It was difficult to know what to admire most about the Rugby World Cup Winners New Zealand-their uncanny ability to make the right decision at key moments,or their sense of humility and appreciation of their own good fortune.There was a priceless moment at the End of World Cup Awards Dinner when Julian Savea won the Try of the Tournament Award and was asked a tricky question.
He looked across at his team mates, then at his Captain McCaw who had previously answered the same question. He answered with a wry smile – ‘I agree with Richie’. He had neatly sidestepped the issue,somewhat more gently than he does on the field but it was a wonderful example of the All Black togetherness. A team in total harmony and at the top of their game – a rare combination.
So much has been written about this magnificent tournament – and it truly was magnificent – so i thought i would home in on a couple of aspects which i thought dominated the landscape through that sunny seven weeks in England when the ground was firm, the weather balmy and millions of people were in the mood.Had there been the usual autumnal volatility in the weather we may have seen some different styles of play and even some different results,but in the event most teams gave full vent to their running abilities….. with two exceptions.
There were of course many defining themes in this tournament but there are two which stand out for me.
1/ DECISION MAKING UNDER PRESSURE
There was no hiding place in this World Cup.Captains,players and coaches were either lauded or pilloried for game changing decisions.
In the Final,the substitution of Conrad Smith at halftime for Sunny Bill Williams resulted in the stunning try by Ma’a Nonu after SB’s brilliant pass out of the tackle.That skill is an art, a philosophy and a state of mind not to die with the ball and to hold the defence around you.The top three exponents in the world are All Blacks (add Carter and Read ),and the best,most visionary backs coach in the world is Wayne Smith,funnily enough also an All Black!
Australia’s decision to blitz defence the Welsh defence when two men down won them the match – conversely the men in Red failed to rid themselves of the short ball syndrome instead of capitalising on natural overlaps.It could have defined Jamie Roberts as a centre of vision but he turned in time and again and the chance was gone, condemning Wales to a match versus their Nemesis South Africa instead of Scotland in the other group talking of whom…
One of the players of the tournament ,Mark Bennett,went for intercept glory at Twickenham to put Scotland ahead of Australia with three minutes to go.The men in blue then a/ couldnt catch the kick off 2/ kicked twice aimlessly upfield 3/ overthrew the line out 4/ knocked on the tap down …..all in three minutes !! Finally they were cruelly robbed by Joubert’s error.But they should never have been in that position.
Japans decision to go for the try against South Africa secured not only a win but an audience of 24 million in Japan for the next game against Samoa,and full houses for the RWC 2019.World Rugby should pay them a huge bonus dividend for that contribution!When Gonomaru returned to his club for his first match, their normal crowd of 2,000 turned into 29,000!
Their bold move clearly created a precedent followed by England in the Wales game who spurned a kickable penalty for a try opportunity, a decision which is now credited with costing England not only a place in the play offs but cost the economy at least £500m.Thats an expensive front peel!
While Argentina won the hearts of a nation and more with their imaginative play,we forget their clear decision in the quarterfinal to attack the Irish from the off with wide angled running,creating an early scoreline which the men in green simply couldn’t reel in.It was in my mind the most surprising highlight of the tournament and all this in front of a fanatical crowd who had truly invaded the Welsh Capital to claim a semifinal for the first time ever for Ireland.A remarkable masterstroke.
Lastly, in the semifinal SA attacked New Zealand in the outside centre channel twice in the first 5 minutes.Both times they made ground, once with a clean break that led to nothing because Kriel wasn’t holding the ball in two hands- basic skills ! It never happened again- i cannot fathom why not – and Habana did not touch the ball in open play despite his high ball heroics.He was a frustrated figure, charging Carters kick early and allowing him another chance, which he nailed.NZ won by two points …….just enough.Sound familiar?
It wasn’t just South Africa who failed to give their players the best chance to express themselves, but they were a comfortable second to England.
2/ COACHING AT A PREMIUM
This was a truly a tournament for coaches to excel themselves and we have all recognised their value without doubt.
The pressure to bring a squad to their peak was intense and both hemispheres had different challenges given the timing of the competition.
Teams were at various stages of development and players either had to hang on for the moment,or progress at pace.
For me ,Cheika was a deserved winner of Coach of the Year.HIs side was a mixture of lovers and fighters as he memorably described them!But they scrapped their way through a tough series of matches , much tougher than the all Blacks, and displayed very high levels of skill at all times ,mixed with a hard edge front five noone thought possible.Mario Ledesma take a bow.They had leaders all over the park,and this is because Cheika made good decisions constantly,knew when to speak and when not to,let his players express themselves,and showed some emotion.He epitomised his team -watch out the world ,this Aussie side is getting better and better.
Daniel Hourcade turned Argentina into a team we loved but above all admired.He converted their traditional strength up front into a formidable attacking force,displayed against both Ireland and Australia.One of my abiding memories will be the whole of Twickenham applauding wildly as Argentina attacked Australia from all sides going for the last score,not to win but to make their own statement.It was stirring stuff and i welcome Argentina to a permanent place in our hearts and to the top five in the world – and better.
I have warned about Scotland for at least 12 months and finally they delivered- almost.They should have had a semifinal,but even so they finished well in credit.Vern Cotter gave them belief and made them play at intensity and give the best players the freedom of the park.I love their ambition – they cannot wait for Murrayfield in February against England – nor can i,it will be a titanic struggle.
On the other side of the ledger, i believe that Heinnike Meyers blinkered tactics denied South Africa a World Cup tilt, as their backs are much better than we saw, and their forwards were the best in the tournament,led by the belligerent Burger and tireless Vermeulen.
Meantime,the House of Lancaster left us well short and i have said my piece on all this so enough is enough.That the best resourced and most populous rugby nation in the world can under perform like it did cannot be brushed under the carpet.Fundamental and structural change has to happen to allow elite rugby to prosper in a club and International environment. The best people are not around the same table off the field, and so by definition they wont be on the field.World class coaching and world class leadership will also be required.In which case,bring on Japan but hopefully not through the qualifying tournament.
Finally,my wistful memory of the tournament at a coaching level – seeing Wayne Smith the All Blacks skills coach on the field after the final with a quiet understated smile on his face.He had masterminded a quality of performance unsurpassed by any champion team.Whether prop forward or a wing,he has demanded a level of skill to which the rest of the world can only aspire.He coached my Help for Heroes team with Nick Mallett in 2011 and i got to know him well. Humble,visionary and with a sparkle in his eye which inspires. The best backs coach in the world by a country mile.Just think ,he could have been coaching England…
Well done ,Champions of champions.The All Blacks have set a standard,we must follow.Rugby fans around the world should celebrate a wonderful two months.
And so, onward to Europe where the worlds best compete with different shirts on but hopefully the same quality. Cant wait.