Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

1999: Big shift when the game turned pro

All Black captain Taine Randell at the unveiling of the 747 that would transport the All Blacks to the Rugby World Cup.
Photo / Getty Images
All Black captain Taine Randell at the unveiling of the 747 that would transport the All Blacks to the Rugby World Cup. Photo / Getty Images

After the gripping 1995 conclusion to the "shamateur" era at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, the next phase of World Cup rugby would deliver the first professional champion.

For the second time in a decade, rugby's rulers made decisions that would alter the nature and flavour of the sport.

The game was being attacked from all angles. League was claiming some, and a mix of "rebel" and legit concepts was being touted to carry rugby into the paid ranks.

Rugby administrators, players, idealists and television barons who passed through South Africa in 1995 knew the time had come and this was the place to strike.

So the day before the World Cup final, the birth of the US$555 million Sanzar deal with News Corporation was announced and professional rugby was in the starting blocks.

Many details had to be sorted and hurdles jumped before rugby's establishment could announce it was still in charge of the game and its competitions.

They were all heading for the next global tournament, to be hosted by Wales with a fractured match itinerary spread across the Home Nations and France.

Halfway to that event, the Wallabies were looking wretched. South Africa had pounded them by nearly 40 points, coach Greg Smith had resigned and they were drifting.

Rod Macqueen picked up the debris and with captain John Eales turned the side around, lifted their skills, fitness, defence and judgment. He identified smart players with courage, skill and grit, developed the team culture and kept tinkering with the team balance.

France looked to be on the slide. They had lost home tests in the Five Nations and been beaten by England. When they toured south of the equator in mid-1999 and lost to Tonga, NZ A and then 54-7 against the All Blacks, they looked well off the pace.

South Africa had the same hard-headed strategies they always did. Their grinding forwards and dropped goal and penalty kick expertise meant they would always be a tenacious competitor in such a knockout tournament.

Argentina had hired former All Black boss Alex Wyllie to help them make an impact, and Wales were plodding along under the tutelage of Graham Henry.

Wales had beaten the Pumas three times in the 12 months before the tournament to give them even more hope under the Great Redeemer.

They had also finished building a magnificent new arena just in time to be the centrepiece of the tournament.

England were bullish, they had Clive Woodward on the tiller and had ploughed £8 million into their campaign. They had marksman Jonny Wilkinson to guide the side and a decent set of gnarled forwards, although there was a suspicion they might be a shade slow. That would be tested when they were drawn to play the All Blacks in the second round of pool play.

New Zealand had ridden an unusual trail to the tournament.

When John Hart finally got the job he had craved for so long, he and his troops set about the rugby world with demonic style.

New fullback Christian Cullen was a wizard, Jonah Lomu was devastating, and Justin Marshall and Andrew Mehrtens formed a great hinge in the middle of the park behind a hardened and skilled pack.

All was well in their world for two years - they nailed New Zealand's first series victory in South Africa, swaggered through the Bledisloe Cup and Tri-Nations series and made a mess of the Home Unions until they ended the 97 tour with a careless 26-all draw against England at Twickenham.

Their record in two seasons was 20 wins, a draw and one loss to the Springboks.

Then the wheels fell off the national chariot.

Sean Fitzpatrick was forced out of the game with a chronic knee injury, Frank Bunce went AWOL then out of the side, Michael Jones started to show the effects of injury and age, Olo Brown was invalided out and Ian Jones was coming to the tail of his career - key men, all struggling, all at once.

Hart had to find a new captain. Officially he settled on Taine Randell, an intelligent utility loose forward, but one without any standout sting to his play and leadership.

All sorts of rumours flowed that Hart wanted another leader, but that was hosed down.

Amid those issues, the All Blacks fell in five consecutive tests. The strut of 96 and 97 evaporated as the Wallabies and Boks dealt to them for five straight losses. The season end could not arrive quickly enough.

This time it was Hart's turn to face an NZRU inquisition about his suitability to take the side through 99.

He survived the questions and reversed the losing streak at the start of World Cup year with a huge opening win against a poor Samoan side.

But all the doubts returned in the final test before the team left for the tournament. They were blitzed 28-7 by the Wallabies in Sydney, the All Blacks' worst losing margin in test history.

Hart had begun tinkering with the back four, shifting Cullen to wing to accommodate Jeff Wilson at fullback and also trying to find room in the backline for Alama Ieremia, Jonah Lomu and Tana Umaga.

There was swapping between Justin Marshall and Byron Kelleher at halfback, while the tight five had some sting but was also inexperienced.

Lineout throwing was an issue and under white-hot heat, the leadership wavered.

When Randell posed for a pre-tournament picture beside a Boeing 747 painted with the All Black front row around the wrong way, it hinted at some of the fuzzy thinking which had been evident on the field.

Legends of the Cup: Part two

1999:
Video: Great World Cup moments - 1999

Setting the scene: Big shift when the game turned pro

Tournament action: Sacre bleu! France demolish All Blacks

How we won it: Australia - 'Trust gave us belief'

All Black memories: 'In reality we were a team of individuals'

Aussies didn't need a curfew

Tournament star: John Eales - King John's coronation

- NZ Herald

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