Sadomasochism & The Silver Fern: Remembering Past All Blacks Failures at the Rugby World Cup

The shadows of a new Rugby World Cup have dawned upon the Land of the Long White Cloud, but it’s worth remembering that times haven’t always been so great. Long before the fabled reign of Shag, before even the golden times of Ted, there were 20 years of famine. TWENTY YEARS between the coronations of David Kirk and Richie McCaw. We used to be chokers, remember? We used to be the favourites that fell short, time and time again.

As we're embarking on this new campaign, let us not forget the failings of the past. Instead we ought to either brace ourselves for the tragedy to come or elevate the eventual triumph with the context of What Could Have Been. After all, there’s no joy in victory as a relief rather than as an achievement.

In 1987, New Zealand sat atop the rugby world. In 2011 they returned there. Both were held on our own shores, both devoid of terrible refereeing and dietary conspiracy (if the local textbooks are to be believed, anyway). The sun has not always shone so brightly...

1991 – Australia 16-6 All Blacks

Following the iconic victory of 1987 where David Kirk and Andy Dalton lifted the trophy for the first time – making for a spectacular image – the All Blacks should have been in prime position to regain the Webb-Ellis Trophy four years later in Britain, Ireland & France. But in truth the troubling signs were there long before the tournament kicked off.

Alex ‘Grizz’ Wyllie’s side had established themselves as a wonderful attacking team and yet their preparation was far from ideal. They were well beaten in Sydney earlier in the year and only held the Bledisloe Cup after a 6-3 return win in Auckland. So in order to steady the ship, the NZRU brought in John Hart to co-coach the team with Wyllie.

The idea seemed to be a uniting of contrasting lives and philosophies. It didn’t work. See, Wyllie was a tough old bugger from Canterbury, John Hart was a business-savvy Aucklander, and the pair famously did not get along. Both of them wanted to be the main man after assisting Brian Lochore during the 1987 campaign and there was plenty of bad blood on Hart’s part after he was overlooked in favour of Wyllie when Lochore retired.

Hart eventually ended up on the selection panel (after some dramas) and has been accused of acting the disrupter among the squad, though he’s obviously denied this. He hardly needed to anyway, this was a squad built largely from Canterbury and Auckland players and the Wyllie-Hart rivalry wedged a divide among them. A divide that reached crisis point when the pair were inexplicably asked to share the coaching duties.

A Michael Jones try got them past England 18-12 at Twickenham to begin the tournament and the team eased by America after that. But the 31-21 win over Italy to close the group stage out is to date the closest result between the two teams and the most points NZ have conceded against them. They then had to work harder than they should have to beat Canada in the quarters before coming up against that Wallabies side again.

The Aussie lot had been the darlings of the Cup, winning the neutral fans with a healthy team culture and some gorgeous rugby (as the All Blacks stuttered amidst their inner turmoil), and they fairly comfortably took care of NZ, 16-6, with tries to David Campese and Tim Horan.

In hindsight the writing had been on the wall, but it’s never easy to read as you’re running past it. This was an aging team that seemed to take things just a little too much for granted. Led by the brilliant David Campese, Australia were undoubtedly the better side in the semi-final and would grind out England to finish as deserved world champions. But seriously, Grizz and Hart! What the hell, NZRU!?

NZ’s Scapegoat: The coaching staff and the bloody NZRU. Also, they never Brought Back Buck.

Eventual Winners: Australia

1995 – South Africa 15-12 All Blacks

The most dramatic failure of all. They wrote books about it, they made films. It’s an event that went down in world history, not just sporting history, and yet it was a game that we lost. A game that united one nation and upset the stomachs of another. Literally in some cases.

At least one thing we can be sure of is that this time we were at least good enough. The ’95 team is considered by many the best team not to win a World Cup and for good reason. Captained by Sean Fitzpatrick, we had the likes of Zinzan Brooke, Ian Jones, Walter Little and Frank Bunce alongside younger talents like Andrew Mehrtens, Jeff Wilson and, of course, a young Jonah Lomu.

Having cruised through their group, the All Blacks were definitely favourites (as usual). They saw off Scotland in the quarters (a nation the ABs have to this day never lost to in their history) and then came up against England in the semis. England, along with the Kiwis and the hosts South Africa, were one of the tournament favourites… until this happened:

Which meant a final showdown at Ellis Park against South Africa, a game that would go down in folklore as the most important game of rugby ever played. This was South Africa’s first World Cup, before this they’d been boycotted from international competition due to their apartheid government. Well, largely boycotted, there was the famous All Blacks tour of 1981 as well as a few sporadic others. But between the years of 1985 and 1991 (’91 being when the apartheid regime was finally abolished) South Africa did not play a single test match against an established nation. But they won the rights to host the first World Cup in which they’d compete and the event would be a major milestone in the emergence of the Rainbow Nation.

Of course, this World Cup was also a significant one as it was the last of the amateur era. Two months after the final, the IRB removed the restrictions on player payment, thus pushing rugby into the professional age.

Before 1995, rugby had been a predominantly a white domain in South Africa. The history of the sport there was littered with racial intolerance and segregation. Often crowds of black folk would file into the stadium to actively cheer against the Springboks. To them that green jersey was a symbol of hate, just like the old anthem, just like the old flag. The latter two had been changed by the time of the World Cup but the rugby stigma remained. Over the course of the tournament, however, the South African team grew to represent hope and unity for the new nation and that was cemented when President Nelson Mandela emerged for the final wearing a Springboks jersey.

Historic context aside now, the final itself was an immensely tense affair. Not a try was scored (just as would be the case in 2007 when the Springboks next won it) and yet it was one of the most gripping finals there’s ever been. The All Blacks were heavily favoured even on the day but the crowd was entirely South African. Two powerful teams largely cancelled each other out. Not even Jonah Lomu could break it open, the times they were able to get him involved, the Springboks were able to handle it – most famously that iconic tackle by Joost van der Westhuizen. With neither side able to penetrate, it became a battle of field goals and penalty kicks. Andrew Mehrtens vs Joel Stransky. 9-9 after 80 minutes, the sides traded penalties in extra time before, finally, Stransky nailed a droppie to make it 15-12 and the ABs were unable to rally.

Few can argue about the outcome of one of the most attritional games of rugby ever witnessed. Nor for the cultural significance that the victory had for South Africa. But New Zealand fans will tell you there was one other decisive factor.

A few days before the final the All Blacks squad was crippled by a mystery illness. Food poisoning, apparently. 48 hours before kick-off it seemed unlikely to team management that they’d even be able to field a team, the captain’s run the day before was pretty much a crawl. But come the day of the game there was no mention of the outbreak.

"It was my call," said team manager Colin Meads. "We had a meeting on the Friday morning in my room and I said, 'We don't tell anyone. Tell the players not to tell anyone back home'. We didn't want anyone to know we were crook. We didn't want South Africa knowing that we were crook. And that is one that I regret. We should have let people know."

By the day after the game, the symptoms were basically all gone (which is normal for food poisoning). Having kept it quiet to avoid betraying a weakness, they then kept it quiet afterwards so as not to sound like sore losers.

Of the 35 man touring squad, it’s said that up to 27 of them were affected, all of whom had dined at the team hotel. The other group, according to Eric Rush (and backed up by Meads), ate at "the Pizza Hut down the road".

Some have doubted the food poisoning claims but it seems more or less certain that the bug did exist. Whether it was down to bad luck or something else, that was the trick. Coach Laurie Mains called a South African private investigator that was a friend of a friend and he supposedly discovered that a waitress named ‘Suzie’ was hired by the hotel a few days before the illness and mysteriously disappeared soon after. Her existence is severely debated, but ‘Suzie the Waitress’ has come to mythically represent the whole scandal. The usual story is that she slipped something into the team’s tea and coffee, though Meads blamed the “dodgy milk” at the hotel. Mains has also said that he’s heard a British bookmaker was involved.

Despite it all, there’s no tangible proof that the team was deliberately poisoned, though there were some shady circumstances that the All Blacks had to deal with. Such as the recording devices discovered in their hotel. Or the synchronised car horns that went off during the night on the street outside. The other question is: How much did the illness affect their performance? Many players looked noticeably exhausted but then it was a brutal game of rugby in tough conditions that went into extra time. There’s also that famous image from the TV coverage of Jeff Wilson throwing up on the side-lines, except you only technically see him dry retching.

Still, it definitely ravaged the team’s preparation and several players would never have played had it not been such a crucial game. Yet, putting everything aside, the game ultimately came down to goal kicking and had Mehrts hit that late field goal then history would have been different. (Perhaps the ABs took that one for the global team…)

NZ’s Scapegoat: Suzie the Waitress & Fate.

Eventual Winners: South Africa

1999 – France 43-31 All Blacks

If ever an All Blacks side were made to pay for their own arrogance then it was in 1999. John Hart was head coach now and the ABs boasted a powerful squad of players. Jonah Lomu, Christian Cullen, Andrew Mehrtens, Anton Oliver, Jeff Wilson, Ian Jones, Tana Umaga… it’s a long list. New Zealand were the favourites and they knew it.

After cruising through the group stage with a grand total of zero worries, they had a ten day break before their quarterfinal against Scotland. The big break was down to a silly repechage round idea that the IRB had introduced, but it was the same for other teams too.

Ten days in wintery Britain didn’t sound too enticing and the team took a three-day break on the French Riviera. Call it a refresher, call it a mental reset, call it a shocking and disgraceful act of hubris. Call it whatever. But while the third placed teams in the groups were fighting ruck and maul to extend their tournament stays, the NZ side was pictured laughing and splashing on the beaches of Southern France. They returned to shuffle unconvincingly past Scotland before meeting France in the semi-final, a French team that the All Blacks had beaten 54-7 four months earlier and that had finished dead last in the Five Nations.

The All Blacks vs Les Tricolores, 1999. It’s a thing of nightmares for kiwi fans but a dash of The Bigger Picture and this was surely one of the great World Cup games of all time. France actually scored first but then a fine display of all that made him so great saw Jonah Lomu score a couple times and the All Blacks had one foot in the final, up 24-10 early into the second half. Then Christophe Lamaison hit a droppie. Then another. A couple penalty goals and suddenly they were only two behind and that’s when things just collapsed. The French ran in three tries, all through kicks in behind the defence, and New Zealand was shell-shocked. A late Jeff Wilson try meant nothing, France winning 43-31.

There was some uproar about the tactics that the French employed at the ruck, like allegations of eye-gouging and spitting, as well as mourning for the lost era of amateurism, but that was all eclipsed by the near-unanimous chorus of voices calling for John Hart’s head. The actual fact is… we choked. Pure and simple.

NZ’s Scapegoat: John Hart, more than any coach before or after him (including himself).

Eventual Winners: Australia

2003 – Australia 22-10 All Blacks

There’s a legitimate argument to be made that the two most powerful roles in New Zealand sport, perhaps all New Zealand culture, are All Blacks Coach and All Blacks Captain. In 2003 the men to hold those prestigious positions were John Mitchell and Reuben Thorne.

Thorne was always a fairly dependable player but he was a controversial captain for his tendency to fly under the radar. He was a rarity too in that he never played age level for New Zealand. Mitchell, meanwhile, was abrasive from the start. Blaming a poor team culture, he immediately went and dropped several major names. Legendary players such as Jeff Wilson and Taine Randell. Anton Oliver and Andrew Mehrtens were eventually to follow. But it was his treatment of Christian Cullen that really upset people… not in the least Cullen himself.

A knee injury had abruptly halted his career and Cully had withdrawn from consideration for the end of year tour in 2001. Yet Mitchell announced him as ‘dropped’. Two years later, despite some resurgent form with the Hurricanes, Cullen was left out of the 2003 World Cup squad, Leon MacDonald, Ben Blair and a fresh Mils Muliaina preferred.

Once again it was an easy group stage. Matches against Italy, Canada, Tonga and Wales saw them score 282 points in four games. However injury to Tana Umaga a mere 23 minutes into their first game meant it wasn’t all smooth sailing. The fact it happened in a spot of friendly fire as Carlos Spencer collided with Umaga’s knee didn’t help. It was thought he’d miss the rest of the tournament, but it wasn’t quite as bad as feared and he was still in consideration for the latter stages.

Umaga was passed fit for the quarterfinal against South Africa but wasn’t risked. He didn’t need to be. The All Blacks rolled the Springboks 29-9, with the highlight being this Joe Rokocoko try.

That set up a semi against Australia, a team that the ABs had earlier that year beaten 50-21 in Sydney with a brilliant display of attacking rugby, winning back the Bledisloe Cup for the first time since 1998 the next month at Eden Park. Controversially, Umaga was left out again, Mitchell (and cohort Robbie Deans) preferring Leon MacDonald at centre, in part for his goal kicking. As for the Wallabies, they’d been underwhelming in getting there and, as hosts, they were under pressure. The All Blacks were big favourites like always.

However it all swung ten minutes in. Carlos Spencer threw a cut-out ball towards the left wing, the All Blacks set up in the Aussie 22. But the Wallabies line had rushed up and Stirling Mortlock waltzed on through to intercept the pass and run 80 metres to score.

Having been hot on attack (Mils Muliaina denied a try moments earlier as he lost the ball going to ground it), the ABs were stunned and they never quite recovered. It was 10-0 a little while later, and twice MacDonald missed penalty attempts to close the gap. A Reuben Thorne try, set up by Spencer, made it 13-7 at the break but Australia dominated the second half, New Zealand unable to muster the comeback required, going down 22-12 in a game that probably wasn’t as close as it sounds.

As the game drew to a devastating close, Wallaby halfback George Gregan uttered those immortal words:

“Four more years, boys. Four more years.”

NZ’s Scapegoat: John Mitchell and Reuben Thorne.

Eventual Winners: England

2007 – France 20-18 All Blacks

If the name ‘Wayne Barnes’ means nothing to you, then you weren’t in New Zealand in 2007.

But let’s flash back first. After John Mitchell’s job was put up for grabs, Graham Henry was the only other applicant. Given his success with Wales (as well as the British & Irish Lions) he was a popular replacement. There was a small period of settling in but Henry’s All Blacks soon became one of the great sides of the modern era, sweeping the Lions in 2005, taking the Tri-Nations and winning the grand slam on the Northern tour at the end of the year. 2006 was almost as fruitful.

Henry and assistants Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith formed the Three Wise Men. Together they managed to build an intense competition for places with their rotation policy, though this was to become a major controversy as confusion reigned after the Cup defeat as to what the best 15 even was. By 2011, the World Cup drought had reached 20 years and the weight of expectation was greater than ever before. This team was determined not to repeat the sins of the past, not to arrive unprepared. Every little detail seemed to be mapped out.

Part of that was Henry seeking and being granted the resting of 22 leading All Blacks for the first seven rounds of the 2007 Super Rugby competition. It was Henry’s conviction (backed up by leading trainers and athletic staff) that these players would need the early rest or risk being exhausted come the World Cup. As it was they may have been under-worked instead. They definitely seemed to be mentally burdened by the cotton-wool approach.

Come the Cup, it was easy going as always through the group. Wins over Scotland, Italy, Romania and Portugal with a points difference of +274. That earned them a quarter-final with France in Cardiff, a game that began with such high kiwi spirits after Australia were knocked out by England earlier in the day.

A missed drop goal saved NZ from falling behind early, a Dan Carter penalty soon had them in front. Ali Williams went close to the first try and then a minute later Luke McAlister made a break, flipped it to Jerry Collins, then got the offload back to score. France missed a penalty attempt to close the gap, Carter then placed one over for a 13-0 lead. An injury time mauling infringement cost the ABs their clean sheet and it was 13-3 at the break. Relatively comfortable.

But France took the initiative after the break, almost getting over the line but for some scrambling ABs defence. France didn’t relent though, and McAlister was soon sin-binned for a block on a kick chaser near the goal-line. 13-6. Then, taking full advantage of the extra man, France crossed over via Vincent Clerc to score and it was 13-13. This was when Dan Carter, playing below full fitness to start, limped off to the bench, his day over.

Rodney So’oialo barged over to restore the All Blacks lead, but McAlister missed the conversion. Then, six minutes later, it happened. Damien Traille attacking the line having received a pass from the back of the scrum, he flipped a ball to Frederic Michalak who dashed 35 metres, turned and hit Yannick Jauzion on the chest for the defining try. Conversion successful, France led 20-18.

The All Blacks had plenty of chances in the final dozen minutes. They had territory too. But they decline to go for the drop goal that would have put them in front, instead searching (mostly conservatively) for that winning try. When they needed leadership, they found mistakes instead. The All Blacks stumbling out at their earliest ever stage.

Once again, the ABs had been too confident for their own boots and they froze when things went against them. Wayne Barnes’ refereeing was a major talking point. As well as his inexperience, the kiwi public latched onto one play in particular. The Traille pass had blatantly travelled forward, which the linesman had seen but they had been instructed for the tournament not to rule on forward passes lest they miss their other duties. Barnes had ruled harshly at the breakdown too, coming down hard on Richie McCaw in particular and (embarrassingly to say) he still hasn’t been forgiven by many New Zealanders to this day.

(This is a cringeworthily bitter watch in places)

But there were lessons learned all the same. For the first time, an All Blacks coach kept his job after a World Cup failure and four years later, Graham ‘Ted’ Henry led New Zealand to ultimate glory at Eden Park.

NZ’s Scapegoat: Wayne Barnes, forward passes, an inability to hit a drop goal and the infamous ‘Rotation Policy’.

Eventual Winners: South Africa