On June 22, 1988, on an overcast afternoon at Coogee Oval, with thousands of spectators in and around the ground, Randwick and the All Blacks battled out what was, in my opinion, the most memorable game of rugby ever played in Australia.
Anyone who was there will never forget the intensity of the play, the tribal passion of the spectators and the thrills of a match that was eventually won by the All Blacks 25 – 9.
The scoreline was no reflection on the way a brilliant Randwick side, playing to the finest traditions of the ‘Galloping Greens’ ethic, defied and confronted and challenged an extremely good All Blacks side that had the year before won the first (and only for New Zealand) Rugby World Cup.
I got to Coogee Oval early for the match, around midday, to make sure I’d get a good viewing position.
As it happened, the main stand that runs on a sort of diagonal to the ground with the changing room underneath was already full. The temporary seating stand on the beach side of the ground was rapidly filling up. I found a seat near the tryline at the Coogee end of the ground.
By the time the game started, the steep hill behind the far end of the ground was crammed with people. All the surrounding buildings had spectators on the balconies and roofs, many hanging out of nooks and crannies, looking down on the ground with beer glasses in their hands.
It made a dramatic picture, a bit reminiscent of those grounds in the valleys of Wales during the days of the coal mining, when the visiting team quickly realised that they were playing not only the home team but its supporters as well (and often an intimidated referee) as the thousands of locals seemed to be pressed within tackling distance of the visitors while maintaining a constant screaming for blood for the home side.
This is what it must have seemed like to the All Blacks, too. The crowd pressing in from every side of the ground was as much part of the Randwick challenge as the local team’s efforts themselves.
Randwick charged on to attack from the kick-off towards my end of the field.
I can see it now.
There is Sean Fitzpatrick (yet to become a legendary All Black) taking a long time to throw the ball into a defensive lineout metres from the All Blacks tryline. He is plainly nervous.
Sitting only metres away from him, I can see the strain on his face, the slight twitching before the throw is made.
Now Randwick are throwing all their famous back plays at the rattled All Blacks. The noise is overwhelming.
David Knox is master-minding sleight of hand backline ploys. David Campese is popping up everywhere, swerving, side-stepping, goose-stepping, making no-eyes pop-up passes, always challenging the defense.
The All Blacks buckle occasionally. But they never break, despite the ferocity and skill of the Randwick onslaught and even against the immense din made by the Randwick supporters who can hear the smack of body on body as the tackles are made.
The hits have that awful, ominous crunching ‘SMAACK’ of a baseball smashing into a water melon. But these are shoulders making the hits, not baseball bats; and bodies of flesh and blood and bone, chunky, thin, muscular, tall, and short, receiving and dishing out the punishment.
Anyone who ever challenges David Campese’s courage should have seen the fearless way he took the impact of the fierce tackles and the ensuing punishment as the All Blacks rucked and mauled him ferociously and viciously.
This was a great All Blacks side, with an intimidating pack.
Simon Poidevin for Randwick and Wayne ‘Buck’ Shelford, the inspirational captain of the All Blacks, were titanic for their sides in the rucks and mauls. An enduring image is of Shelford with his arms around Poidevin’s neck almost throttling him in an attempt to get him off the ball in a contested maul.
In the end the All Blacks prevailed, with a nerveless Grant Fox kicking some useful penalties.
After the match Shelford said that the All Blacks would never again expose themselves to a club side like Randwick, at their home ground. The fact that the the most successful international rugby side in the history of rugby in terms of games won and lost decided never again to play against a side like Randwick is, in my view, the finest compliment that can be paid to the Galloping Greens of June 22, 1988.
It was a thrill of a lifetime of watching rugby to be there for Australia’s most memorable rugby match.