1999: 'In reality we were a team of individuals'

By David Leggat

Josh Kronfeld is shadowed by Tonga's Elisi Vunipola during their match in Bristol. The All Blacks won 45-9.
Photo / Getty Images
Josh Kronfeld is shadowed by Tonga's Elisi Vunipola during their match in Bristol. The All Blacks won 45-9. Photo / Getty Images

If the All Black fans' frustration has increased with every failed attempt to win the Webb Ellis Cup a second time, in terms of vitriol nothing has matched 1999.

The reaction to their semifinal loss to France was a blight on the nation. Not that subsequent defeats in 2003 and 2007 were exactly greeted with good cheer and a "never mind lads, there's always next time" outlook from the rugby population. But the foul mood of 1999 was unique.

So where did it all go wrong?

Backtrack a year. The All Blacks lost five tests on the bounce to Australia and South Africa, under Taine Randell's captaincy and John Hart's coaching regime.

Flanker Josh Kronfeld remembers that those defeats created a resolve to fix things in the following year, and as he put it they weren't bad losses.

"If you're getting beaten, and they were always going to beat you, then you've got a real worry, but it was never quite like that," he said. "We were always in the mix.

"But there was a bit of unrest and the questions were being asked: 'Where do we go from here?"'

Kronfeld was an outstanding openside flanker, whose time fell between all-time great No 7s, Michael Jones and Richie McCaw.

His memories of the 1999 campaign are by turn sharp and a shade vague. But he's emphatic that no one single element cost the All Blacks the Cup. Rather it was a combination of factors.

That year, the All Blacks walloped a pathetic French side 54-7 at Athletic Park. Ah-ha, said the know-it-alls. If the route to the final is as expected, with France at Twickenham in the semifinal, this is a lay down misere.

Kronfeld doesn't recall any conversations among the players along those lines.

"The thing is, you can play the French one week, then play them the next and they'll be a completely different team."

Tonga, England and Italy were comfortably seen off before an uninspiring quarter-final win over Scotland.

"We were very confident of what we were capable of," Kronfeld said. "In reality we were a team of individuals and superstars without a great ability, when in trouble, to pull back and play as a team to generate a win."

By this time, Christian Cullen, one of the finest of All Black fullbacks, was playing at centre, with Jeff Wilson, a fine footballer and brilliant wing, wearing No 15.

Kronfeld was baffled.

"[Cullen] was a great fullback, but at the end of the day the selection panel were trying to get as many of their superstars on the team.

"It was like 'we need Jeff on, so how do we fit him in? He can play fullback and we're missing a centre at the moment, well maybe Christian can play there.'

"There was nothing wrong with having Jeff on the wing. He'd played many a good game there."

Instead, it was Jonah Lomu on one wing and Tana Umaga the other, but Cullen was no natural centre. Kronfeld reckoned it was an awkward fit. Better by far to have played specialists in those key roles.

Even so, at 24-10 up early in the second half against France, all seemed well. Lomu had scored twice, and the last 35 minutes appeared a formality.

Then it all went wrong.

French first five-eighths Christophe Lamaison drop kicked two goals in quick time, then two penalties. France got an irresistible surge on, tries came from wings Christophe Dominici and Philippe Bernat-Salles and abrasive centre Richard Dourthe.

Lamaison kept kicking his conversions and within half an hour a 14-point deficit had become a 19-point lead and victory for France.

Kronfeld reckons the All Blacks blew it by straying from the game plan.

"It shouldn't have been a problem, but I can remember a vibe of panic starting to set in, because it was the World Cup and the whole pressure situation. I remember saying, 'We need to do this, this and this, just stay with the plan', and we didn't.

"Then when you add in all the extra little things, the crowd content, the judgment of the referee and bounce of the ball, the essence of panic, all those things kept heading us further and further away from our goal."

And add in what Kronfeld euphemistically calls "the shit going on".

The All Blacks were under a keep-it-clean ethos from above; leave any argy-bargy from opponents for the match officials to deal with.

Kronfeld was gouged in one eye by a French prop; then the other eye about 10 minutes later. He wasn't alone. His vision, and therefore his effectiveness, was hampered.

Lock Robin Brooke subsequently called not stepping in to take direct measures the biggest regret of his All Black career, figuring if he took a hit for the team, the eventual outcome would have been worth it.

Kronfeld remembers the dirt happening in the second half, almost as if the French had reached a point where desperate times called for desperate measures.

"There was a lot of off-the-ball stuff going on. The French had done their homework on how to disrupt us. I've always accepted that as part of the game. Back then it was just something you dealt with."

So how does Kronfeld remember the campaign 12 years on?

"The team was good enough [to have won it]. We were a great team in terms of individuals and what we could do on any given day."

A final thought?

"It was a combination of things, but that game was still there for us to win.

"We came under pressure and didn't really have the ethos to fall back on, and that was to grind out a win.

"That is crucial in World Cup campaigns, the need to be able to play as a team."

The record
Beat Tonga 45-9
Beat England 30-16
Beat Italy 101-3
Quarter-final: beat Scotland 30-18
Semifinal: lost to France 31-43
Third/fourth playoff: lost to South Africa 18-22

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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