RWC 1999: Wallabies underline their class
History is littered with one-hit wonders, or those who have fallen at the hurdle of ‘the difficult second album’. John Eales ensured that he wasn’t one of them during an 11-year career at the top of the game with Australia.
After winning a second Rugby World Cup in 1999 – his first had come only 10 caps into his Test career eight years earlier – the Queensland second row set about claiming a maiden Tri Nations title for the Wallabies, and with it a definitive answer to any remaining doubters of his side’s quality.
In truth, Rugby World Cup 1999 was a turning point for Australia following several fallow years. After being dumped out of the previous tournament at the quarter final stage by Rob Andrew’s drop goal, they lost consecutive Bledisloe Cups to the All Blacks and brought up the rear in the first two Tri Nations. The response was to draft in Rod Macqueen in September 1997 after a successful Super 12 season with the Brumbies.
They shrugged off their All Black hoodoo the following year and took their chance at the Rugby World Cup in Wales, almost sneaking under the radar to beat France in the final at the Millennium Stadium after Les Bleus ran riot against New Zealand at Twickenham in one of the most famous comebacks of all-time.
“The All Blacks were the favourites, the Springboks were defending champions and England were the great local hope. As it turned out none of those teams made the final – it was us and France,” Eales said. “So the limelight was off us a bit and we were able to prepare quietly and save our best for last.”
Two international honours remained for Eales at the final whistle – the Tri Nations and a British & Irish Lions series victory. He would achieve both before hanging up his boots and on each occasion there were thrilling twists as his Wallabies proved their mettle to go from dark horses at the Rugby World Cup to world-beaters.
Leaving it late
In the style of many memorable sides, they were forced to do things the hard way in 2000. That year’s Tri Nations has a legitimate claim to being one of the greatest series in the history of the sport and recalling it can leave even the most hardened fan misty-eyed.
It all began in Sydney, in front of a world-record crowd of 109,874, as New Zealand won a classic. The All Blacks came out of the blocks in startling fashion, scoring three tries in the opening five minutes – very nearly four after Jonah Lomu was halted just short by George Gregan – to leave the world champions on the ropes.
Stirling Mortlock, Chris Latham and Joe Roff responded though and remarkably it was 24-24 at the break, just the seven tries in 40 minutes. Justin Marshall and Jeremy Paul traded scores in the second half but it fell to Lomu – who was almost unstoppable at times – to win the game at the death, 39-35. The Wallabies had been grounded but Macqueen remained upbeat, rating their comeback as the best rugby they had produced in some time.
Next up for both sides was South Africa. New Zealand came through 25-12 in Christchurch and Australia 26-6 in Sydney, but there was to be more to come from the Springboks later in the tournament. Having taken chunks out of one another in the opener, Australia and New Zealand regrouped in Wellington in round four for what was to become another classic encounter.
Eales left this one late, but the Wallabies skipper was to be the hero of the hour. Mortlock and Roff struck early for Australia, leaving the great Christian Cullen and Andrew Mehrtens – whose 13 points took him clear at the top of the All Blacks’ scoring charts – to respond for the hosts. They led 20-18 at the break, with Mortlock and Mehrtens exchanging further kicks before it fell to Eales to win the game in the final play.
A remarkable lineout technician, fine defender and inspirational leader, Eales could also kick goals and the bulk of his 173 Test points came from the tee. When a penalty went his side’s way in the dying embers of the game, he wasted no time in pointing for the posts. Waiting for Mortlock to arrive, he instead received a message from Paul: “Mate, Stirling’s off. It’s your kick.”
First step on the road to greatness
Eales didn’t blink, curling the ball between the uprights to seal a 24-23 victory and retention of the Bledisloe Cup for another year. “I’m very, very glad it went over,” he later recalled. “I think my life and people’s memories of me as a rugby player would have been very different if I’d missed that kick.”
New Zealand dusted themselves down and regrouped to face South Africa in Johannesburg. The All Blacks needed to win to keep alive their hopes of retaining their title, with the Wallabies set to visit Durban in the final round. Robbie Fleck and Werner Swanepoel had other ideas, bagging braces as the Springboks ran away with another classic match, winning 46-40 to leave Australia within touching distance of a first championship.
Things did not entirely go to plan for the Wallabies in the final match. Their usual composure deserted them at times, with handling errors common and South Africa fired up for the challenge. Braam van Straaten – later Australia’s kicking coach – slotted his sixth penalty on 78 minutes to leave the Springboks on the cusp of a famous win.
Latham had scored the game’s only try before half time, but Australia couldn’t cut loose in the second half, with only Mortlock’s boot keeping them in contention. As the final seconds ticked down, a moment of fortune arrived when Jason Little – playing his final Test – was left isolated out wide. South Africa couldn’t resist a nibble at the ruck and Mortlock was to have a chance to replicate his skipper’s Wellington heroics.
The 24-year-old found his range with what proved to be the final kick of that year’s Tri Nations, Eales and co had won 19-14 and secured a place in the pantheon of Wallaby greats. They defended their title a year later – having beaten Martin Johnson’s Lions 2-1 in a classic series – and retain their claim to being the greatest side to wear the green and gold.
The Rugby World Cup is often the pinnacle of any players’ career, but as Eales and his teammates proved, it can also be a galvanising experience on the road to greatness.