Part 4 of 5 looking at those Rugby World Cup exits.
A really mixed set of results following the 1999 exit. Under Wayne Smith the All Blacks won more than they lost but the nature of home defeats to the Wallabies in 2000 courtesy of a 135th minute winning penalty from John Eales and then at Fortress Carisbrook convinced Smith that he wasn’t actually really enjoying this role with a World Cup only two years away.
So up stepped the unlikely combination of John Mitchell as head coach and Robbie Deans as assistant although the latter still retained his Crusaders involvement.
Mitchell’s first move was to dump the fading Cullen without bothering to tell him, and immediately found himself offside with the wider public. And when the only players rested from the tour to the UK at the end of 2002 were Crusaders then that proved the Canterbury Mafia Deans conspiracy theorists.
Pessimism reached its peak in June of 2003 when the much hyped England came down under and beat the All Blacks in Wellington despite playing some of the game with only 13 players on the field. This was backs to the wall time; the Big Black Curtain was drawn, sponsors were ignored; time for some focus.
And then, almost out of nowhere, the side hit its straps in the Tri Nations. The All Blacks won it in a canter playing open attacking rugby; racking up over 50 points in both Pretoria and Sydney. It was quite a statement, and Deans came up with the comment that tries, rather than penalty goals, would win the World Cup.
However, it was events off the field that were to have the greater impact. The 2003 World Cup was originally allocated to Australia and New Zealand as a joint venture. Matches to be evenly shared, with Australia hosting the final, New Zealand the semis etc.
But 18 months before the event the NZRU were still moving at glacial pace to sign off on the IRB regulations regarding clean stadia, while that evil John O’Neill was chipping away in the background with the idea that Australia become the sole host.
The coup was swift and decisive. No-one in New Zealand; neither Rugby Union nor government saw it coming, and Australia won sole hosting rights before you could say “I want to put a Heineken bottle in an uncomfortable part of Mr. Pugh’s body”.
Toe-curling associated promotional campaign:
None of that this time around.
Because the sponsors were late onto the bandwagon, and the fact the coaching staff were turning their back on promotional events hardly made it easy for them.
In the meantime, we had the Mitchell Mantra of This is a Journey. You bet it was.
The Easy Stuff:
It started off under the lid in Melbourne with a 70-7 win over (yet again) Italy. But that came at a cost. Umaga tripped over Spencer and the centre was out for an uncertain length of time. Fullback MacDonald was moved to centre, and took over goal kicking duties from Spencer, who was always thought of as a bit of a liability in that department.
Other games went to plan in the pool until the last match in pool play; against Steve Hansen’s under strength Welsh side. Just after halftime Wales had led by 37-33.
From the BBC coverage of the game “Spencer eventually forced his way over on 61 minutes to give New Zealand the lead again, though the advantage was only a point after MacDonald fluffed the conversion”. Spot the worrying bit in there.
The All Blacks went onto win 53 – 37, but that was a bit of a flutter.
Those flutters were appeased in the quarter final against the Boks. 29-9 in Melbourne; there was a try as a result of a cheeky between the legs pass from Spencer, and there was even the bonus of an Aaron Mauger drop goal. That’s 1995 and 1999 avenged then.
Semi-final against Australia, at the Olympic Stadium in Sydney which was a sea of gold. Remember that this match had been previously scheduled for Auckland.
It all went really well for the first nine minutes. The All Blacks were spinning it wide and had made it inside the Wallaby 22. Then Carlos Spencer telegraphed a skip pass, Mortlock was waiting, and was in under the posts.
In theory that shouldn’t really have mattered that much given how early in the game it was and what had happened earlier in the year but it did. The All Blacks were suddenly playing without confidence and went into their shells. The fact Flatley was kicking them over from everywhere while MacDonald wasn’t didn’t help.
Then Justin Marshall got injured. But being Justin Marshall, and having not played in the 1999 semi-final exit, meant that he wasn’t going to come off in a hurry. So he hobbled along as Australia kept edging further ahead in multiples of three.
Marshall eventually got pulled midway through the second half, but his replacement Kelleher’s biggest contribution in the match was as supporting part in one of the famous rugby sledges of all time. As he lay semi-prone at the side of a ruck George Gregan stood over him and yelled “Four More Years”. George understood it all perfectly.
Australia 22 – 10 New Zealand
Australia went on to lose to England in the final.
Mitchell and Deans immediately fell on their swords, and Henry was appointed as coach.
The NZRU, in conjunction with the government, turned their attention to winning the hosting rights for the 2011 RWC.
Next: The Frankenstein Campaign
Previously in this series.
1991: The Team of Two Halves