rewarded when the little French referee, Patrick Robin, (who we had also been shouting at) finally blew for full time. Many of the team collapsed to the ground, totally and utterly spent.
THE CENTRAL FIGURES: Those last moments are among the most memorable of all All Black rugby from the ‘90s era. But I also cannot forget the two searing Jeff Wilson tries, the amazing dropped-goal by Zinzan Brooke (after his frenzied ‘hey hey hey!’ call for the ball from halfback Justin Marshall), and the two towering late penalty goals kicked by replacement five-eighths Jon Preston. Afterwards, locals kept saying ‘who IS that guy?’ They hadn’t seen ‘J.P’ in the New Zealand World Cup team the year before.
POSTSCRIPT AFTER MATCH AND WHAT IT MEANT TO YOU: To cap the great day several truly beautiful things happened after that game. As the All Blacks staggered off the field their non-playing touring mates paid them the ultimate homage. To a man they stood by the grandstand tunnel in their shirtsleeves and, led by Eric Rush and Jonah Lomu, they ripped off a fiery tribute haka, the only time such a thing has been done by non-players from an All Black’s squad.
Then we of the combined media crowded the narrow corridor outside the winning team’s dressing room. Eventually a widely-smiling coach John Hart emerged. But what was this? Instead of holding a press conference he first called for all of the New Zealand media to come forward. We were invited into the dressing room because, as Hart so warmly said to us, ‘we are all New Zealanders together today.’ We broadcasters, writers and photographers then pushed past the grumbling South African media.
Inside the room I saw amazing, unforgettable things. There was no cheering or gloating, just totally fatigued All Black rugby men, limp with effort but smiling with wan satisfaction. One of the media group asked Zinzan to sign the match day programme. He wanted to oblige but couldn’t do it, his hands were still trembling and could not steady enough to write his own name. In the corner I saw the young Christian Cullen slumped in his place with tears streaming down his face. 1996 was his debut season with the All Blacks and he had contributed superbly in the game. How could he, only 20 years of age, have known the significance of the win?
All I know is that he, and the others from that beautiful rugby occasion, obviously did.
FOOTNOTE; on August 24th 2011 a dinner was held at John Hart’s apartment in Auckland. Present were all of the management team of the 1996 tour, except for the much-missed selector, the late Gordon Hunter. I was invited to ‘represent’ the media on the games 15th anniversary. Arounmd the dinner table each person from the group had to make a three-minute recollection of the game. From the warmth of the night and the recaptured memories the evening ended with plans put in place for a full reunion for all of the team in years to come. (Maybe in 2016 on the 20th anniversary)
It will be a very appropriate thing to do for one of the greatest of All Black victories. And the best game of rugby I ever saw.
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