As our more regular readers might be uninterested to know, I’m currently in Edinburgh, and in approximately seven hours will be walking in to Parkhead in Glasgow to watch the Old Firm game. It’s going to be the most amazing live sporting occasion of my life, I reckon, and if I don’t get stabbed you can read about it here on Monday or Tuesday. But that’s not what I’m writing about here.
I flew into the UK thanks to the good people at Air New Zealand, and alongside some inspired TV choices (Peep Show Season 5, damn!) they had a sports channel, the third program of which was the first Tri-Nations game ever, and there can never have been a more perfect example of rugby’s past and future colliding and fusing in one simply enthralling game of rugby union.[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qxmoImpQrG8%5D
That’s the local feed, with Keith Quinn and Grant Fox calling it (free-to-air rugby? How we’ve grown…), but Air NZ’s version was the Australian commentary, pretty well-handled it must be said, though given that they were dealing with what looks to my eyes like the best All Black team to walk out in my lifetime – and the most immaculate performance the team ever put together – then I guess that’s understandable. But seriously, find fault with this XV:1. Olo Brown
2. Sean Fitzpatrick
3. Craig Dowd
4. Ian Jones
5. Robin Brooke
6. Michael Jones
7. Josh Kronfeld
8. Zinzan Brooke
9. Justin Marshall
10. Andrew Mehrtens
11. Jonah Lomu
12. Walter Little
13. Frank Bunce
14. Jeff Wilson
15. Christian Cullen
The game was played in some of the most appalling conditions you could ever hope to see, with Athletic Park a bog, great chunks of turf hacked up and every player coated in thick layer of claylike mud. Even the referee is filthy by the end, and the All Blacks bought in hardest to the gladiatorial atmosphere, scrapping hard for every loose ball with both Lomu and Kronfeld taking it when they had no right to on the way to tries.
The Australian coverage seemed beamed in from another galaxy, with no onscreen score or time displayed, and the commentators only occasionally providing it, though it quickly became irrelevant as that monumental All Black team poured on six tries to Michael Jones, Cullen, Marshall (who was simply outstanding, strange to think what a controversial selection he would become), man-of-the-match Zinzan Brooke, Jeff Wilson and finally, emphatically, that freak of nature Jonah Lomu.
But aside from the sheer head-spinning joy of seeing all those stars in the form of their lives and playing as if acutely aware that history would hold this game forever, it’s the quality which astounds. We’re used to seeing wet weather games riddled with errors, reverting to tactical duels, who-blinks-first situations, wins ground out of the most dour circumstances imaginable.
This game, with the wind whipping rain horizontal, was just terrifying in the skill and precision of the execution. Handling errors are minimal, tackles ferocious and the rucking – Jesus Christ the rucking is just brutal. It’s a very different game to that which you all will have witnessed this weekend, and it’s hard to argue that it’s been improved much in the intervening years, particularly when you watch a game like this.
A few disjointed thoughts:
– Mehrtens missed his first three kicks at goal, sometimes not even crossing the tryline the wind we were playing into was so fierce. Somehow, though, the All Blacks lead 31-6 at half-time.
– We were a pretty dirty team back then. Fitzpatrick in particular just got things done, and you can see how different rugby would have been in the era of three or four cameras covering a game to the current saturation coverage.
– Matt Burke looks like a dodgy extra from Menswe@r or Echobelly, a slightly paunchy Britpopper with a ridiculous fringe. He plays pretty well but.
– What the hell is with those massive bloody in-goals? There’s almost room for a whole extra field. Just bizarre. And the stands at Athletic park are amazingly rubbish. God-foresaken rugby venue. Maybe that helped in this instance.
– Campese plays like an absolute pussy, and is the sole exception to what I said earlier about everyone being covered in mud. Looks workshy as hell, particularly around Lomu, and clearly playing beyond his usefulness.
– No substitutions! You just play the Goddamn game, son. Fitzpatrick does come off, but the commentators note that’s the first time he EVER did as an All Black. Lucky we’ve learnt how dumb it is for the same guys to play together for the whole game, right? Phew.
– Burke’s not the only guy commiting hair crime:
Jeff Wilson’s rocking what looks suspiciously like an undercut. And OK, I’ve had some undercuts in my time, but the last one would’ve been in ’93, when I was 13, and didn’t know any better. Wilson’s excuse?
– Even with the game gone we never once throttle back, and you begin to feel sorry for Australia, who just look lost out there. Kronfeld and Zinzan Brooke in particular are just merciless, and playing with total impunity. In Zinzan we had a forward with the vision and skills of a back, and Lomu a back with the build and bulk of a forward. put those two together and you’re gonna win games.
– The only sustained Wallabies attack comes for a seven minute period around the break, and the All Blacks almost treat it like a drill, savaging the Wallabies, who are well and truly broken by the time they finally turn the ball over.
It’s just the best game of rugby, played by the best team, I’ve ever seen. I know that it’s right there in the pantheon of fine All Black victories and all that, but you watch it and it’s just hard not to feel pretty sad about the end of that Warrior era, about players just dying for their (Canterbury of New Zealand on both sides – so mean) jersey. The current squad has maybe five players who can breathe the same air as these guys, and none would be a certainty to start (seriously). But I’m not here to complain, just to point out that a little under thirteen years ago a game of rugby was played. It was real, and it was spectacular.