Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

All Blacks: Impenetrable resolve key to beating Boks at home

It's 20 years since the All Blacks finally won a rugby test series in South Africa. In 1996, the All Blacks headed overseas once more with a strong belief they could reverse the 68 years of New Zealand rugby anguish, reports Wynne Gray.
Zinzan Brooke on the burst in the history-making 1996 tour of South Africa. Photo / Photosport.nz
Zinzan Brooke on the burst in the history-making 1996 tour of South Africa. Photo / Photosport.nz

Picking the touring squad was not about identifying the best 36 players. The rationale was quite specific; to keep the test XV out of any midweek action.

The rest of the group had to cover the test reserve duties and play against a Boland XV, Eastern Province, Western Transvaal and Griqualand West.

"It didn't necessarily follow that a test reserve was the second-best player in a particular position; Jon Preston's place on the test bench was more a reflection of his versatility - he covered halfback, first five eighths and goalkicker - than his ranking in the pecking order of specialist halfbacks," coach John Hart said.

Taine Randell was picked as a No8 who could cover all three loose-forward roles and would lead the midweek side.

"It was asking a lot of a 21-year-old who was still learning the game but there'd be a lot of experience in that team to take the pressure off him and we had other options if he struggled."

The midweek group opened with a win at Worcester then delivered victories in Port Elizabeth, Potchef-stroom, and West Kimberley. The test side beat the Springboks 29-18 in Cape Town then 23-19 in Durban.

They were on the edge of history and had come through most of the action unscathed.

The only casualty was five-eighths Andrew Mehrtens who damaged a knee in training after the initial win at Newlands and was replaced by Simon Culhane. The gritty Southlander stepped up in the 23-19 win in Durban and was asked to do it again at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria.

The sensation of the previous year's World Cup, Jonah Lomu, was struggling with a knee problem and other health issues known only to a few and was restricted to three midweek appearances.

The Springboks were without their captain Francois Pienaar who had displaced a vertebrae.

Ace goal-kicker Joel Stransky lost his radar in Durban, massive prop Os du Randt had been subdued and there was a ruckus about the Boks flouting the substitution rules. One of their "subs", halfback Joost van der Westhuizen, was a menace when he came on in Durban.

"It was a crucial win," Hart said. "From the outset we'd been desperate to avoid having to play a decider at Ellis Park at the end of the tour when the odds would be stacked against us.

"We'd also been very keen to maintain the psychological edge we'd gained at Newlands. That we'd done-they'd thrown everything at us but we were still standing and, in fact, had finished the stronger."

Loftus was different though. The All Blacks had to go to altitude in the heart of the Afrikaaner rugby stronghold. That was the venue for the Holy Grail as Hart titled a chapter in his first book.

Meanwhile, the mid-weekers played two hours away by bus, at Potchestroom, and in an exception to the united tour plan, Hart chose to leave the test XV behind in Pretoria.

They made one change to the test reserves with Andrew Blowers coming into a two backs/four forwards split to help cover for the wounded Josh Kronfeld and Zinzan Brooke.

History called; would these men achieve what none of their predecessors had been able to, would they be able to cast aside the Springbok ogre?

There were four tests on tour but only the last three counted for the series. NZ and South African officials agreed the opening Cape Town international only formed part of the Tri Nations series. The All Blacks had to win twice in Durban, Pretoria and Johannesburg to break the hoodoo of five previous tours.

It was August 24, 1996. The day broke into hot and sunny weather in Pretoria and a very balmy 25 degrees.

The All Blacks woke up healthy. They were staying in the hotel they had for the infamous 1995 RWC final and there were no repeats of the food poisoning which bedevilled them.

They had been careful about dining and players had been advised to stay away from seafood and chicken. "I'm sure some of the players may have last year's incident at the back of their minds but we are deliberately not making an issue of it," Dr John Mayhew said.

If they were going to win the series, All Black captain Sean Fitzpatrick was convinced they had to get the job done in Pretoria.

"If we let the series get to one-all and have to travel to Ellis Park for the decider, it would be exactly the same as last year at the World Cup," he said. "The Boks would have their confidence back and be carried along by their fanatical supporters."

Fitzpatrick stayed staunch in every public appearance but the hostility was draining.

"The abuse goes on but I am determined not to react, not to show it has any effect," he said. "But I am sure you can understand what it is like day after day after day.

"Hart did a superb job of preparing the test team for Loftus," Fitzpatrick said.

"Maybe another coach would have thrashed us at training but he understood what we needed and resected out ability to know what was best for us. It was the philosophy of being accountable and represented a big change from the previous four years-the only time we were thrashed at training was when we needed it. The players knew what was expected of them and knew they had to do a lot of the hard work in their own time."

Fitzpatrick and others were very familiar with the All Blacks history in South Africa but for some like the youngest member of the group, fullback Christian Cullen, it was just another footy trip. "When I sit down after my career and think about that day, I'm sure I will think along the same lines as Harty and the boys," Cullen said. "But at the time I didn't have an appreciation of who had been there before me and how hard it had been to win a series in the republic. I was just caught up in the now. I wanted to win the test series. That's all that mattered."

Kickoff was brought forward to 3.15 so Mnet television could screen their Miss World pageant from Sun City at 5.30-this from a rugby mad-country! It would be searingly hot at 2000m above sea level, with Frenchman Didier Mene on the whistle.

A boisterous 51,896 fans jammed into the stands at Loftus. A group of Kiwis impersonating nuns, were part of that entourage as well as plenty of former All Blacks such as famed coach Fred "the Needle" Allen and fullback Don Clarke who had moved to live in South Africa.

"There was a real sense of patriotism towards New Zealand being in the stands that day," midweek flanker Todd Blackadder said. "The guys were just playing like legends.

"Simon Culhane had been in the midweek team and when Mehrts was injured he went into the test side at first-five. I can remember Nibs picking up Andre Venter and driving him backwards, this little gutsy Southlander, about 5ft 4in (1.62m), picking up a huge big Springbok flanker and driving him back. It just tells you what was on the line."

Right wing Jeff Wilson recalls how the All Blacks were at the peak of their powers. "We had all the motivation of winning a series in South Africa for the first time. Some of us had demons from 1995 that we wanted to exorcise. The feeling before the match was similar to what it had been before the Cape Town match against England in 1995. We were going to win. Whatever it took, whatever the punishment. It was an impenetrable resolve.

"The game plan was to take it to the Springboks from the bell. They went out with the same attitude and the game started at a frenetic pace," said Hart.

- NZ Herald

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