Best of RWC - Episode 7

1995 The Final

It’s fitting that one of the greatest matches of all time gets its own space. Admittedly this occurred somewhat by default: when I tried to post this in 2007 the ‘1995 Classics’ had to be trimmed due to size restrictions … and try as I might I just couldn’t lose another thousand characters from the article. So here we are at Ellis Park with just the one game left in 1995 …

When I wrote this I stated my opinion this match is the greatest RWC match of all time (although I thought the 2003 final may have been a better game of footy), and second (again in my opinion) on the list of the greatest matches ever played (3rd test All Blacks v Springboks at the flour bombed Eden Park in 1981 easily takes that title – but that may be an argument for another time). Despite another three tournaments and another 12 years of test matches my opinion is unchanged.

The high regard for this event is due not so much to the shear quality of the rugby, but for the emotions, controversy, excitement, atmosphere and meaning that came to be associated with the match. So much so that it even came to the attention of Hollywood.

Read on…

South Africa 15 v New Zealand 12

So much has been said about this game.

I have to admit to never ever having watched a full replay of this match, and it wasn’t until the build up to 2015 that I could bear to watch the edited highlights.

So based on a rapidly aging memory the following are the standouts:

1 - South Africa entered the tournament more favoured than New Zealand

Even New Zealanders were not confident on the back of a relatively poor 1994 (something about the French trying from “the end of the earth” and some bloke called Gregan tackling somebody …)

Conversely, I recall a pub conversation prior to the tournament with a club mate of mine and it seemed the two of us were the only ones either of us could think of who had any confidence. For me it was the exciting look of the youngsters Mehrtens, Osborne and Kronfeld and, unlike a lot of NZers at the time I had a lot of confidence in the young, raw, out of position and much hyped Jonah Lomu, despite his horror debut the year prior.

Despite my own optimism the general mood pre-tournament was glum, especially given the enormity of a semifinal opponent being either England or Australia, and likely final opponent of South Africa (or even France), the pessimists could see a whole haystack of straw being thrown on our camel’s back.

In addition South Africa, of course, were at home.

2 - By the time of the final New Zealand had taken on favouritism as they had pummeled all their opposition

Including a pseudo “Grand Slam” (Ireland & Wales in pool play, Scotland & England in the knock-out rounds).

Meanwhile South Africa had meandered through the tournament (excepting their spectacular opening win against Australia) and had only just scraped past France in the Durban mud.

3 - A number of All Blacks, and members of the squad management, succumbed to sickness on the Thursday before kick-off.

What is at issue is how many were sick (some reports suggest all but two of the squad were ill to varying degrees, also journalist Phil Gifford reported he interviewed each of the playing XV and ten of the starters said they were crook), and the source of the illness. “Explanations” of the source of the illness range from just dumb luck to an effort to influence the result by international betting syndicates & illegal bookies. Thus the legend of “Suzy” was born.

(It was not the first ever rumours of bookies tampering with the All Blacks: prior to the third test in Australia in 1980 with the series locked up one-all a smaller number of All Blacks went down with illness, and rumours abounded in Sydney that the dark hands of bookies were involved).

4 - The All Blacks did not look at ease with what had become their normal game plan

(Having watched the highlights as mentioned in 2015 it seemed that perhaps the ABs made some in-roads into the Bokke, making several breaks early on which my memory had suppressed, but were not able to capitalise.)

5 - South Africa’s defence was phenomenal

6 - The Bokke seemed to have a legitimate try disallowed in the first half (I think it was Mark Andrews, who was playing out of position at number 8)

7 - Ian Jones was huge in the lineouts and as the match wore on was winning not only his own ball but much of the Springboks’ (remember this was prior to the legalisation of lifting)

8 - Andrew Mehrtens missed two late drop goals in normal time which would have broken the deadlock (one by the narrowest of margins)

9 - The 80 minutes ended deadlocked at 9-all and the match went into extra time: the first time in RWC history that a match required the extra minutes

10 - Springbok first five-eighth Joel Stransky scored the winning points with about 2 minutes left on the clock

In addition to the above, two incidents stand out for me that sum up this match, both involving Jonah Lomu.

One involved Lomu one-on-one with a South African defender inside the attacking 22. Given the form he had shown leading up to this game New Zealand rose as the country expected him to waltz past the would be tackler and get the ABs on the board. But Jaapie Mulder smashed Lomu to the ground, halting the move dead and winning the undying admiration of all New Zealanders watching.

The second was a wide pass floated to Lomu with lots and lots of space some 50-odd metres from the line. Again the watching New Zealanders rose in expectation, but this time referee Ed Morrison called it back, and if he could have heard what he was called across the length and breadth of NZ he may have died of embarrassment. On sober reflection the call was correct (confirmed also by Zinzan Brooke in his book who said he was pretty much in line with the pass). (Wonder if it was “back out of the hands though … ?)

Brooke also recounts how the injury sustained in striking his 45m drop goal in the semi-final against England contributed to him getting caught and turned while fielding a kick within the 22m line deep into extra time, thus conceding the scrum that led to Stransky’s famous drop goal.

As time ran out the Bok’s desperately snuffed out the life from the last frantic New Zealand attacks. The final whistle blew and the Rainbow Nation erupted in green gold and black.

The All Blacks returned home expecting acrimony and recrimination, however they were greeted as gallant heroes (incongruous as that may seem) who did everything they could, came ooh so close, and entertained us all for 6 weeks.

South Africa basked in the glory of winning their home World Cup: The images of Bok skipper Francois Pienaar being presented the trophy by Nelson Mandela bedecked in a replica number 6 jersey a powerful image of unity for the rebuilding nation.

With time it’s become possible to accept the result as one of the major remedies in the convalescence of a country desperately in need of healing, so 24 years (and two world cup wins) later the sadness and disappointment can be tempered a little given the good the result achieved. I said “a little”.

It was the “Dream Final” that the local organisers had hoped for, and in many ways the Dream Result.

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