The chances of seeing the Kiwis and Kangaroos on the field together in 2020 appear slim, but 22 years ago today – the day before Anzac Day – New Zealand pulled off one of its greatest-ever rugby league victories. WILL EVANS caught up with legendary ex-Kiwis coach FRANK ENDACOTT in 2017 to get his memories of that unforgettable clash at North Harbour Stadium.
“It’s a special game in my book, you’re really playing for something and I think there’s a bit more in it than the normal Test match,” Frank Endacott says of the Anzac Test.
“Both teams want to win, it’s that Anzac spirit from both countries. And we don’t win too many of them, but it’s a terrific game to be a part of.”
The Kiwis may not have a great record in mid-season Tests against the Kangaroos – they won just two of the last 20 to be exact – but their rousing 22-16 victory on April 24, 1998, stands as one of their gutsiest efforts on the international rugby league stage.
A SUPER WIN
Endacott’s New Zealand side had hammered the Super League Australia outfit at the end of the 1997 season, but few pundits – on the Australian side of the ditch anyway – were willing to give the 30-12 result much credence as it wasn’t a full-strength (or ARL-sanctioned) team lining up in green and gold during the code’s great divide of the mid-1990s.
“They always go on about the Super League Australian team not being full-strength, but if you have a look at that line-up it was as good as any Aussie team you’d ever see,” Endacott says of a team that featured modern greats Laurie Daley, Steve Renouf, Darren Lockyer, Brad Thorn, Bradley Clyde, Brett Mullins and Shane Webcke.
“And they never once mentioned that we weren’t at full-strength – we had some great (ARL-contracted) players that were unavailable like Jarrod McCracken, Jason Lowrie and Terry Hermansson.”
All the hype ahead of the historic ’98 Anzac Test surrounded the selection of the first combined Australian side in four years after the game came back together under the NRL banner. And it was a mouth-watering squad: Daley, Sailor, Renouf, Thorn and Lockyer were there again, joined by ARL figureheads Brad Fittler, Andrew Johns, Geoff Toovey, Paul Harragon, Steve Menzies and Terry Hill.
There was no room for the great Allan Langer, while the insanely talented bench consisted of Lockyer, Glenn Lazarus, Nik Kosef and Dean Pay.
On the other side of the fence, the Kiwis were beset by forced absences. Stephen Kearney was rubbed out by suspension, while first-choice hooker Syd Eru and his likely replacement Shane Endacott – Frank’s son, who ultimately never got the chance to don the black-and-white jersey – were ruled out injured.
Kearney’s ban continued a frustrating trend for New Zealand sides that still rankles with Canterbury icon Endacott, who coached his country in 35 Tests from 1994-2000.
“It was more than a coincidence that every time we approached a Test match we would get one of our top players put out (by suspension),” he says.
“Quentin Pongia was one, Stephen Kearney was another, John Lomax – it always happened just prior to the Test. Yet you’d see some of the Australian players do things and get sent off and they’d get a slap on the hand.”
Consequently, the Kiwis were rated little chance of their first win over a full-strength Australian side since the 1991 boilover in Melbourne.
“Centrebet was giving us a 40-odd point start, and on the New Zealand TAB the Australians were $1.01 and we were $5.55 head-to-head,” Endacott recalls.
“On the news a couple of nights before they were interviewing people on Queen Street (in Auckland) and they were saying 50 to 60 points that we’d get beaten by.
“But we went out with one of the toughest performances I’ve ever seen in a Kiwi jersey and we beat them, so anything can be done if you believe in yourself.
“We had our disruptions, but I’ll never forget at our team meeting on the Thursday night you could hear a pin drop. The feeling in that team meeting was unreal – something I hadn’t seen before.
“Matthew Ridge said a few words, and as the team left I stayed back with the manager Gary Cookesley and he said, ‘did you feel that?’ I said, ‘did I ever – we’re going to win this.’
“The feeling was there, we believed we could win it. But we were most probably the only people in New Zealand or Australia that thought we would win it.
“I was as confident as you could be. When you looked at the Australian team on paper you knew it was going to be a hell of a job. But I always had confidence in my players. They were good tough players.”
Besides Warriors NRL coach Endacott, the Kiwis boasted eight players from the club: captain Matthew Ridge, Sean Hoppe, Stacey Jones, Quentin Pongia, Logan Swann, Kevin Iro, Joe Vagana and debutant Nigel Vagana.
SLOW OUT OF THE BLOCKS
Aussie confidence and Kiwi pessimism was galvanised by a one-sided opening to the showdown at North Harbour Stadium.
After Kangaroos debutant Mat Rogers and Kiwis captain Ridge traded early penalty goals, Hill crossed for back-to-back tries to give the cocky tourists a 12-2 lead after just 23 minutes.
Compounding the double-digit deficit was a terrible attrition rate, kick-started by Lomax disappearing up the tunnel before the five-minute mark.
“There was a worrying period in that Test when I had a call from the medical people down below saying we’ve got three of the players in there, and I only had one guy on the bench,” Endacott grimaces.
“But the guts of those players like Pongia, McCracken, Richie Barnett had a broken hand – they wanted to come back onto the field and into the battle, and that showed to me just how tough those players were.
“To see that dressing room after the game, there was blood all round the place – it was like a slaughterhouse – but they gave their blood, their energy for the jersey, and it was the proudest I’ve ever been as a Kiwi coach.”
While the Kiwis’ walking wounded pushed through the pain barrier, it was an injury on the other side the proved pivotal with Kangaroos No.1 Robbie O’Davis succumbing to a knee injury during the first half.
Lockyer was the arguably the best fullback replacement a Test team has ever carried on the bench, but the 21-year-old was bustled into some crucial errors that led to New Zealand tries in what is widely regarded as the most disastrous international debut in Australian rugby league history.
“When we spoke about (Lockyer) in the team meeting it came up that he was very good under the high ball but not too good on the ground,” Endacott reveals.
“We kicked low to him and he fumbled a few, and it really dented his confidence. He had a shocker to be fair – but for years to come he proved to be one of the great players.”
The Kiwis landed a crucial blow six minutes out from halftime when Pongia and five-eighth Robbie Paul linked up to send veteran Kevin Iro, who had come off the bench to slot in at centre, over for their first try.
The home side drew level just five minutes after the break, with Lockyer fluffing a Richie Blackmore grubber to allow Sean Hoppe to scamper away for a try. But the upset was really on when Hermansson powered over in the 54th minute after another Lockyer gaffe, catapulting the Kiwis into the lead for the first time.
“The thing that I remember most is the way the crowd got behind us at North Harbour Stadium. When they saw the tide of the match changing, they got behind the players,” Endacott says.
“I was sitting in the crowd – they didn’t have a (coaches) box – and you could feel it. When we scored those couple of tries I knew we would hold out.”
SEALING THE DEAL
The Kangaroos set up a grandstand finish when Lockyer sent Renouf over for an unconverted try with 13 minutes left, but Kevin Iro’s barnstorming second try in the 78th minute sealed a famous triumph for the Kiwis – the last of his (albeit short-lived) record-equalling 16 touchdowns for New Zealand.
“One of the great Kiwis ever,” Endacott says of Iro.
“Some people say he was an enigma, he was a pretty relaxed sort of a bloke. But when he turned it on, he turned it on.
“Richie Blackmore and Kevin Iro were the two biggest centres in the world and we discussed in the team meeting that we were going to attack Steve Renouf, who was supposed to be the greatest centre in the world. I coached him at Wigan and he was good, believe me.
“But we knew he had a weakness. He wore that headgear because he had quite a few knockouts, and what he used to do is let the opposite player get on the outside of him and he’d make a side-on tackle.
“We knew he wasn’t very good at the front-on tackle, so we had these two big centres coming at him, and from memory he actually got knocked out in that game. So it worked, and he was struggling in defence.”
TO THE VICTORS, THE SPOILS
The 24,260-strong crowd went berserk after Iro’s match-sealer, and soon afterwards Endacott was reunited with his 17 heroic charges.
Iro, Robbie Paul and brother Henry – who was named as a makeshift hooker – received much of the acclaim, but Ridge, Pongia, McCracken and Logan Swann had some of their best games for New Zealand that night. Blackmore and Ruben Wiki were also outstanding, while debutant Nigel Vagana was faultless after coming off the bench to replace the injured Barnett on the wing.
“The elation was unbelievable. I remember walking out on the field and the look on Matthew Ridge’s face told it all, because he wasn’t too emotional about games, he was usually under control,” Endacott explains.
“I walked up to him and we gave each other a huge hug, because I knew how tough it was for them and he knew how tough it was for us, and it was just a mutual respect. All the players were like that, they were over the moon.
“Looking at guys like Quentin Pongia and Terry Hermansson after the game, absolutely drained of energy, they put everything into it. That’s all you can ask for in the Kiwi jersey. You can never ask for the result, but you can ask them to give their best and they did that.”
The Kangaroos represented a mixture of devastation and disbelief, while the loss marked the end of Bob Fulton’s nine-year reign as Australian coach – and Endacott received a frosty congratulations from the revered-but-prickly ‘Bozo’.
“Bobby Fulton and I had a few words after the game and he was wasn’t happy at all, because by that time he’d worked out that maybe the field was a little bit smaller than it should have been,” ‘Happy Frank’ laughs.
“But he was a formidable coach and a good man – I enjoyed coaching against Bobby.”
“That was the best of the 35 Test matches I was a part of,” Endacott says.
“We felt as though we were on top of Australia at that time.”
Like the Graham Lowe-coach New Zealand wins over Australia in 1983 and ’85, Endacott’s Kiwis’ exploits of 1997-99 were a touchstone for rugby league in the Shaky Isles, overcoming the Australian ‘supermen’ complex and proving ‘little brother’ had come of age as a worthy competitor.
The Kangaroos grabbed some revenge by winning both post-season Tests in 1998, before escaping with a 20-14 win in the 1999 Anzac Test.
The Kiwis upset the world champs again in the ’99 Tri-Nations opener, before the Kangaroos got up in a nerve-shredding final.
The only aberration during that period was a humiliating 52-0 defeat in the 2000 Anzac Test, where “everything that could go wrong, went wrong” according to Endacott, who added there were “no excuses”.
Endacott’s last Test was the 2000 World Cup final, which finished with a flattering 40-12 scoreline in Australia’s favour after New Zealand trailed by just six points deep into the second half.
The former Auckland Warriors mentor left behind a legacy as the Kiwis’ longest-serving and most successful coach, with his teams remaining unbeaten against every nation other than Australia during his seven-season term at the helm.
But no achievement was more memorable or notable than the historic 1998 Anzac Test, which would be the Kiwis’ last victory in a mid-season Test against the Kangaroos for 17 years.