Up until 1994, Australia had been one of the most active touring teams in world rugby league. They regularly toured to England, France and New Zealand, as well as playing hosts to all visiting test sides.
Usually these tours had between 5 and 20 matches, including tests, against both clubs and regional representative sides, with nearly all of them not expecting to be anything more than also-rans.
But one very passionate and committed team in New Zealand had always proved to be one of the toughest and most imposing teams for touring test nations to oppose for many decades.
Australia named essentially their second string side, believing that the game would be another walk in the park. Even so, the team they named was still very impressive:
1 – Dale Shearer (8 tests)
2 – Michael O’Connor (16 tests)
3 – Peter Jackson (4 tests)
4 – Tony Currie (5 tests)
5 – Michael Hancock (1 test)
6 – Des Hasler (3 tests)
7 – Greg Alexander (1 test)
8 – Sam Backo (4 tests)
9 - David Trewhella (0 tests)
10 – Martin Bella (1 test)
11 – Dan Stains (0 tests)
12 – Bruce McGuire (1 test)
13 – Paul Vautin (11 tests)
14 – Brad Clyde (1 test)
With instructions from coach Cameron Bell to simply “Move it wide, move it wide,” Auckland did just that and after just three minutes a Kelly Shelford grubber into the Australian in-goal area was fumbled by O’Connor, before he had a chance to clean up, Auckland centre Mike Patton pounced on the loose ball to open the scoring.
Australia replied with two tries to Shearer and Currie, skipping away to a 10-4 lead. But Shelford struck again with some clever stepping and passing to put Dave Watson over. A successful conversion levelled the scores at 10 all at half time.
Auckland struck first in the second half when Shane Hansen crossed the line. Shelford converted and then shortly after kicked a penalty goal to see the Auckland boys skip away to an eight point lead.
But the class of the Australians could not be denied. Three tries in just 10 minutes to Shearer, Hancock and Alexander saw the Australians take control of the game and with just ten minutes remaining, the Kangaroos looked destined to skip away with a comfortable win.
However, they didn’t count on Auckland to keep fighting. Shelford got his forwards standing toe to toe with the Australian pack, and before long, found the Australian defence very fragile on the short side. Shelford threw a short pass to back rower Francis Leota who ran through the flimsy defence out wide to score. Shelford converted to lock the scores up at 24 all with just nine minutes remaining in the game.
The nerves on both sides started to take their toll. Auckland were camped inside the Australian half for most of the remainder of the game. They received four consecutive penalties from referee Bill Shrimpton, all within kicking range. Three times Auckland opted to take the tap but could not break through the rock solid defences of Trewhella, Stains, McGuire and Clyde.
Then Greg Alexander picked up a loose ball but was deemed to have knocked it on. Angered by the error he threw the ball away in disgust. Shrimpton blew his whistle and penalised Alexander for throwing the ball away. Shelford opted to take a shot at goal with the clock winding down.
The kick was successful, and with 3 minutes remaining, Auckland lead 26-24.
Australia turned out one final attacking raid on the Auckland line in a desperate attempt to secure a victory. Alexander drifted wide, created an overlap, dummied and then put in a grubber for his winger.
O’Connor came flying through; the Auckland defence was nowhere to be seen.
10 seconds to go…
O’Connor reaches out; his right hand makes contact with the ball. The Kangaroos thinking they may have snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.
The ball turns ever so slightly in O’Connor’s outstretched hand. He can’t get his left hand to the ball in time and he loses control of the ball.
The ball falls loose, the crowd begins to rise from their seats and the raucous cheering begins to build.
The ball hits the ground.
Auckland move the mighty mountain.
Auckland 26 (Patton, Watson, Hansen, Leota tries; Shelford 5 goals)
Australia 24 (Shearer 2, Currie, Hancock, Alexander tries; O’Connor 2 goals)
July 12, 1989 at Auckland