Remembering what might have been . . .

01:43, Jan 31 2009

Even now Wayne Wallace struggles to comprehend the hype that surrounded the Kiwis as they prepared to face the Kangaroos in the World Cup final on October 9, 1988.

The New Zealanders may have some class acts in their cast but to talk them up as a hot bet to beat the Aussies, who had the likes of Wayne Pearce, Gavin Miller, Steve Roach and Paul Sironen in their pack and Wally Lewis captaining the side from stand-off, now seems fanciful stuff.

At the time, however, many New Zealanders got caught up in the excitement and believed the Tank Gordon-coached Kiwis could claim world dominance.

Eden Park was a sell-out, the final having been moved to New Zealand's biggest sporting arena to accommodate what promised to be a cracking match, and the country was gripped by rugby league fever.

Plonked between props Peter Brown and Adrian Shelford that day was Wallace, the only non-professional player in the Kiwis line-up and looking back, he says the New Zealanders never recovered from the Kangaroos' blistering start in which they scored 21 unanswered points in the first-half. Australia won 25-12.

"What happened was that we were favourites and you should never be favourites against Australia in league anyway," Wallace said.


"The Aussies just started at 100 miles an hour and left us behind in the first 20 minutes.

"They seemed to have all the ball and when you have got the ball in league you win."

In the build-up there was plenty of chatter about how Kiwis scrum-half Clayton Friend and his mates would get hold of the inexperienced Allan Langer, intimidate him and knock the stuffing out of him. Instead Langer, who had the luxury of being showered with a huge weight of possession, scored two tries and was named man of the match.

"We tried to get on top of him early and give him a bit of boof, but that didn't really work," Wallace said.

While the Kangaroos methodically went about their work, the Kiwis crumbled and afterwards even captain Dean Bell admitted he may have been over-awed by the occasion.

Inexperienced Papua New Guinea referee Graham Ainui did not help the Kiwis cause much either, although they did not do their own cause any good with halves Clayton Friend and Gary Freeman overboard with their physical aggression.

Although he questions whether Ainui should have been in charge of such an important match, Wallace says the referee should not carry the can for the disappointing loss.

"That's just the way it goes, you can't blame the ref."

While the majority of the Kangaroos players had the benefit of playing in the tough Sydney competition and their fitness levels were superior, Wallace points out the Kiwis wheeled out their share of big guns too.

"But yeah, we had a few captains. We had Mark Graham, Dean Bell and one of the Sorensens was there. They were all there. So we had the names and everything else. We had the Iros and everything. But we just never sort of gelled on the day."

Wallace, who in 1988 played for Marist-Western Suburbs in the Christchurch club competition before switching back to Hornby the following year, said despite not being contracted to a professional club his fitness level was no worse than that of his team-mates. In the aftermath of the disappointing loss, there was no shortage of finger pointing and New Zealand Rugby League president George Rainey called for an inquest into the coaching skills of Gordon who was later criticised by Graham and the selectors.

Rainey also lambasted Bell for not bringing the over-aggressive halves of Friend and Freeman into line earlier.

There was criticism that the Kiwis had spent too long perfecting their pre-match haka, an accusation Wallace refutes.

"After the match Wallace took a few days off work before returning to his job as a meat worker at Sockburn.

There were some offers to play professionally overseas after the World Cup final, but none were good enough to draw him away from Christchurch.

"There were a couple of little nibbles but I had a young family and it wasn't worth uprooting them."

Unlike 1988, the Kiwis are underdogs ahead of tonight's final but Wallace says if they can hold onto the ball, make the most of Nathan Fien's kicking game and keep the Aussies defending they have a hope.

"We'll have to improve to win it, but we can win it. As long as we play our sets and keep hold of the ball when we have got it."

"I would love to see it, but they will have to improve their handling .

"It's a two-horse race."



The Press