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Chris Rattue: The day league missed its original Eden Park chance

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Kiwis vice-captain Mark Graham in action at the World Cup final in 1988. Photo / NZ Herald
Kiwis vice-captain Mark Graham in action at the World Cup final in 1988. Photo / NZ Herald

A day that was supposed to live on in the memory turned into one the Kiwis would rather forget.

League's first visit to Eden Park on October 9, 1988, turned into a lead balloon.

After a high-profile build-up and exhaustive search for the perfect team to contest a World Cup final, it took Wally Lewis and the Australians less than 40 minutes to knock the stuffing out of the Kiwis, who paid for trying to knock the stuffing out of the Aussies. The atmosphere at the ground, packed with 47,000 spectators high on anticipation, turned into one of morbid curiosity.

The league diehards thought "here we go again". Swinging voters were left swinging. The sport's newcomers wondered what the pre-match fuss had all been about.

My strongest memory is how quickly the buoyant atmosphere crashed as Lewis, who continued on for half an hour after breaking an arm early in the game, and Allan Langer, in the infancy of his test career, cut the Kiwis apart to lead 21-0 at halftime.

Looking back, a final 12-25 scoreline isn't so bad compared to other crushing defeats the Australian league machine has inflicted.

George Rainey, the redoubtable president of the New Zealand Rugby League, demanded an explanation from the Kiwis coach Tony "Tank" Gordon and his selectors and attacked the team's rough-house approach.

The often wise yet bull-headed Rainey, the West Auckland nurseryman and veteran league administrator, with the odd habit of never completing the knot in his tie, was not amused. Incensed at the team's lack of discipline and failure to exert control when it counted, Rainey knew a golden chance had slipped away and couldn't contain his anger.

A packed ground, an estimated one million television viewers, and $300,000 profit from gatetakings were no compensation for a failed publicity coup. Post match, the NZRL forlornly hoped that more tests would be held at Eden Park.

Laced with great Kiwis - notably Mark Graham, Kurt Sorensen and captain Dean Bell - this team bombed on the big day. Who knows what effect a victory might have had - perhaps limited because sports outside of rugby find moments of glory hard to sustain on these shores.

Still, the bumbling image of New Zealand league was re-established, after a couple of brilliant wins in the 1980s had lifted spirits following the dark days of the 1970s. So what did go wrong?

I well remember approaching Graham after a training run at Fowlds Park, expecting the legendary forward to give preparations his stamp of approval. Players almost never break ranks at such moments and not having met the star Kiwi forward before, I hardly expected him to spill any beans to an unknown reporter.

But Graham, not the most cheery of characters in my later experience, and one perhaps happiest swimming against the tide, revealed he thought the campaign was off track and distracted by peripheral matters. There was a murky claim later, a representative charge if you like, that the team spent too much time practising the haka.

There was one gigantic selection mistake. Gary Mercer, the fullback, admitted he should not have played, his rib injury was so bad. Selecting Clayton Friend and Gary Freeman in the halves, leaving the more composed and mercurial passing of Shane Cooper on the bench, might have been another error.

The occasion got to the Kiwis, who were overly aggressive to the detriment of their own game.

There is no such thing as a bad Australian league team though and with the extraordinary Lewis pulling the strings, Don Furner's side may simply have been too good for the Kiwis' disparate mix of Australian and English professionals and local footballers.

Maybe, in a cauldron-like stadium such as poor old Carlaw Park, the aggro-approach would have worked better. But in the open spaces of Eden Park, before a bemused audience, it became faintly ridiculous.

One of the unfortunate effects was a further breakdown in trust between players with growing professional opportunities overseas and the New Zealand administration. Rainey's public criticisms and demand for a report were inflammatory. Players no longer had to kowtow to the administration. The NZRL and Kiwis needed an "us-against-the-world" mentality based on mutual respect, but influential players like Bell were incensed at the NZRL's reaction.

Two decades on, the international game is still trying to regain lustre. The intense gladiatorial spirit is harder to find. Wall-to-wall television coverage has reduced the test treat, as in other sports.

But it's harder to get excited about "us" when some of "them" are in our team.

There was no such confusion 22 years ago.

The Kiwis were tactically wrong using self-disorienting biffo on that infamous day at Eden Park. The sentiment was right though.

- NZ Herald

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