At Eden Park on Saturday night, the Wallabies were on the receiving end of a ruthless players’ revenge, writes Scotty Stevenson
The rain came. It always seems to at Eden Park, just as the Wallabies warm up on the pitch, dreaming of ending a drought. It came from the west, the only threatening thing that did on Saturday night. The final scoreline was 36-nil to the All Blacks, the end result the same as it has been for Australia in Auckland since 1986.
Nathan Sharpe was in Auckland for the game. The 116-test veteran recalled that time in 2008 when the Wallabies had come to Eden Park after giving the All Blacks a hiding in Sydney the week before. He remembers the rain that night, how it fell in drops so big it could have filled the Bledisloe Cup in a matter of minutes. He recalls watching the All Blacks line up to perform Kapa O Pango , just as they did on Saturday, as he stood six foot seven dripping wet, his own arms tight around his team mates Phil Waugh and George Smith.
It is not known whether Mr Sharpe was at the time aware of the meaning of the opening words of that haka, but at the exact moment Keven Mealamu, indomitable protector of the All Blacks ways, finished his first rallying call, a bolt of lightning arced through the dark skies above him and his formation of men in black and cracked its way to an earthly grounding point somewhere in the distance behind the West Stand. The haka ended, Sharpe did not move. The man next to him did not move either.
“Did you see that?” Came a voice.
“Yep,” came the reply.
“We’re fucked,” came the conclusion.
If only the Wallabies had known what those opening words meant, they may have been even more spooked.
Kapa O Pango kia whakawhenua au i ahau
Ko Aotearoa e ngunguru nei!
All Blacks, let me become one with the land.
New Zealand is rumbling here.
On that August night in 2008, after Keven Mealamu had summoned the lightning, Tony Woodcock and Ma’a Nonu each scored doubles and the All Blacks ran away with it, 39-10. They’ve made a habit of racking up big numbers on that field. Since the 21-17 win that saw the All Blacks reclaim the Bledisloe Cup in 2003, they have played thirteen times against Australia at Eden Park, and have scored 432 points to Australia’s 164. Hoodoo? Who knows?
What we do know is Saturday night’s win was one for the players. Talk all you like about coaching, and there was good reason for head coach Steve Hansen to feel emotional after overseeing his final Eden Park test in charge, but this was a player-led revenge mission where structural complication was cashed in for uncompromising simplicity. There was hunger, and excitement and intuition and wit; there were high kicks and low tackles and everywhere in the drizzle the smouldering ambition of a bunch of likely lads who had decided to roll up the sleeves and get on with the job.
Conditions were perfect. It would come as no surprise if the All Blacks hadn’t retreated into their changing room before kick-off licking the rain from their lips and smiling from ear to ear. The way Captain Kieran Read beamed at the prime minister as she handed him that cup after fulltime spoke volumes about the satisfaction he felt. The All Blacks’ tackle percentage was the best it had been in two seasons. That’s all desire.
Full credit on selection? Yeah definitely. George Bridge and Sevu Reece provided ample evidence that when it comes to test match wingers, expression can only flourish when it is not burdened by the weight of performance anxiety or cloaked in outdated expectation. What a thing of beauty to watch two finishers hit the field with their instincts undimmed and their obvious joy for the game undiminished by the deafening whispers of skeptical public.
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Treasure the energy of youth but all hail the so-called ageing All Blacks who took all of seven days to take years off their lives. The captain was colossal, and his sidekick Sam Cane continues to inflict more damage with less fuss than any other player in the game. Ardie Savea will always steal the show on the highlight reels, and with good reason, but every star needs a great supporting cast. Aaron Smith looked and played like Aaron Smith. As for the criticism of Dane Coles after the scrappy hooker dumped Wallabies halfback Nic White on his ear and was sent from the field for ten minutes, just answer me this: On a scale of “non-existent” to “was he actually playing?”, rate Nic White’s game impact after that.
You could see the fight drain away from those Wallabies before the first half had ended. Maybe it was being pushed around by a seven-man New Zealand scrum that broke them, or was it just the slow dawning realisation that the All Blacks were catching everything Australia dropped and there was not a damn thing they could do about it. Maybe they looked up into the lights, Tasman rain falling on their faces, and simply thought, “We’re fucked.”
As for the All Blacks, the best thing about that win on Saturday was that it masterminded by the players. It was a victory that they can hold on to as the Rugby World Cup looms. One of those nights, the memory of which they will be able to conjure when the pressure comes on, when the players took matters into their own hands and, ignoring all external elements, found the will within.
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