Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

All Blacks: Sacred Garden of Eden

The All Blacks have not lost a test at Eden Park since 1994. Photo / Jason Dorday
The All Blacks have not lost a test at Eden Park since 1994. Photo / Jason Dorday

Who says Eden Park is a rugby graveyard? Certainly not the All Blacks.

They have not lost a test there since the French conjured up a souffle from some paltry ingredients in 1994 to bake a try from the end of the Earth and win 23-20.

The All Blacks' chokehold over the Wallabies at Eden Park goes back even further - to September 1986 - when the visitors used their defence, then some telling cut-and-thrust, to claim a 22-9 victory.

"Life is now very liveable," Wallabies flanker Simon Poidevin announced at the time.

Australia had caustic coach Alan Jones at the helm and, while he grated many, his tactical sense and motivation gathered his troops to arrowhead their performance.

Captain Andrew Slack drove the unity amid the talents of David Campese, Michael Lynagh, Nick Farr-Jones, Steve Tuynman, Steve Cutler, Topo Rodriquez and Tom Lawton.

The teams entered Eden Park for the Bledisloe Cup decider and it seemed they had swapped character. The All Blacks tried a frothy approach, while the Wallabies controlled the set-pieces and used that possession for their territory game.

In the wash-up, power and sense defeated ambitious but mistake-ridden enterprise as Campese scored the last try from an All Black error.

"They were a very good Aussie side," five-eighths Frano Botica recalls. "If we had played normally, I don't think we would have beaten them. Remember, we just scraped through in the previous test in Dunedin, so we had to try something out of the ordinary.

"It wasn't quite the plan to play catch-up. It might have been touch and go if the passes had stuck but, sadly, they didn't."

John Kirwan remembers it as a turbulent time in All Black rugby but the genesis for the results at the first World Cup.

"We were transitioning into a 15-man game and trying to find that balance," he says. "The Aussies had a strong pack and some very useful, intelligent players who got their game sorted - though, strangely, they let it slip the next year."

Half the current All Blacks side who began last night's Bledisloe Cup test in Sydney weren't born in late-1986 and fullback Ben Smith was into only his first few months on the planet.

But they have continued the All Blacks' Eden Park domination of the Wallabies since 1986, which amounts to 14 games, and all-comers since 1994.

In their next Eden Park appearance the following month, the All Blacks and Springboks slugged out an 18-18 stalemate and no one has got closer in 32 matches.

That record is well short of the years since the All Blacks last lost to Wales (1953), or their continued hold over Scotland and Ireland, and is about the same as their period of dominance against Argentina and Italy.

How do you explain that supremacy on one ground? After all, Eden Park is, given an allowance or two about in-goal areas, the same size as grounds around the globe.

Referees have not been nobbled nor have host liaison officers taken visiting teams for any dodgy curries the night before a test.

"It's an amazing ground," says Ian Jones, who played 79 tests for the All Blacks between 1990 and 1999. "It's an awesome venue.

"You drive through the city to the ground so you go past your fans walking to the game, you eyeball your supporters. We used to park outside and walk through the crowd as you made your way to the changing room, which added something.

"New Zealand doesn't really have a home ground but, if you ask any overseas players, they would say Eden Park. People think it's our home, which makes it more intimidating. It's a bit like Ellis Park in Johannesburg."

Jones lost only once as an All Black at Eden Park, the 1994 defeat to France, but said history didn't really come into it.

"You're playing for the All Blacks," he says. "You felt pretty invincible playing in the All Blacks jersey anyway and you never contemplated losing.

"I often wonder whether this world record is better than the record at Eden Park. Maybe 18 test wins isn't as good as not losing a game at Eden Park for 20 years."

The Wallabies have won four out of 24 meetings with the All Blacks at the venue since they first competed at the famous stadium in 1931. The visitors won their first game there in 1949, then added chapters in 1955, 1978 and 1986.

Since their last win at Eden Park, Australia have won World Cups in 1991 and 1999 but haven't been able to beat the All Blacks at Eden Park.

In 1991, Michael Lynagh missed half a dozen shots at goal amid theories about the ball going out of shape as the All Blacks scraped home 6-3.

Eight years later, the Wallabies lost because their scrum was on ball-bearings. While they outscored the hosts two tries to one, they infringed so much Andrew Mehrtens kicked nine penalty goals.

A trawl through the All Blacks' history shows they have won 76 per cent of all tests and their record under Graham Henry and now Steve Hansen has been well in excess of that in the past seven seasons.

They have maintained the Eden Park hex on all-comers, although it was frighteningly close in the 2011 World Cup final when they edged France 8-7. During that campaign, the All Blacks rolled the Wallabies 20-6 in the semifinals.

Until the Wallabies find more conviction about their forwards, the slivers of anxiety and the layers of doubt will accompany them every time they run out on to the Garden of Eden.

"Australia needed to win in Sydney [last night] if they wanted to win the Bledisloe Cup because there's no way they're going to win at Eden Park next weekend," Jones says.

- Herald on Sunday

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