Catching up on one of test rugby's big hits
It's 20 years to the day since George Gregan produced one of the defining Bledisloe Cup moments with "The Tackle" on Jeff Wilson to deny the All Blacks a famous victory at the SFS.
MARC HINTON sat down with the two protagonists in Sydney to relive the epic play, discuss its repercussions and explore the state of the trans-Tasman rivalry.
MH: Thanks for joining us guys. Can you believe it's 20 years since that Wednesday night at the Sydney Football Stadium when it looked for all money like Jeff was about to snatch a famous victory for the All Blacks as he beat three Wallabies and launched himself at the line.
Then from nowhere comes a very young-looking George to knock the ball loose, and the Australians escape with a 20-16 victory.
Let's relive the moment first, as you recall it.
GG: It told you the mark of this guy. He steps and beats about four players to put himself in a position to score. If maybe he doesn't beat one guy then I don't make my tackle.
I'm just doing my job, putting myself in a position to make the tackle, and that's a tackle you're not going to make again. It's just one of those moments, at such pace, you're in automatic mode, and there's no time to think. It came off.
I've said it many times, you could put yourself in that situation another 100 times and you wouldn't do it again.
JW: I can't escape it, it's happened, it's part of Bledisloe Cup history. I'd hate to think how many passes were in that last play and you forget about that because a lot of it's been about the tackle. But that was just a great game of rugby.
MH: Jeff, it was just your third test match, you were 20 years old, what sort of an impact did that moment have on you as a young All Black?
JW: You've got to remember I hadn't played a test match all year. I'd played the last two in 1993, then Jonah came in, JK came back, Jonah went out, JT (John Timu) went to the wing, Shane Howarth came to fullback. I sat on the bench for five test matches against France and South Africa, so this was my opportunity.
You're thinking the World Cup is the following year . . . It was pretty lonely in the dressing-room afterwards given my previous test match had been in England and I'd missed all those kicks. You're still a young man, still trying to deal with that and a lot of experienced players are around you with their disappointment and you being a big part of that disappointment.
There's no doubt it dented my confidence. I was lucky to go back into the Otago environment afterwards and had some good people around who helped me get through it. It was tough. But one thing we shouldn't forget: they played really well.
MH: Did this test light the fuse on the Bledisloe rivalry? Was it as simple as that?
GG: I think the fuse was lit well and truly before us.
I remember that '92 series. I was sitting with the under-19s watching the third test in Sydney which the All Blacks won by three points. The Wallabies had won the first two tests by a combined margin of three points.
They were such good games, we were young men growing up watching that, you're aspiring to play and then all of a sudden you're in the arena, and you're playing and the game's on the line.
MH: The vivid memory is the switch the All Blacks made to just throw everything at the Wallabies after trailing 17-6 at halftime. Was it the evolution of the style we would later see unleashed so effectively at the '95 World Cup?
JW: I think we were forced to because these guys had started so well, and were playing so well, it got to a point where we had to chase the game - and then you started to see what we were capable of.
We weren't underdogs because we'd won in '93 in Dunedin and I remember watching that test match from the stands, never thinking I'd be playing in the Bledisloe a year later.
MH: What about the repercussions of ‘The Tackle', gentlemen?
JW: I remember catching up with you few years later and you found it hard the following year because of the level of expectation.
GG: We were undefeated that year and going to the World Cup we were the favourites. We lose to South Africa first up, then get bumped out by England in the quarterfinals and then you come home.
We played two test matches against the All Blacks and I was on the bench, behind a guy called Steve Merrick who drove coal mining trucks. He played two tests, played well, and I was in and out of the Australian team when it went professional with a guy like Sam Payne there as well.
It takes a while, but that's sport. Early on I had a really nice moment, a big high, but it balances itself out. It teaches you lessons.
MH: What about for the All Blacks, Jeff? You actually morphed into a pretty decent team in 1995.
GG (interrupts): They were the best team in the World Cup by a mile. They redefined how the game was played during that tournament. I played against many All Black teams, but that 1995-97 period was a great All Blacks team.
JW: I think that ('94) game was a catalyst. You saw what Walter and Frank could do. We had some serious change going into the World Cup, but we had the heart of a team, the guts of it, and it was just adding a bit more clarity and some excitement and youth.
That's when Mehrts came along. It did invigorate even if we didn't quite get the result. If you look at some of the special players in that game we had our best rugby ahead of us, but you guys had to rebuild again.
MH: How hard has it been watching the rivalry so one-sided over the last 10 years?
GG: The All Blacks are a bloody good team and they will always be the benchmark. They've set an incredible standard, particularly post the World Cup victory in 2011.
I reckon it reinforces that some things change and some things remain the same. It's a total effort from everyone. You can't afford to drop off your individual and team performance for a short period against the All Blacks because they will swoop.
That's what this group has done for the past decade. Australia's had a glimpse, a couple of victories the last few years, but we haven't earned the right to say this is our year.
JW: You hear Steve Hansen talk about that for the All Blacks, behind the World Cup, the Bledisloe has become the next trophy - ahead of the Tri-Nations or Rugby Championship, ahead of the ones against South Africa or England. They don't value them like the Bledisloe because of that history. I think we're all hoping for a contest.
MH: Does the rivalry need the Bledisloe to maybe cross the Tasman again?
GG: History shows when Australian rugby performs well it drags everyone up. New Zealand is always the benchmark but I reckon it's nice for them to be challenged.
Tiger Woods is not the player he was, but it's allowed other people to come through and the game of golf has been dragged up. It's taken everyone's level up.
MH: Do you buy into the theory the Wallabies have got some depth now? I get a feeling they've at least got options now.
GG: I agree. We'd like more depth in the tight five, but historically we've had good back-rowers. There's been a litany of great No 7s, and Michael Hooper is the latest.
It's the same in the halves where we've got good options. It used to be just Genia and Cooper, but not any more. Wings look a bit weak but Joe Tomane is injured and Henry Speight's not quite eligible.
There's no issue with depth in New Zealand - nothing changes there. But the reality here in Australia is that there's a bit of competition - we've got this thing called the NRL and the AFL and they're trying to attract the best athletes too.
MH: OK men, pick a favourite Bledisloe moment?
GG: Mine was 2000 when we lost (39-35 in Sydney). We were down 20-odd points to nil early and hadn't touched the ball. Ealesy just said ‘let's get our hands on the ball boys, let's try play a little bit'.
We played a little bit and all of a sudden it's a contest, 24-24 at halftime. I remember walking off at halftime and Mehrts is beside me badgering the referee. I said ‘Mehrts, let him get his heart-rate down, we're all blowing pretty hard', and we were.
The game was played at such a pace and it never stopped and went right down to the wire. I remember having a beer with Wayne Smith afterwards and we said the way that game was played, that's how it can be played and we should all aspire to maintain that level of rugby.
JW: I'm going to say '96 in Brisbane when Cully scored at the death (for a 32-25 victory). Once again it was a hard, fast-tempo game.
I don't think there's any country in the world that can match us for skill like the Australians can. That's what makes the Bledisloe unique. They can take us on at our own game. We can out-muscle you up front, but when we don't do that it becomes a battle of the skillsets.
That's what separates the two countries from probably everyone else in the world.
MH: Does world rugby need some parity? Some competition for these All Blacks?
GG: It would be good for everyone. You'd never say the All Blacks are going to be complacent because they're always pushing the boundaries and looking for ways to improve.
That's how it should be. But when someone is pushing you it fine-tunes you even more.
JW: I will say this is dangerous territory for the Wallabies if they don't perform.
GG: I agree. It's a short turn-around into Auckland, and I wouldn't say leaky boat but there could be doubt and it changes pretty quickly.
It's always more than 80 minutes against the All Blacks. When I saw that finish against Ireland in Dublin last year I just thought ‘that's a great team'. The skill level and execution required to pull off that final play from deep within their half was just unbelievable.
The All Blacks are never beaten as long as there's time on the clock and room on the scoreboard.
Sunday Star Times