Part 3 of 5 looking at those Rugby World Cup exits.
In the two years immediately following the 1995 World Cup the All Blacks were easily at the top of the world. John Hart, after 8 years of polishing and sharpening knives was finally in charge of the side. It was modelled on the 1995 team with the addition of the brilliant Christian Cullen at the back. And in 1996, a monkey was removed from the back with an historic first series win in South Africa.
Then Sean Fitzpatrick retired and the side lost its shape. Taine Randell was appointed captain and the rumour mill started up that some of the senior players weren’t too happy about it. Around the same time, Hart and co started to get a bit cute with some of their ideas; such as picking Xavier Rush, and getting wingers to feed the ball into the scrums in a test against Australia.
New Zealand lost five tests on the trot in 1998, and a general feeling of unease started to develop. Things seemed to settle down in the year of the cup, the team started playing with more cohesion again, and even a record 20 point loss in Sydney seemed to be forgiven.
Then, on arriving at the World Cup, Hart pulled a rabbit out of the hat. He moved Cullen, his biggest attacking weapon over the last four years, from fullback to centre, and switched Jeff Wilson from wing to the vacant fullback slot.
Toe-curling associated promotional campaign:
Now, there’s painting planes, and there’s paining planes. This one featured a not particularly well drawn front row.
Apparently this was meant to be a demonstration to the world of All Black Power.
The Easy Stuff:
A complicated, and never to be repeated, format based around the need to have all of the Home Nations plus France hosting a pool meant that the group game against England took on extra significance. Such is the nature of horse-trading around these events in Europe.
The loser would take the bumpy road of an extra knock-out match followed by South Africa then Australia. The winner was perceived to get an almost guaranteed route through to the final.
So, in front of a full Twickenham, the All Blacks put England away 30 – 16; the highlight of that match being a trademark 70 metre try by Jonah Lomu.
This was followed by putting 100 past Italy, who were just about to join the Six Nations, and things were looking pretty good. So the team was shipped off to the South of France for a week’s worth of Rest and Recreation before returning to the UK for the formality of walking through to the final.
Scotland were dispatched in the quarter-final, although they did win the second half 15-5 which probably should’ve set off a few alarm bells.
Semi-final against France, who had previously been very lucky to get past Fiji in group play.
It all started according to plan. Lomu, who was having as much impact as in 1995, ran in two first-half tries, the French looked disinterested, and the All Blacks went into halftime holding a significant 24-10 advantage.
Then the French turned the tap on, and ran in 33 unanswered points in a spell of 20 minutes of breathtaking rugby. Drop-goals went over from anywhere, box kicks popped up at funny angles into French arms, All Black dropped passes popped into French arms, and even some French bravado of turning down a kickable penalty which would have sealed that match didn’t backfire.
The All Blacks looked on like bemused spectators. In the week following the match there were complaints that testicles had been grabbed in dark places in rucks, but there was never any mention or retaliation at the time, and the feeling back home was that whining after the event was not really the New Zealand way.
The complaint ended up as being more metaphorical than physical.
France 43 – 31 New Zealand
It is generally accepted as the best game of rugby in a World Cup ever. Even the English crowd loved it.
The All Blacks were beaten by South Africa in the third place play-off where they took losing shape to another level. So much so that they turned to a move from an attacking scrum they lined everyone up in a line behind the halfback. Naturally, that experiment came to nothing.
France went on to get heavily beaten by the Wallabies in the final
No one had seen this one coming. A lot of attention focussed on the week off in the South of France. One thing to lose in humiliating fashion, it’s another thing to do that in luxury
And then, three weeks after the exit, a horse part-owned by John Hart was spat on in Christchurch on Cup Day.
He never coached the All Blacks again, Randell never captained again, and the planes got painted over.
A month after the cup there was a change of government
Next: Four More Years