What defines a “Top Wallaby Match”? Is it the spectacle? The Wallaby’s performance? The actual contest? The result? It’s tough to define, and I won’t do it here. Suffice to say I considered each of these aspects when trying to come up with this list. I think it’s unsurprising to say that most of these games came in the first half of the decade. Is that harsh on this current generation?
I certainly considered our performance against the Boks in 2007 when our pack really manned up in the face of adversity. Later that year I thought our game against the Welsh in the RWC, probably more so in the first half, had the potential to be a top one.
Realistically there were probably a few more I could have gone with from the first half of the decade. The Tri-Nations winning win at Durban in 2000 for one. Similarly another hoodoo breaking win against the All Blacks this time, in Wellington the following year. Even Ealesy’s last test a few weeks later. I could go on but let me get stuck in. Make sure you share your thoughts in the comments section and let me know the Wallaby games that stood out for you this decade.
5 Australia v England, Telstra Stadium (Sydney) 22 November, 2003 (RWC Final)
The things I do for this site. I actually sat down and re-watched this game purely for this article. The DVD has been sitting there since I was given it that Christmas of 2003. The game itself was not of the highest standard. It was pretty scrappy with not a great deal of attacking play shown by either side. If it was played at any other time, thus with no overtime, and it wouldn’t make the list. But for the pure spectacle of it all.
In Australia that game, according to TV ratings alone, is the 2nd most watched sporting event of all time (behind the Hewitt v Safin Australian Open match in 2005). And that doesn’t count the tens of thousands who gathered in pubs and rugby clubs across the land to follow the drama. And what a drama it was. In the end it was effectively a shoot out between sharp shooters Jonny Wilkinson and Elton Flatley. The composure under pressure shown by both men was astounding and genuinely captured the imagination of a lot of new rugby fans. Wilko would win in the end with a field goal right at the end of extra time but it was enough to cement the Rugby World Cup as a genuine player on the world stage and brought the Wallabies as much, if not more, profile than the previous two World Cup wins.
Australia: Mat Rogers, Wendell Sailor, Stirling Mortlock, Elton Flatley, Lote Tuqiri, Steve Larkham, George Gregan [c], David Lyons, Phil Waugh, George Smith, Justin Harrison, Nathan Sharpe, Al Baxter, Brendan Cannon, Bill Young. Replacements: Jeremy Paul, Matt Dunning, David Giffin, Matt Cockbain, Joe Roff, Matt Giteau.
England: Josh Lewsey, Jason Robinson, Will Greenwood, Mike Tindall, Ben Cohen, Jonny Wilkinson, Matt Dawson, Lawrence Dallaglio, Neil Back, Richard Hill, Martin Johnson [c], Ben Kay, Phil Vickery, Steve Thompson, Trevor Woodman. Replacements: Jason Leonard, Iain Balshaw,Mike Catt, Lewis Moody.
England 20 (Jason Robinson try; Jonny Wilkinson 4 pg, dg) defeated Australia 17 (Lote Tuqiri try; Elton Flatley 4 Pg)
4 Australia v New Zealand, Westpac Trust Stadium (Wellington) 5 August, 2000
Now this match had a lot to live up to, coming three weeks after the widely acclaimed “Game of the Century”. Because of this I feel it’s often undervalued as a standalone match. Sure we remember the finish, the John Eales kick (more of that later), but the rest of the match wasn’t too bad either.
For starters it featured two cracking backline moves from set piece play, one from each team. The ultimate was the All Black try to Christian Cullen which involved a series of loops and dummy runners and cut out passes that had seemingly everyone bemused. Except for the All Blacks. They knew exactly what was going on and it stands alone as one of the best backline moves, that have resulted in a try, I have ever seen at that level.
The other play, by the Wallabies, actually opened the scoring and was a shade more simple. A worked move from a scrum saw Dan Herbert in space before setting up winger Stirling Mortlock for the try. The fact that this try was scored within three minutes of kick off had people gasping as to whether we would have a replay of that frenetic opening in the previous encounter.
We wouldn’t, but it was still a wonderful test match. The All Blacks fought back from trailing to be winning by two with seemingly time up. Twice Steve Larkham got the ball and twice Wallaby supporters huddled around their televisions yelled for him to run it. But he must have known something we didn’t because each time he booted it down field. Twice the All Blacks had lineout throws that were snaffled by Mark Connors jumping at two. Eventually the pressure spilled over and Craig Dowd was penalised for being off-side at a ruck.
Captain Eales knew exactly what they would do. Before the whistle even left Jonathan Kaplan’s mouth, Eales had signalled to the posts. Looking around to find his kicker, Mortlock, he was handed the ball by Jeremy Paul. “He’s injured. You’re up”. But Eales never skipped a beat. The kick was never going to miss and the TV shot of Eales, arms raised, seemingly towering over the goal posts are indicative of the standing of the man as a player, as a leader and as a match winner.
Australia: Chris Latham, Stirling Mortlock, Daniel Herbert, Jason Little, Joe Roff, Stephen Larkham, George Gregan, Toutai Kefu, David Wilson, Jim Williams, John Eales [c], David Giffin, Fletcher Dyson, Michael Foley, Richard Harry. Replacements: Ben Tune, Mark Connors, Jeremy Paul.
New Zealand: Christian Cullen, Tana Umaga, Alama Ieremia, Pita Alatini, Jonah Lomu, Andrew Mehrtens, Justin Marshall, Ron Cribb, Josh Kronfeld, Taine Randell, Norm Maxwell, Todd Blackadder [c], Kees Meeuws, Anton Oliver, Carl Hoeft. Replacements: Craig Dowd, Tony Brown, Byron Kelleher, Reuben Thorne, Mark Hammett.
Australia 24 (Joe Roff try; John Eales pg Stirling Mortlock try, 1 conv, 3 pg) defeated New Zealand 23 (Christian Cullen 2 Tries; Andrew Mertans 2 Conv, 3 Pg)
3 Australia v New Zealand, Telstra Stadium (Sydney) 15 November, 2003 (RWC Semi Final)
It’s fair to say that not much was expected of Australia for this match. They had stumbled past Scotland in the quarter final and the last time they faced New Zealand at the same venue, they had 50 points run in against them. The All Blacks, on the other hand, looked almost unstoppable. The size and strength and speed of, not just their backline but their entire squad was awesome.
But as soon as Australia claimed the kick off it was all different. The Wallabies were, dare I say it, playing rugby. They maintained the ball in hand. They used the width of the field, ran strongly, secured and recycled possession and they made ground and looked dangerous. And this was all in the first five minutes of the game.
Finally this Wallaby team looked somewhat like the team we knew from two to four years earlier. But this was still a gun All Black team and the key would be to maintain pressure for the whole 80. And score points at any opportunity. Now we all know what happened. Stirling Mortlock latched onto a speculative Carlos Spencer pass and ran 80 odd metres to score under the posts. But this was only 10 minutes into the game. Rarely has an intercept pass had such an impact on the game when occurring so early in the match.
Sure the All Blacks fought back and scored just prior to half time, but that was pretty much it for them. Coach Eddie Jones had the Wallabies defending like demons and the tactic of maintain possession, rather than kicking to the dangerous All Black back three, proved a masterstroke. While the match will long be remembered for the Mortlock try, two other memories prove strong from the game. The first was the career ending injury to Wallaby tight head prop Ben Darwin.
The second was the terrific piece of sledging from the man opposition supporters (and referees?) loved to hate – George Gregan. With the clock winding down and the All Blacks yet again going from tournament favourites to big stage chokers, the broadcast picked up Gregan informing the All Blacks “Four more years boys. Four more years.” In fairness it was wrong for Greegs to suggest this. Eight more years being a more realistic statement.
Australia: Mat Rogers, Wendell Sailor, Stirling Mortlock, Elton Flatley, Lote Tuqiri, Steve Larkham, George Gregan [c], David Lyons, Phil Waugh, George Smith, Justin Harrison, Nathan Sharpe, Ben Darwin, Brendan Cannon, Bill Young. Replacements: Jeremy Paul, Al Baxter, David Giffin, Matt Cockbain, Joe Roff, Nathan Grey.
New Zealand: Mils Muliaina, Doug Howlett, Leon MacDonald, Aaron Mauger, Joe Rokocoko, Carlos Spencer, Justin Marshall, Jerry Collins, Richard McCaw, Reuben Thorne [c], Ali Williams, Chris Jack, Greg Somerville, Keven Mealumu, Dave Hewett. Replacements: Byron Kelleher, Kees Meeuws, Brad Thorn, Marty Holah.
Australia 22 (Stirling Mortlock try; Elton Flatley conv, 5 pg) defeated New Zealand 10 (Reuben Thorne try; Leon Macdonald conv, pg)
2 Australia v Lions, Stadium Australia (Sydney) 14 July, 2001
This was a defining tour for Australian Rugby. Firstly it was the crowning success for the masters of our rugby domination, coach Rod MacQueen and captain John Eales. Secondly, it was the first time the Wallabies had ever beaten the Lions in a test series. Finally it was a tour that made the Australian population stand up and realise the potential of the sport of rugby as a global sport and was most definitely a breeding ground for the amazing success that was the Rugby World Cup two years later.
The Wallabies were blown off the park in the first test at the Gabba in Brisbane. Jason Robinson skinning Chris Latham and then Brian O’Driscoll doing the same to Latho’s replacement Matthew Burke were the stand out moments. The second test seemed to be going the same way at half time as the Lions enjoyed the lead. However a dazzling second half, which commenced almost immediately with Joe Roff intercepting a Jonny Wilkinson pass to race away and score, saw the Wallabies put on a record score (and margin) to tie up the series.
So we move to the third test. The Wallabies are forced to make two key changes with the experienced Steve Larkham and David Giffin injured and replaced by Elton Flatley and debutant Justin Harrison, respectively. The ARU meanwhile, spurred on by the embarrassment of seeing the sea of Red at the Gabba, have all but painted the Olympic Stadium in Sydney gold.
The support would be needed because the game would be a ding dong battle. Up 16-13 at the break, thanks to a 40th minute converted try to Dan Herbet, the Wallabies would surrender the lead to the Lions via a converted Jonny Wilkinson try soon after. Australia bounced back through Dan Herbert and a Matt Burke conversion, but Wilkinson evened it all up soon after with a penalty. Australian pulled slightly ahead through penalties soon after but would it be enough?
If there was one consistent throughout this test, if not the series, it was the dominance of the Lions maul. It seemed to make ground at will and it was only through the resoluteness of the likes of Eales, Kefu and a young George Smith that the Lions didn’t do more damage with it. So with Burke’s last penalty coming in the 80th minute, the Lions knew they had to use their best attacking weapon – the maul. Accordingly, from an attacking lineout to the Lions, well within ‘rumbling’ territory, was a dangerous proposition for the Wallabies. The throw would be to money man and skipper Martin Johnson and rookie Harrison knew it. It backed himself, snagged the throw and closed down the threat. The Wallabies would see out the match and secure their place as one of the top teams of all time.
Australia: Matthew Burke, Andrew Walker, Daniel Herbert, Nathan Grey, Joe Roff, Elton Flatley, George Gregan, Totuai Kefu, George Smith, Owen Finegan, John Eales [c], Justin Harrison, Rod Moore, Michael Foley, Nick Stiles. Replacements: James Holbeck, Matt Cockbain.
British Lions: Matt Perry, Daffyd James, Brian O’Driscoll, Rob Henderson, Jason Robinson, Jonny Wilkinson, Matt Dawson, Scott Quinnell, Neil Back, Matt Corry, Martin Johnson [c], Danny Grewcock, Phil Vickery, Keith Wood, Tom Smith. Replacements: Iain Balshaw, Darren Morris, Colin Charvis.
Australia 29 (Daniel Herbert 2 tries; Matt Burke 2 conv, 5 pg) defeated Great Britain 23 (Jason Robinson try; Jonny Wilkinson try, 2 conv, 3 pg)
1 Australia v New Zealand, Stadium Australia (Sydney) 15 July, 2000
Ok, it’s a little clichéd. I would’ve loved to come up with something different, something from left field to create some controversy. Get some chatter happening. But this game is everything it is proclaimed to be. Un-be-lievable. It has been dubbed the “Game of the Century” or the “Match made in heaven” and it’s easy to see why. 39-25. Eleven tries. A searing 24-0 lead to the All Blacks after less than ten minutes. A seemingly incredible match winning comeback by the Wallabies, and then a try to New Zealand hero Jonah Lomu with minutes to go, to take back the lead and secure an amazing victory.
Sure, you can criticize the defence. But that is unfair to, firstly, the intensity and precision of the All Blacks and that opening stanza. And it is a discredit to the likes of Cullen and Larkham who dazzled. And if it’s defence you want, watch George Gregan on Jonah Lomu, not once, not twice but three times in that first half. Brilliant stuff.
The game is one of those “Princess Di moments”. Just like everyone has a story as to where they were when they heard the Princess of Wales had died, every true rugby fan has a story as to where they were when they watched this match. Me? I was at home alone, my flatmates at the game, as a saved my dollars for my wedding a month or two later. That first ten minutes had me charging and yelling around the house as that unheralded centre combo of Alama Ieremia and Pita Alatini made all that room for the likes of Cullen, Umaga and Lomu.
And then finally we got the ball and Larkham, typically, ghosted through before delivering an beautiful wide pass to Stirling Mortlock on the wing to score. Then Morty scored again, running a nice angle from Gregan this time. Then Latham powered through for a converted try and when Roff scored (dubiously using captain Eales as a blocker) the score was a remarkable 24 all with still ten minutes to play in the half.
It all settled down a little in the second half, the scoring if not the intensity. We scored an early penalty, but then the All Blacks scored pretty much from the kick off to gain the lead again. More penalties were exchanged but it wasn’t until just over five minutes to go that Australia scored through Jeremy Paul to seemingly…possibly… hopefully….incredibly….secure the win.
But it wasn’t to be as the world record crowd of just under 110,000 people cheered or groaned in unity as Lomu scored the match sealing try. And when it all settled down everyone – players, administrators, match officials, supporters – everyone, took a breath. Looked around in bewilderment and enjoyed the glow of having just participated in one of the classic rugby matches, between two of the greatest of traditional rivals, ever played.
Australia: Chris Latham, Stirling Mortlock, Daniel Herbert, Jason Little, Joe Roff, Stephen Larkham, George Gregan, Jim Williams, David Wilson, Mark Connors, John Eales [c], David Giffin, Fletcher Dyson, Michael Foley, Richard Harry. Replacements: Rod Kafer, Andrew Walker, Jeremy Paul, Toutai Kefu, Glen Panaho, Troy Jacques.
New Zealand: Christian Cullen, Tana Umaga, Alama Ieremia, Pita Alatini, Jonah Lomu, Andrew Mehrtens, Justin Marshall, Ron Cribb, Scott Robertson, Taine Randell, Norm Maxwell, Todd Blackadder [c], Kees Meeuws, Anton Oliver, Carl Hoeft. Replacements: Craig Dowd, Tony Brown, Byron Kelleher, Troy Flavell, Josh Kronfeld, Mark Hammett.
New Zealand 39 (Christian Cullen, Tana Umaga, Jonu Lomu, Pita Alatini, Justin Marshall tries; Andrew Mertans 4 conv, 2 pg) defeated Australia 35 (Chris Latham, Joe Roff; Jeremy Paul tries; Stirling Mortlock 2 tries, 2 conv, 2 pg)