For the first time since 1994, the All Blacks will play the Wallabies in a midweek Bledisloe Cup fixture. The last time that happened was a night Jeff Wilson joked to me; he’s spent the last 28 years trying to forget.
It’s a night Jeff Wilson can’t forget. He’d like to, but too many people are happy to remind him. “I don’t need to see it,” Wilson says, waving his hand to emphasise. He’s talking about a photo that shows him losing the ball forward in what would have been a match-winning try had it not been for a remarkable tackle by Wallabies halfback George Gregan.
There are two different clips on Youtube, with the shorter version viewed almost 300,000 times and a longer edit nudging 200,000 views. “Nothing” is Wilson’s succinct answer when asked what his memories are of the night. “That was the start of my poor memory,” he laughs. “It’s easier for a sportsman to have a poor memory because you remember the bad days more than the good days.”
For the record, it was a Wednesday, there were almost 42,000 people at the Sydney Football Ground, and the All Blacks lost 16-20, having trailed 6-17 at halftime.
Which makes it hurt even more for Wilson.
“Australia had us behind early, and we hadn’t played well, so in the second half, we started to chuck it around, and we made a great comeback.”
“There was still a bit of time to go, and we had other opportunities to score, but there is no doubt I blew it. I have to take on an element of responsibility for the loss because I can’t see us losing if I’d scored.”
Gregan agrees, saying momentum “was definitely going New Zealand’s way”. “If Jeff had scored, they would have had their nose in front, and we were pretty tired and spent.”
The great Wallabies halfback is gracious in his comments about the tackle that has entered into trans-Tasman sporting folklore in the years since. “Jeff beat about five of our players to get into the position that he did to score the try, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation about my tackle if the others had made their tackles.
“So it needs to be remembered that Jeff was amazing to do what he did.” Gregan suggests his teammates have sledged him over the years that he didn’t make another important tackle in his career. And he says for anyone overly obsessed with the tackle he made on Wilson, they should dig deeper into YouTube.
“Christian Cullen embarrassed me in Dunedin when he turned me inside out, and I fell over. That wasn’t much of a tackle.” The one in Sydney was though. It was Gregan’s fourth test for Australia and an eye opener about what it would be like over 27 tests against the All Blacks, 12 of which Australia won. “That was my first test against the All Blacks, and there would be an extra level of intensity in our prep that week.
“The more experienced guys in the squad warned me there would be a lot less time and space and that I would have to play more on my instincts. “That was a pretty handy All Blacks team, and they were superb on the counter-attack, and that hasn’t changed over the years. The All Blacks are a great counter-attacking team.
“That night was a good insight into All Blacks rugby. They like to start the dance, and whether it’s the tango or the foxtrot, if you’re not ready, they will have you spinning around.” Wilson’s third test after he had toured England and Scotland with the All Blacks the previous November, in a year (1993) that saw him play cricket and rugby for his country.
After six games on tour, he made his test debut against Scotland, scoring three tries and kicking a conversion in the 51-15 win at Murrayfield. Life was good for the lad they called Goldie because he had the Midas touch.
But a week later, against England, he kicked three penalties in the 15-9 defeat at Twickenham and trudged off the field a dejected 20-year-old. “I missed a whole lot of kicks - six in fact,” Wilson says, adding that he blames himself for that loss too.
Wilson remembers it being a lonely dressing room in the immediate aftermath of the Sydney defeat. “I was clearly upset. I had been through the ’93 experience in England, and they both hurt, but we had missed an opportunity to get the Bledisloe Cup, and everyone was hurting.”
It was the first of 14 tests Wilson would play against Australia, and he finished with eight wins. That’s a respectable tally as the Wallabies were a terrific team for much of his career with players like Jason Little, Tim Horan, Joe Roff, Matt Burke, Stirling Mortlock, Stephen Larkham and Gregan.
“In recent years, we’ve had it over them, but I think I played the Wallabies at their best.” “It’s why, in 1999, losing the World Cup semifinal was so disappointing because it would have been a great game against them in the final.”
The All Blacks have held the Bledisloe Cup since winning it back in 2003, and that run of defences has diluted the passion for the trophy for many Kiwi fans.”
“We need Australia to win it,” Wilson admits. “I know Ian Foster will hate to hear that, but we do need them to win it.” “When I was playing, the Bledisloe Cup was always in the balance; either team could win it. Now, can they beat us twice? I highly doubt that. Can they beat us in Australia, yes.”
“But they can’t back it up, especially at Eden Park (where the Wallabies haven’t beaten the All Blacks since 1986).”
“They don’t seem to be able to put in another remarkable performance.” Remarkable like the tackle Gregan pulled on that Wednesday night, a night to remember and that Wilson loves to forget.”