When Wallabies were Bledisloe Cup kings
WHEN George Gregan triumphantly hoisted the Bledisloe Cup above his head in 2002, none of the Wallabies or their supporters had any inkling of the barren run that was about to follow.
Had anyone foreseen that the legendary halfback would be the last Australian captain to get his hands on the Bledisloe Cup for at least 16 years, maybe the Wallabies would have hugged the giant trophy a little tighter. Or run off into the night with it.
But it just simply never entered anyone's mind that 2002 would mark the end of a golden era and usher in 16 years of ruthless All Blacks dominance and misery for Australia because these were very different times.
When Gregan was calling the shots for the Wallabies, Australia always believed they were going to beat New Zealand. How times have changed.
"I actually never played in a Wallaby team where we weren't confident of winning," the FOX SPORTS commentator told The Sunday Telegraph.
"You obviously needed to play well but we never went into a game thinking anything else but winning, particularly in that period.
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"We just felt like if we did everything we needed to do and we just did our roles, we didn't have to do anything more special than just do your job, we could beat anyone."
Gregan had every reason to be supremely confident back in 2002 because the Wallabies were at the peak of their powers: they were the reigning World Cup and Tri-Nations champions, they had beaten the British and Irish Lions in an epic series the year before and the All Blacks were their bunnies.
Australia won the Bledisloe Cup five years in a row from 1998 and were masters at winning the tight games against New Zealand.
In 2000, John Eales landed a penalty with the last kick of the game to seal Australia's win, then in 2001, Toutai Kefu scored a try at the death in Eales' last match before retirement.
"I think it's the ultimate test. I played in two World Cup finals, which is like the Olympic final for a rugby player, but when the All Blacks and the Wallabies play against each other, and you get the right man in the middle, you take yourself to places you would probably would never go with another team," Gregan said.
"Your heart rate is up, everything's stressed and everything's on edge so you've got to be up for that. You don't experience that until you play against each other in that environment so I love those test matches because it went on pure instinct."
Australia did it again in 2002, the last time they won the Bledisloe Cup.
After losing the first match in Christchurch, the Wallabies had to win the return leg in Sydney to retain the Bledisloe and they did in breathtaking fashion.
Trailing 14-8 with only nine minutes to go, Mat Rogers came off the bench and scored a try but Matt Burke missed the simple conversion that would levelled the scores, hitting the post.
But the Wallabies kept attacking and were rewarded with last-minute penalty and Burke made no mistake as the siren sounded, giving Australia a famous 16-14 win.
"We were all pretty pumped that he knocked it over," Gregan said. "He made those kicks more often than not, he was an incredibly clutch kicker Burkey but it was a really tight test match.
"It takes a huge effort just to get your hands on it and once you do get your hands on it, a lot of hard work goes into keeping it and that's been epitomised over the last 15 years."
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"Some things change and somethings don't but that blueprint never changes if you play against most teams, particularly an All Blacks team. That's the challenge, if you can do those things they don't find their rhythm."
FIRST UP TACKLING
"You don't want to be chasing the All Blacks. I've played in teams where we've lost the first of a three-game series and won but you just don't want to do it because this is a very, very good All Blacks team, well coached, they're very consistent and they're great frontrunners."
THE SECOND MAN IN
"The support player has just got to win the race. You don't have time to stew on things. If you're not living in the moment, they can put 10, 15, 20 points on you if you haven't moved on."
BACK YOUR ATTACK
"They're human beings, they make it look like they can deal with it but everyone feels pressure so it's important that they feel it after this test match. That's the challenge for the Wallabies, they've got to create a little bit of a pressure point otherwise this All Blacks team front runs better than anyone in the business."
SMART KICKING GAME
"When they kick, they kick smart. The All Blacks want you to kick the ball back to them so if they kick, they kick out, or if they kick in, it's contestable so the person who catches it gets hurt, so to speak. Not in a bad way but just doesn't get a chance to attack."
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