Simon Culhane recalls trampling the Blossoms
Southland rugby legend Simon Culhane says the All Black 'dirt-trackers' had a massive point to prove when they lined up against Japan in their final pool game of the 1995 World Cup in South Africa.
With New Zealand having already qualified for the quarterfinals, coach Laurie Mains broke the All Blacks' tradition of picking their strongest lineup and opted to field a largely second-string outfit.
Culhane was one player to benefit from the decision, with the young first five-eighth from Invercargill handed his All Black debut in place of star pivot Andrew Mehrtens.
New Zealand had a field day in the Bloemfontein sunshine, running in 21 tries as they cantered to a record All Blacks and then World Cup winning scoreline of 145-17.
Culhane had the kind of debut that dreams are made of – scoring a try and kicking 20 conversions for an individual haul of 45 points – which remains a top-flight international record.
Many of the All Black players involved that day had been on the reserves bench during the World Cup or not involved in the game-day 22. Culhane said the scoreline reflected the players desire to do the black jersey proud and make the most of their opportunity.
"We were basically the 'B' team and it was unheard of to rotate in those days," he said. "We were pretty determined we weren't going to let the All Black jersey down.
"Momentum (for the quarterfinal) was important. We had a game-plan in place we'd tried to achieve all World Cup. It was about momentum and maintaining it for the World Cup."
The All Blacks got off to a rampant start scoring four converted tries within the first 11 minutes of the game to race out to a 28-nil lead and held a staggering 84-3 advantage at halftime.
Culhane said it was one of those days where everything seemed to go right for the All Blacks. That extended through to the goalkicking. Culhane only failed to convert one of the 21 tries.
"I wouldn't have been able to do that at training," he laughed.
"The rhythm felt really nice. The majority were from out wide. I had to work reasonably hard to get them over."
Culhane did not know he had broken the individual points scoring record for an international until he got into the dressing room after the game and received a few pats on the back from his team-mates. "A little bit of fuss was made after the game that I had actually achieved a world record. I've never been one for records or milestones. I just took it in my stride." Southland had a strong contingent in the All Blacks against the Japanese with Paul Henderson captaining the team, Norm Hewitt lining up at hooker and Jeff Wilson, who started his career with the maroons, scoring a hat-trick of tries in the rout.
The game was extra special for Culhane with his parents flying over to South Africa to watch from the Free State Stadium stands.
Former Southland All Blacks Leicester Rutledge and Kevin Laidlaw and a few of Culhane's mates were also in the audience and he said that day was one of the biggest highlights of his rugby career.
"It's one I'll never forget. I was lucky enough to play in a World Cup, I was a pretty glassy-eyed Southlander," Culhane said. "I had to take my opportunities when they came up and I'm pleased I did in hindsight.
"I was immensely nervous. Being a five-eighth and goal-kicker there was extra responsibility. I was lucky enough to overcome it on the day."
Japanese rugby has made huge progress in the 16 years since that game was played, benefiting hugely from the advent of the professional Top League competition, which was set up in 2003.
The All Blacks should still be far too strong for the Brave Blossoms tomorrow night, but Culhane expected the scoreline to be much tighter than their 1995 World Cup contest. "They've improved out of sight the Japanese.
"The exciting thing about this World Cup is that there has been no hidings. That's the way it should be at a World Cup."
As for the prospect of the All Blacks breaking their 24-year World Cup hoodoo, Culhane said he remained confident, if New Zealand could handle the expectations of winning the title on home soil.
"If we can cope with the added pressure of being in our own country, then I think we've got the side to make the final, and we'll need a big performance when that happens."firstname.lastname@example.org
The Southland Times