Thinking and talking about rugby every day for 50+ years
25 June 2015
So what about that 1995 Rugby World Cup - and especially the final? Well, the whole thing was a great event with the All Blacks playing by far the best rugby of any team at the tournament. That of course was never better shown then in the way they demolished England by 45-29 in the semi-final at Cape Town.
Looking back now, over the whole tournament loomed the shadow of the wonderful Jonah Lomu. His play was superb in all the games but against Scotland and England his imposing presence and brilliance was beyond anything I had seen before on a rugby field, including Ron Jarden, Ralph Caulton, Malcolm Dick, John Kirwan, Terry Wright, Bernie Fraser and Stu Wilson, who were the earlier All Black wingers who I had admired so much. The team made so much space for big Jonah at the Cup and his giant frame tore over the ground at a speed that no side could cope with him. Until the Springboks in the final that is.
At Cape Town Jonah put in the incredible sequence of four tries in a row in the Cup semi-final against England. One hesitates to use the awesome because it is used so often these days but the word aptly described Lomu that day. The English had simply no idea about how to stop him. Lomu’s play that day was the best I have ever see from an individual on a rugby field, before or since.
Of course many New Zealander now associate the TV commentary on that game with an 'infamous' verbal stumble I made. Even in 2015 I had to repeat the story on the TV1 news to 'explain' once more how the most-played broadcast I ever did happened.
As I recall the story goes like this; Somehow in the lead up to that semi-final I had an inner inkling that Jonah would score an impressive try somewhere in the game. I therefore pre-planned to be ready with an appropriate ‘headline’ piece of commentary to cover the scoring of such a try.
Plenty of broadcasters use this visualistation technique. For me, I saw what I thought was a pertinent verbal premonition when I jotted down the expression ‘all muscle and pump’ from an American magazine I had been reading. Another writer’s description of a big American basketball player was therefore filed into my mental ‘system’ for use when Lomu’s moment would come. I even tore off a small piece of paper, wrote the quote on it, and attached it to my match notes via a paper clip.
But the greatest of the four Lomu tries in that game took me completely by surprise. I suppose I expected to glance at my great quote sometime in the middle of the game, or at the end. Whatever, I did not expect Lomu to go crashing for the line, brushing over the top of several feeble English defenders in just the third moment of action. When the giant set off carrying the ball in his famous run, I glanced at my notes. But the pre-prepared clipping was not there! It had fallen somewhere. So, distracted, I could only utter “Lomu…oh…oh…’ on the sound track as he scored.
I was initially wild with myself at the cockup but as it has become my trademark piece of commentary in the 20 years since I have come to love it actually. So what the heck I’ll claim it as one of my best moments at the microphone!
Just keep it quiet folks, that it came from a complete stuff-up.
And of course there was the story behind the All Black team’s health before the playing of that dramatic final. All of New Zealand has asked since – was the All Black team fully fit beforehand, following food poisoning and illness allegations? My own version of the story does not add much I suspect. But maybe it does. See what you think, it is my opinion only.
The 1995 TVNZ team of which I was a part were not staying at the Holiday Inn Crown Court Hotel where the illness struck the team two nights before the playing of the Cup final. (We were at a nearby Motel complex where, incidentally, each guest was issued with three keys to lock oneself in each night – including one for your interior toilet room) Instead the newsmedia were first alerted to the stresses of the illness to the All Blacks on the Friday morning before the final. We were all at a large international press conference at Ellis Park where Louis Luyt, as Chairman, was in charge of the announcement of the opening of SANZAR Rugby and the Tri Nations Tournament. Leon Hagen was filming the press conference but was ushered away to film the arrival of the All Blacks team as they made their familiar Friday pre-test ‘captain's run walkabout’ around the field
I only mention the ‘walkabout’ as, at a speech later in 1995, I heard Laurie Mains tell an attentive Dunedin audience that his players were so sick they could not leave their hotel to make a visit to Ellis Park that day. Leon’s video was evidence they did. In fairness I have to add that in a personal interview with me at Ellis Park four years later, in 1999, Laurie had a differing version of the Friday walk. He told me they did go to Ellis Park but were ‘not there long’ because of the team illness. However the two differing versions were the first signs I felt of some confusion over the food poisoning stories of that infamous and disappointing day for New Zealand rugby.
On the actual morning of the final, when all of New Zealand was on edge over the question of whether the All Blacks would take on the Springboks at 100% fitness, I was the pre-match sideline interviewer at Ellis Park. Brian Lochore was one of the All Black Management team. I interviewed him as he arrived on the pitch and he told the New Zealand audience words to the effect that ‘yes, there had been stomach problems two days ago but today everyone is OK.” Implicently, I took those remarks to be absolute fact. You would, coming from a man such as Lochore.
Was he foxing? Maybe he was.
In the match, which you will remember was a grim and highly dramatic affair played over nearly two hours, including two periods of extra time, I thought the All Blacks played superbly. The Springboks were fearsomely tough opponents, being the first and only side to shut down the magnificence of Lomu. There were no tries by anyone in the game and in the end only a ‘gnats whisker’ existed between the powerhouse endeavor of the two best sides at the tournament.
The whisker turned out to be a Mehrtens dropped goal attempt for New Zealand which went astray compared to one from Joel Stransky which went through for massive delight for South Africa and a 15-12 win. In short, one side had to lose.
Straight after the game, using the last of the eight security passes, tickets and bibs which I had been issued with that day, I rushed to the door of the All Blacks dressing room. (I recall that Michael Jones was also standing there waiting to go in an express his disappointment. He was not in the All Black team at that tournament and had no security clearance as far as I know, but he was standing there nevertheless!) The first people out of the dressing rooms were Earle Kirton and Colin Meads. Both were clearly distraught and hugely disappointed but neither made any mention as they passed of any loss of ‘power’ from the All Blacks in the game caused by the food poisoning or illness. Indeed both only made strong opinions to me about the refereeing of Ed Morrison of England. They were not impressed by him at all and said so in very strong ‘rugby terms’.
In the TV interviews we did straight after, Messrs Mains, Fitzpatrick and Meads made no mention at all of any sickness within the team around the match or during it. While this could have been dismissed as stoic New Zealand acceptance of defeat (in the traditional All Black manner) I have my doubts. In view of the fuss which was to follow in the days after surely something would have been mentioned about illness at that time, even if ever so slightly hinted at.
As far as I can recall the first time a strong assertion about the All Blacks being possibly ill from the effects of eating or drinking came on the Paul Holmes radio show on Newstalk ZB on the Monday morning in New Zealand. Holmes apparently arrived at work that day and phoned to Johannesburg where the All Blacks had had a 'tired and emotional day' around their hotel pool and bar. Holmes interviewed Laurie Mains and it was at that point that the food and sickness story really expanded.
About then the actual wording around the story changed too. The assertions moved on from what ‘sickness’ inferred, onto ‘food poisoning’ being mentioned and finally onto the use of the word ‘poisoned’ for the first time. All three words took the allegations to new levels of seriousness against something which had afflicted the All Blacks team or some kitchen situation which had occurred in the team hotel.
As well there was variance in the type of illness which the team suffered. Were they affected by bad water, bad milk, bad hamburgers, bad tea – or what ? (Rory Steyn the All Blacks security officer said it was a 'bad fish lunch.' All of those options were mentioned along the way as, shall we say, definite possibilities. Months later in his book Laurie Mains also mentioned a black woman working in the hotel around the time of the final. He name apparently was ‘Suzy’, though nobody ever pinned her identity down further. According to Mains’s book she was possibly worthy of some investigation by rugby authorities but when I talked to Laurie at Ellis Park in 1999 and he was as open and friendly as I can ever recall him being with any New Zealand media person he did not repeat the ‘Suzy’ story again. When asked about it he merely said ‘the woman’s name should not have gone into my book.’
[In a New Zealand Herald video interview in June 2015 Laurie again raised the issue of a woman having been employed in the hotel just days before the game who then disappeared. In 2015 he again did not use the name 'Suzy.' Laurie also has mentioned several times over the years that a 'prominent financier' had told him that it was a possibility that 'British bookmakers' might have influenced someone in South Africa to play a role in making sure New Zealand 'weren't at their best' (my words) on final's day. One time I was in a group in Dunedin at a rugby function when Sir Eion Edgar make that exact remark in a circle I was in. Laurie was there too. It was my view that Sir Eion had made the remark in a jocular manner rather than one based on firm fact.]
Then there was the case of the so-called sight of Jeff Wilson supposedly vomiting on the sideline during the match. This is an assertion which has now become fact for many New Zealanders. Maybe Wilson was off-colour when he left the field that day but the video recording of the game does not show Wilson throwing up at all. Certainly he is shown slumped on a sideline bench with his head between his legs but at that time of his career young Jeff often went off in games suffering from what the doctor’s called 'temporary migraine headaches'.
So it was all very confusing to me at the time and it still is in the years since. I gain some nourishment for the views I express here by the times I have heard Sean Fitzpatrick speak at dinners and functions since 1995. When he is asked to comment on the food poisoning story his reply to people’s questions has usually been along the lines of ‘you’ll have to ask Laurie about all that .’ I have never heard Fitzy offer much more.
Personally I wrote in the weeks and months after the game that I doubted that the All Blacks were affected too much in the playing of that epic final. What beat them at the end of one of the closest matches in International Rugby History were the home advantage of a 43 million population backing a fanatical Springbok team which believed so deeply that it could not lose while it had the beloved Nelson Mandela sitting in the grandstand wearing his captain Francois Pienaar’s jersey number. Plus there were those energy-sapping spells of extra time which would have drained any other sides in the world, except the All Blacks and South Africa in deadly combat against each other.
And to repeat, in possibly the closest rugby test match ever played, one team had to lose.
And then there was the business of the Louis Luyt speech and the presentation of a gold watch to the Welsh referee Derek Bevan at the World Cup final dinner. Enraged New Zealanders have heard only one side of the Luyt speech. This was the one where he was reportedly insulting to the All Blacks and Australia as he spoke, saying that ‘South Africa would have won in 1987 and 1991 as well if they’d been allowed to compete.’ Disappointed All Blacks approached Luyt afterwards and I am told by a South African friend that the New Zealanders behaved in a very bad-mannered way towards him. Dr Luyt told me in 1999 he meant nothing more than to make a light-hearted gesture when he made those remarks. I have a feeling, having spoken several times to Dr Luyt, that humorous remarks did not come as readily to him in the English tongue as they might in Afrikaans where he was much more comfortable.
The Derek Bevan gold watch presentation has also been wildly blown out of proportion by New Zealanders. Dr Luyt told me that only seconds before he presented the watch it was whispered to him by officials that he had to do the presenting of the gift. The idea was not to give a watch to Mr Bevan in recognition of a ‘wonderful’ job he did in making sure the Springboks won their semi-final against France as many have suggested, rather it was given to him as a symbolic gesture to all referees at the World Cup tournament. Bevan was then, and still was in 1999, the highest-capped international referee in the world.
I have heard many times over the years since 1995, ill-informed New Zealand fans tell me that Bevan’s watch was a ‘thank you’ for the favourable semi-final job he whistled to get the Springboks to the final from their match with France.
But remember this - Bevan had no control over the distress of the World Cup final result for New Zealanders. Certainly he was a touch-judge but the referee who the All Blacks management initially complained about after the game was not Bevan at all; but instead the out of work Englishman Ed Morrison who might have made good use of a watch. Morrison, of course, never got one.
And finally, let me add this about that 1995 World Cup final. It is a fact that even today , 20 years later, I can find very few New Zealanders who can suffer the pain of watching that final again in full on video. It is too painful (and dare I say it seeing we know the result, a bit boring to watch right through again) but everyone has strong views on every incident which took place.
And by the way if you are ever tempted to watch the tape again listen carefully to John Hart’s role as a TV Commentator. If anyone ever doubted John’s devotion to any All Black team when it was coached in the 1990s by his arch-rvial Laurie Mains, they should just take a listen to the sound-track when the final blows and the Cup had been lost to the Springboks. On the telecast which I shared with Hart you will hear his voice as the All Blacks waited for the Cup’s presentation. The voice is filled with emotive kiwi sadness that our team didn’t win. But Hart is totally effusive in praise for the All Blacks performance and for the Laurie Mains coaching effort. There is no holding back. John offered the team verbal accolades which were richly deserved even though they had not brought home their most highly sought after prize.
For my own part I now have drawn the conclusion that in the several sensations surrounding that match coupled with the deep disappointment which many New Zealanders felt at loss the public have searched more readily for explanations, not to say excuses, as to why the defeat happened rather than give any credit at all to the South Africans for any courage or daring on their part. The Springboks had a brilliant cross-field defence plan which closed down Jonah Lomu completely. Every time our big saviour received a pass two and sometimes three South Africans were there to throw him down or out.
I also now believe that many kiwis, including some of those directly associated with the game, now accept as fact what I believe are now the 1995 Rugby World Cup’s equivalents of nothing more than urban myths.
And there's a many a Kiwi who has rung him on this day in the years since - after he grew to be one of our greatest All Blacks.
1 test for Fiji 1939
A distinguished player and official with Fijian rugby, George Cakobau began his playing career in the years prior to World War II. He toured New Zealand as captain and an outstanding five-eighths with the famous unbeaten Fiji team of 1939. (Another member of that team was Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau, who became Governor-General of his country and who played a major part in the negotiations following the military coup in 1987.)
Ratu Sir George Cakobau’s prominence in the administration of Fijian rugby marks him as one of the fathers of the game in that country. He was the Fiji Government’s representative on several tours in the 1950s. He was also a Fijian team coach and manager of various Fijian touring teams from 1951 until 1969.
A grandson of the last king of Fiji, he was a long-serving politician, rising to the rank of cabinet minister. In 1972 he was appointed Governor-General of his country.
Cakobau (pronounced Thakombow) was also a Fijian cricketer.
In the decade from the 1960s through to the fourth test of 1970 the All Blacks played exactly 100 test matches. What % did they win?