Battling the heaviest of odds may be a reality for the Kiwis every time they play the Kangaroos but it’s accepted their traditional underdog status is at a new level for Friday’s Anzac Test at Allianz Stadium in Sydney.
The odds are one measure. The New Zealand TAB has the Kangaroos paying just $1.08 to win on a straight head-to-head bet, the Kiwis at $7.00; on the other side of the Tasman one betting agency also has the Australians at $1.08 with New Zealand out to $8.00.
But no one needs odds to tell them this 2014 Kiwi team has so much stacked up against it.
It has happened before, of course. Time and time again. Remember 1971, 1983, 1987, 1991 and more – and every time the Kiwis caused a huge shock by winning.
If there’s one of those occasions which comes closest to comparing with the here and now it’s the one-off Test the Kiwis played against Australia at Lang Park in Brisbane of July 21, 1987.
To say the New Zealanders faced a massive challenge was an acute understatement. They went into the match with an unheralded line-up of players against an Australian combination dripping with superstars, among them Garry Jack, Gene Miles, Brett Kenny, Michael O’Connor, Peter Sterling, Wayne Pearce, Bob Linder, Greg Dowling, Les Davidson and, of course, ‘The King’, Wally Lewis.
The Kiwis had the late Tony Gordon in his first year as coach and stripped of a number of experienced players who were unavailable or not used for a variety of reasons most notably Mark Graham, Kurt Sorensen, Olsen Filipaina and Gary Prohm.
The Kiwis were painted as walking into a massacre. The old ‘lambs to the slaughter’ line was trotted out more than once, of course.
While they didn’t have any absolute debutants there were three players who had only just appeared in their first Test against Papua New Guinea and others had played only two or three Tests.
There were just three players with any level of experience in captain Hugh McGahan – who played the Test injured – Dean Bell and Clayton Friend. Most of the players were straight out of club and provincial football in New Zealand with only a few attached to overseas clubs.
The team lined up like this (listed in brackets is the year they made their Test debut and the number of Tests they had played going into the clash):
Darrell Williams (1985, 6 Tests)
Gary Mercer (1986, 2 Tests)
Dean Bell (1983, 17 Tests)
Kevin Iro (1987, 1 Test)
Mark Elia (1985, 6 Tests)
Shane Cooper (1985, 6 Tests)
Clayton Friend (1982, 14 Tests)
Ross Taylor (1987, 1 Test)
Wayne Wallace (1985, 7 Tests)
Adrian Shelford (1986, 3 Tests)
Sam Stewart (1985, 4 Tests)
Mark Horo (1987, 1 Test)
Hugh McGahan (1982, 19 Tests)
Dean Lonergan (1986, 2 Tests)
Gary Freeman (1986, 5 Tests)
The Australian side read: Garry Jack; Dale Shearer, Gene Miles, Brett Kenny, Michael O’Connor; Wally Lewis, Peter Sterling; Peter Tunks, Royce Simmons, Greg Dowling; Bryan Niebling, Wayne Pearce; Bob Lindner. Bench: Brian Johnston, Les Davidson.
It was a supreme mismatch on paper which was transformed into one of the most astonishing sporting shocks as the bits and pieces Kiwis came out of nowhere to win 13-6 through tries to Taylor and Mercer, a couple of goals from Iro and a Cooper field goal. The so-called superhuman Aussies could manage just an early try to Sterling and then nothing.
Aside from the herculean defensive effort there was one ever-memorable bit of byplay in the game. New Zealand’s Neville Kesha refereed the match, which was typically a contentious point for the Australians; they didn’t approve of New Zealand referees then and still don’t. The Australians had possession just before halftime when Kesha copped a real spray in back play from Lewis laden with a few expletives accompanied by a reference to the colour of Kesha’s skin. The referee calmly reacted by stepping forward to penalise Lewis for back-chatting, telling him he could take most of the language he used but took offence to mentioning his colour.
So now skip forward and the comparisons are worth making. The 1987 Kiwis had less than 100 Tests among the 15 players; the 2014 squad is more experienced with 140 Test appearances among 18 players. This year’s model has vastly-experienced players in Simon Mannering, Adam Blair, Greg Eastwood and Jason Nightingale; they have had between six and eight seasons in international football, as many as 35 Tests in Mannering’s case.
They have six potential debutants, though, and they also have only two players in the spine positions with a measure of experience in their roles at NRL level at least (fullback Peta Hiku and halfback Shaun Johnson). Unlike the 1987 side, the 18 players are also all NRL professionals.
Like their 1987 counterparts these Kiwis also face one of those ‘best-ever’ Australians line-ups. By way of comparison with the 1987 team above the 2014 Kiwis stack up like this (line-up not confirmed yet):
Peta Hiku (0 Tests)
Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (2013, 6 Tests)
Dean Whare (2012, 7 Tests)
Gerard Beale (2011, 5 Tests)
Jason Nightingale (2008, 19 Tests)
Tohu Harris (2013, 1 Test)
Shaun Johnson (2012, 8 Tests)
Jesse Bromwich (2012, 8 Tests)
Ben Henry (0 Tests)
Sam Moa (2013, 3 Tests)
Kevin Proctor (2012, 2 Tests)
Simon Mannering (2006, 35 Tests)
Adam Blair (2006, 26 Tests)
Siliva Havili (0 Tests; has played for Tonga)
Greg Eastwood (2007, 20 Tests)
Martin Taupau (0 Tests)
Kenneath Bromwich (0 Tests)
Isaac John (0 Tests; has played for Cook Islands).