The Rugby World Cup is over. New Zealand successfully retain the Webb Ellis and with it become the first team to win the competition three times. It was a weekend where several marquee world stars made their farewells from the international stage. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the tournament finale and looks at the highs and lows of the tournament.
Hail Hail New Zealand
There can be no arguments about the winners of this tournament. New Zealand were far superior to anything in this tournament. Yes, they struggled for periods against South Africa last weekend but their ability to change tactics during the contest to win the semi-final berth spoke volumes about management, the squad, the skill set and the sheer ability to make the right decisions at the right time. Australia could not be faulted for effort in this final. They more than matched their arch rivals in the first quarter with Pocock prominent in the breakdown but this was the day when the New Zealand back row saved their best performance when it mattered most. McCaw was phenomenal during this final, his work rate at ruck time was superb and he was ably assisted by his back row colleagues Read and Caino who tackled and made gain line yards throughout. Zane Douglas’ withdrawal spelled trouble for Australia as the lineout so reliable prior to the final started to creek as Retalick, Read figured out the Australian lineout calls. It was to the internal credit of Australia that there were still in this contest with seventeen minutes left. New Zealand controlled the tempo of this contest and exposed Foley and Giteau defensively throughout. 21-10 entering into the final quarter, New Zealand were in control but credit Australia with a superb try just as Ben Smith was coming back from his sin bin. 21-17 and Australia asked the question of New Zealand whether they had the bottle to close out the contest. The answer four years ago was shaky but yesterday New Zealand made no mistakes. The fulcrum was the mercurial Dan Carter who settled nerves with an excellent drop goal to open a seven point gap and then the dagger to Australia hearts with a monster penalty kick which opened the game out to a two score game. Australia were forced to go for broke thereafter and no better team like New Zealand to pounce on an opponent attacking play error. The scoreline read 34-17 for New Zealand, a fitting end for the careers of McCaw, Carter, Ma Nonu (superb), Mealeamu whose service to the jersey has being nothing short of sensational. The reins of the team now are transferred to the likes of Read, Slade and it will be interesting to see how New Zealand transition without dropping their standards. Steve Hansen’s role in this success cannot be understated, his rugby philosophy which promotes pace, speed and quality skill fundamentals has being evident throughout. Australia will be disappointed with this outcome but the job that Michael Chieka has done in little over twelve months has being sensational. The side refused to give up yesterday even though they were losing the contact area and suffering injury blows to Douglas and Giteau. Australia in four years will be the favorite for the Webb Ellis Cup; the squad nucleus will still be present and with some shrewd selection options, Chieka could reenact revenge on this final loss in Japan (2019). A final which came into life in the second half, a fitting way for the tournament to conclude.
Third / Fourth Place Playoff
I am with Heyneke Meyer on this one, scrap the third / fourth place playoff. Both teams clearly did not want to be there. Argentina gave up the ghost on this fixture as early as in the first quarter as the Proteas took advantage of loose Argentina defense and forward play to go thirteen points ahead in the first half. The second half was a no contest as both sides cleared the bench and try scoring opportunities increased with regularity.
At least, the fixture gave an opportunity for rugby fans to give a fond farewell to South Africa’s Victor Matfield, Schalk Burger and Brian Habana who retire from international duty; they owe nothing to their country and will enter their final chapter of their playing careers safe in the knowledge that they performed with distinction in the green jersey. South Africa enter a crucial transitional period. How does South Africa fill the void left by these players? Massive characters in the dressing room are gone stage left and it is up to the South Africa management and squad to unite and take on this challenge. Argentina’s tournament comes to a disappointing end but one has to congratulate them on the passage to the last four. They played a brand of rugby not see by a Los Puma outfit in years gone by. The traditional territorial game was ditched for a game plan which emphasized width, unerring attacking lines and fearless passing plays at the gain line. Fernandez Lobbe led his side with a command which has won plaudits from fans and journalists alike, his retirement is a big blow for Argentina but the foundations are firmly in place for Los Puma to take the next step to climb to the top of the rugby union tree. Sanchez, Hernandez, Creevy, Senatore are names that will be forever associated with Argentina’s run.
The high point of the tournament was three fold for me. The first one was the immediate aftermath of the final when the New Zealand team went for their lap of honor and a young New Zealand kid ran onto the pitch to celebrate with his heroes was man handled by security. The manner in which the New Zealand management and players around the incident reacted and dealt with the situation has won even more fans for the All Blacks. Sonny Bill Williams, what a legend. His generous act to give his medal to the young lad was something that I would not envisage a NH player doing in the same situation. Williams’s generosity and compassion to the boy spoke everything which is good for the game; respect for others. Williams has subsequently got a new medal but that is beside the point, an incredible gesture.
The second high point of the tournament was the confirmation if was needed that Dan Carter is lights out the best out-half to ever play the game in the professional era. Injury cost his place four years ago but Carter would not be denied this year, his performances when New Zealand required him the most were sensational. Carter dismantled France with a game management performance which will not be seen in quite a while; his pass selection, the speed of pass, his kicking from hand and on the tee were exceptional. Carter continued to catch the eye against South Africa whose physicality asked questions of New Zealand’s out-half to change the game. Carter produced in reams; tactical kicking on point to give New Zealand territorial advantage which produced points in the red zone. Carter’s penalty kicking was unerring and in the final, his two scores after Australia closed the lead to 21-17 won his team the Webb Ellis Cup. Carter was the MVP of the tournament, to give it to anyone else is a shocker.
Japan’s emergence to the world stage with their upset victory over Proteas will live long in the memory.
The disparity between NH and SH teams continues to grow. The tournament was played in ideal weather conditions, predominant dry conditions exposed the massive skill set gaps in the two hemispheres. Where NH teams were safety first, physicality and brawn over skill and imagination, SH teams caught the eye with expansive style of rugby (increasing width to stretch defenses to breaking point). It was a sobering tournament for the NH teams culminating in France’s humiliation to New Zealand. The only NH team to come of this tournament with any credit was Scotland and it was due to their decision to deploy an expansive style. Their exit was brutally cruel but Vern Cotter and team can hold their heads high. As for the other NH teams, they under-performed and yes that includes Ireland whose dependency on a small number of key players in the squad came home to roost with their exit at the hands of Argentina. No quick fix in sight to alleviate the gulf seen during this tournament.
The level of officiating and citing implementation left plenty for improvement during this tourney. Where the small nations were being handed with excessive suspensions (Samoa – Tuilagi ban), the nations at the top table got away with proverbial murder (Sean O’Brien ban, McCaw having no case to answer after his late coming together on Louw in the semi-final, Ford / Gray suspension and then overturned put the citing process into disrepute). Fairness and equality is not words associated with the citing process during this tournament. The match officiating was poor. The role of the assistant referees was embarrassing at times; over dependency on the TMO and when they were required (Scotland’s controversial exit) was nowhere to be seen. Craig Joubert as an international match official is in ruins; poor mistake but was thrown to the wolves by World Rugby. Nigel Owens aside, the officiating crews failed to show the consistency required, look no further than Wayne Barnes and the chop tackle interpretation. The breakdown and the ability to clear a player is now subject to much debate. Too many inconsistencies in officiating during this tournament has being a disappointment.