Unusually for me, I was left a little speechless – perhaps drained- by the Rugby World Cup until now. The final fortnight was a wonderful contradiction and sets the platform for the next World Cup cycle, the Good the Bad and sometimes the Ugly.
What do I mean?
Well, France put on a rugby version of the beautiful game ( football of course) as they tore into South Africa at the quarter final ‘win or go home’ stage with a quality of play never before seen in such an important match barring ‘That Try’ by Gareth Edwards in the famous opening to the All Blacks v Barbarians match in 1973. It took the breath away as Dupont le petit Général’ directed a bewildering set of attacks left and right conducted with pace, style, imagination and a real joie de vivre, roared on by an ecstatic and hopeful French crowd. How the Springboks were still in the game after 20 minutes I will never know except that it came from a deep belief (and a bit of luck!). I remember when Bath was the target for all aspirational clubs, they would come at us with the best they had and it was our trust in one another which kept us afloat and allowed us to not only to ride out the storm but see it through with a win.
For me that period of play was the highlight of the whole World Cup and if France is the team I believe them to be then they will use the hurt to build a No 1 team in the world as their understanding of the game is peerless.
Ireland’s 37 phase effort to win the game against the All Blacks in the ‘other’ great quarterfinal will live in the memory and remember they did get the ball over the line for a match winning try but failed to ground it. How this group of players respond (without Sexton) will define them, not this defeat. Their supporters lit up the competition, and for me the atmosphere around any match involving Ireland was the abiding highlight of my own career off field.
As a proud Englishman, what to make of our ugly yet noble efforts to rage against the statistics, that we are way off the pace against the best in the world. The most experienced squad ever to contest a Rugby world cup eventually bared its muzzled teeth. With 15 minutes to go I was placing my order for humble pie from my SA hosts who could not fathom the confusion on field and growing panic off field on how to get over the line. They did however, and while no disgrace not to score a try or even threaten one which would probably have won us the game , England has to start again as Borthwick knows and has acknowledged publicly. I applauded our refusal to accept the inevitable as all good underdogs can, but the scraps and bare bones are no meal for anything but a mongrel. Those who have bothered to read my blogs over the years will know that I always maintain that there is a good England team around every corner, it just needs some time to breathe and gel. No change there, but the game has moved on now and we have not. That worries me. Our attack strategy does not exist although Eddie Jones used to tell us it was hidden away and soon to be revealed. Laughable really, and the midfield revolution has to begin now. With Tuilagi ironically fit but fading, and Marchant pushed to breaking point by Jones that he has left for France, our midfield is denuded and devoid of candidates, no disrespect to Ollie Lawrence who has talent. The rebirth of midfield play has to come from our coaches in England although I am not even sure how far up the list of priorities it is for Borthwick. For example, I do agree with Jones that Smith has to play 10 but what is the point if he has no runners outside him. For that reason, Farrell stays and while this centurion is also a warrior ( now smiling in post match interviews so the media coaches have their way at last), he doesn’t get the pulse beating faster.
My heart did bleed for the All Blacks but they are not ready to be the best in the world. In the absence of N’Tamack, Richie Mouanga is truly the world’s best 10 however, with Ardie Savea and Will Jordan alongside in their respective positions. Collectively though, perhaps not yet and while they should have moved ahead in the latter stages of the Final on the scoreboard, with their creative style winning admiration, they seemed to lack the good fortune, bounce of the ball, split decision to go their way. All the past winners in this great game of ours seem to find that little bit extra.
So to the history-making South Africans. I tipped them before the Cup but not by one point in each of the last three brutal and critical one-offs. A squad that can do without three world class centres ( Am, Oosterhuizen and Moodie) knows it’s stuff. Finding the way to win is not about edging out Fiji or Samoa- sorry Steve – it is that deep belief and trust in one other and absolute confidence to pull out match winning performances in the last twenty minutes against the best there is.
I subscribe to Kolisi’s post match comment – ‘The All Blacks wanted to win, we needed to.’ That came from deep within the squad and their perceived role in the development of their nation. They carried the hopes of millions and this sustained them through the toughest times, not least that opening twenty minutes when France dared to hit Utopian levels of play and found an opponent whose greater purpose could withstand that pressure and deal with it. A mark of greatness in what was on balance the greatest World Cup yet.