Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

League: Can history repeat itself?

The Kiwis embark on their World Cup journey tomorrow. They will be underdogs but would do well to reflect on the feat of their counterparts three decades ago, who beat the Kangaroos side known as `The Invincibles'.

Graeme West touches down for the Kiwis against Australia in Brisbane in 1983. Photo / Courier Mail
Graeme West touches down for the Kiwis against Australia in Brisbane in 1983. Photo / Courier Mail

Some might call it the miracle at Lang Park. It's slightly more than 30 years since the historic night in Brisbane when the Kiwis shocked one of the best Australian sides of all time.

The win was significant, giving the sport in this country a new belief and it helped usher in the modern era of New Zealand league.

During the previous decade, the Kiwis had struggled to compete with Australia. After the glorious 24-3 victory in the Carlaw Park mud in 1971, the Australians had won 14 consecutive matches against their transtasman rivals by an average margin of almost 20 points.

In 1982, the Kangaroos completed the first unbeaten tour of Britain and France, winning all 22 matches, including five tests.

In 1983, the Australian team were all professional players, whereas some of the New Zealand side were still drawn from the domestic competition. The Kiwis had a new coach, Graham Lowe, who cut his teeth with the Otahuhu Leopards before moving to Australia to coach in the Queensland club competition.

Lowe was young (36), brash and confident, insisting that his team could match it with the highly rated Australians, whose team included superstars Wally Lewis, Mal Meninga, Ray Price and Steve Mortimer.

"Back then, people used to really believe those guys were super human," says Lowe. "They would be beaten before they got on the park. I tried to make the team realise they were just people, with two arms and two legs."

In the first test, played before 15,000 people at Auckland's Carlaw Park, the Kiwis pushed the Kangaroos but untimely injuries to Gary Kemble and Mark Graham and poor tactics saw them succumb 16-4. In the lead-up to the second test in Brisbane, Lowe surprised the league fraternity by selecting enigmatic Auckland fullback Nick Wright.

Wright had toured with the Kiwis in 1978, playing one test, but had been in the international wilderness since then.

"He had rung around and couldn't find me so he turned up at my house," Wright told the Herald on Sunday. "He knocked on my door and said, 'you're going to Brisbane. Be at my place tomorrow afternoon and we'll have dinner'."

The duo watched videotapes of the 1982 Kangaroos as Lowe outlined his game plan, which involved repeatedly turning the Australians around using the prodigious boot of Wright.

"I was a controversial selection," says Wright. "But [Lowe] knew what kind of ammunition he wanted for the battle."

Wright recalls a near perfect build-up to the game - "trainings were great; everyone was focused, everything was crisp, there were no dropped balls" - as the team sought to break a 12-year hoodoo against the Australians and Lowe employed various motivational methods.

"We watched a video of the [rowing] eight getting their gold medals at Munich in 1972, with tears streaming down their faces," says Wright. "I'm only 5 feet 6 but I walked out of the hotel feeling 10 feet tall."

Australia were looking for their 17th consecutive test victory and hadn't lost for 20 years at Lang Park. The New Zealanders' plan was to physically dominate the Australians and keep them in their own territory through kicking early in the tackle count, a rare tactic in those times.

"Lowie told us to dish it out and keep dishing it out," says Wright. "Which is basically what we did. They were used to dominating and setting the tone but we stood up to them in the first 15 minutes and continued from there."

The match was a classic, beamed across New Zealand on state broadcaster TVNZ. The Kangaroos scored in the fourth minute but rarely figured for the next hour as Graeme West, Shane Varley and 20-year-old Joe Ropati scored memorable tries.

A turning point came early in the second half, when Meninga broke through near halfway and looked certain to score as he thundered down the right touchline. The diminutive Wright appeared out of nowhere and somehow floored the giant Australian centre just before the corner flag.

"People still want to talk about it," laughs Wright. "We had analysed Mal and knew if he breaks through, it was best to let him go and then get him from the side. I got under his fend and managed to take him down. He was off balance anyway [but] I still don't know how I got across there."

Though the Australians scored with six minutes to go, the Kiwis hung on for a famous 19-12 victory.

"The Kiwis are giving Australia a footballing lesson," said Arthur Summons (recently immortalised with the Provan-Summons trophy), commentating for Channel 9, midway through the second half. "We thought it would be the other way round."

"We could have played on all night," reflects Wright. "They would have got close to us but they would never get past us, such was the commitment and desire from our team."

Price was announced as the man of the match (under the rules, it had to be given to an Australian - not much has changed there) but the channel received more than 400 calls in protest and sponsor Rothmans stumped up the cash for a second prize, which went to Varley.

"It was a magnificent game and as captain something that I will never forget," says West. "It was a special group."

The victory gave the Kiwis a new belief they could compete with the Australians and was the catalyst for a new era. The Kiwis lost an unforgettable series in 1985 2-1 and claimed memorable victories in 1987 and 1991, along with a draw in 1993.

Since that match in 1983, the Kiwis have managed 12 test wins and three draws against Australia.

- Herald on Sunday

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