A few months out from hosting the Olympics Games, Sydney was already abuzz with sporting excitement as the Wallabies prepared to host the All Blacks.
Australia were going for a record 11th straight victory and had won the Rugby World Cup for a second time the year before with a defensive strategy that had conceded just one try throughout the whole tournament.
However, defence coach John Muggleton’s best-laid plans were ripped apart by an irrepressible performance from the All Blacks, who raced in for three tries to lead 21-0 inside the first five minutes.
Todd Blackadder, the All Blacks captain that day, says an act of subterfuge played a part in their early success.
“I remember going to that game, we based ourselves in Manly. They (Australia) sent a spy along to spy on us, a guy called Nathan Grey,” the former second-row said.
“We knew he was there, so during one of our team runs we kicked a lot of high balls, so it looked like we had a bit of a kicking game going on. But if you look at the first 20 minutes, we ran everything. We deliberately trained in a different way until we were behind closed doors.”
Never before in the history of a game has a side got off to such an explosive start, and never before – as far as Wallaby full-back Chris Latham was concerned – could a Bledisloe Cup debut have got off to a more disastrous one.
“If I remember rightly, I gifted Tana Umaga and (Christian) Cullen their first two tries but, at the end of the day, it was what it was,” said Latham.
If anything could silence the majority of people in a world-record crowd of 109,874, that All Blacks start was it.
Centre Pita Alatini crossed in between Umaga and Cullen’s efforts, and Andrew Mehrtens added a penalty to rub further salt into the Wallabies’ wounds.
How did Latham feel? “I was probably thinking at the time I’d better pull my finger out and do something to claw back the 14 points I’d given away.”
Blackadder, too, was struggling to recall the emotions he was going through given the frenetic start to the match.
“It is hard to remember too many (specific) moments because it was like a blur, from the kick-off to the very end. The intensity was incredible.”
On the comeback trail
Stung into action, Australia rallied magnificently to cancel out New Zealand’s 24 points with three tries of their own.
Latham redeemed himself with an assist for the first of Stirling Mortlock’s two tries, before hitting a great line and powering over himself for his eighth try in 10 tests.
At half-time, it was 24-24 and the Wallabies were cock-a-hoop.
“As we were running off back to the sheds, George Gregan was in my ear saying, ‘we are back Toddy, we are back’,” Blackadder recalled.
“Australia were a great team, a team of a generation with players like Gregan, Larkham, Horan and Kefu, and we knew it was one of those ones where we had to fight.
“All we talked about at half-time was having belief and putting them away. But that didn’t happen until the 79th minute.”
Australia took the lead for the first time in the match when Mortlock kicked a penalty at the start of the second half, but the advantage was short-lived as Justin Marshall bagged the All Blacks’ bonus-point try.
A penalty apiece from Mehrtens and Mortlock left the All Blacks out in front at 34-30 with 15 minutes remaining.
But Jeremy Paul looked to have secured Australia a famous comeback win when he scored in the corner in the 72nd minute.
“We were always brought up to know that you’re never home until that final whistle, especially against New Zealand,” said Latham.
“We’d had some pretty memorable tests with them in that era where games literally went down to the wire.”
Latham’s instincts were right. With time running out and tension inside the stadium at fever pitch, Taine Randell’s overhead basketball-style pass released Jonah Lomu 20 metres out and the All Blacks legend slipped out of one tackle to run in the try that gave the game a fitting denouement.
“We had some incredible playmakers in that side, and that was Taine for you, giving that pass in the last couple of minutes after what was such a physical game,” said Blackadder, full of admiration for the skills of the back-rower.
From the “nightmare” year of 1999, New Zealand had turned a corner at the start of the Millennium.
“I reckon that was a massive turning point for New Zealand rugby,” said Blackadder.
“If you look at that season, it wasn’t that successful but a lot of good came out of it.
“The previous year had been a bit of a nightmare, but we changed the culture for the better, away from the drinking culture and into one which was more professional. They are still reaping the rewards to this day.
“I was just so pleased I was part of such a great game.”