Well, what a game that was! New Zealand 34 Australia 17. A fitting end to what has been an excellent World Cup, notwithstanding England’s flop. The best team by a mile ran out winners – the first ever to win back-to-back World Cups. The first time the All Blacks have won it outside New Zealand. They can now lay claim to being the best team ever.
I missed the semi finals as I was in New York and, believe it or not, had better things to do than try to catch the games in an Irish bar somewhere. Maybe if England had been playing…
But the quarter finals had all been superb, in different ways. The All Blacks crushed France with the most awesome display of all round rugby brilliance that the tournament witnessed. Australia and Scotland slugged it out until the last, with a controversial Aussie penalty which dashed Scotland’s chances. I felt sorry for them for a micro-second. Argentina showed how much they have improved as a result of playing in the Southern Hemisphere championship, and gave Ireland a trouncing. The Irish were the unluckiest team with injuries, losing so many of their leading players in the brutal game against France. And South Africa ground their physical way to a close victory against Wales, who were also battling against injuries.
From what I read and saw on highlights, New Zealand showed they could tough it out in a grim struggle with South Africa in the semis, while Argentina lost it mentally against the Aussies, who won quite easily. And so we had what was probably the dream final for anyone setting aside their own national allegiances.
The game followed a classic pattern. First quarter, two sides sounding each other out. The All Blacks on the front foot with Ma’a Nonu blasting through on a few occasions; but Aussies resolute in defence. Second quarter, New Zealand stepped up a gear and scored a brilliant try just before half time, with Milner-Skudder finishing off some outstanding interplay between four or five of the team, including centre Conrad Smith’s reverse pass which sent the Aussie defence off kilter and allowed the decisive passes which led to the try. The speed, the intensity, the intelligence: this is what England must work on. They had it in 2003 – they need to get it back! Third quarter, crucial. Nonu scored an outstanding individual try – power, footwork, pace. Released by an amazing Sonny Bill Williams offload. Sonny Bill replaced Conrad Smith at half time. The man who created the first try with a bit of magic and had been his usual solid self. But no sentiment in this All Black team – they wanted to kill off Australia. So many options!
But then Ben Smith upended Aussie winger Drew Mitchell at the breakdown and was sin-binned. In the ten minutes that followed, Australia scored two tries: one pure forward power, finished by Pocock, the second a nicely crafted chance with Kuridrani powering through a gap in the All Blacks’ defence, created by a deft kick from scrum half Will Genia and a perfectly timed pass from Drew Mitchell. Behind a lot of the Aussie attacking was bad boy Kurtley Beale, who came on after 26 minutes for Matt Giteau, who got concussed in a tackle. Losing Giteau so early on was a massive blow for Australia; but Beale minimised the damage with an excellent, adventurous display.
So it looked like the traditional Aussie comeback was on. From being 21-3 down, they got back to 21-17. But as we went into the fourth quarter, Dan Carter steadied the ship. First an audacious drop goal, then a penalty from close to his own half way line. Breathing space. Australia tired, New Zealand re-energised. And towards the end a dangerous run from Beale led to a fumble by Mitchell, Ben Smith pouncing, surging through and kicking ahead incisively for sub Beauden Barrett to sprint ahead of a knackered Aussie defence to collect the ball and touch down to complete the victory.
In the end, a score of 34 -17 looks like a comprehensive victory. But it doesn’t tell the story of stout Australian resistance and a serious wobble by the All Blacks while Ben Smith was in the bin. But they were resilient when they needed to be, and in Dan Carter had the man to show coolness under pressure with that drop goal. He did the same in the semi final against South Africa. The world’s best fly half half of the last decade finally getting the chance to grace the greatest stage – a World Cup final. Injury robbed him of the chance in 2007. It wasn’t just Kiwis who were hoping he wouldn’t get crocked in the early games. It was right that he should finish his international career where he belonged – at the very top. Man of the match in what, I guess, is the best final since rugby World Cups began, in 1997. I say I guess, trying to be neutral for a moment, as it can only be 2003 for we English, when we beat the Aussies on their home turf!
A lot of top New Zealand players are now retiring from internationals: their amazing captain, Richie McCaw, Dan Carter (off to earn a fortune at Racing Paris for three years), the awesome Ma’a Nonu and his central partner, Conrad Smith (61 games together!), stalwart forward Kevin Mealamu. Will it make much difference? I don’t suppose so – not for long, anyway. The replacements will already be ready to slot in, I’m sure. New Zealand don’t leave much to chance.
It has been a great World Cup. Many are saying the best. The quality of the games has been high. England and Wales have been good hosts, with most games sold out. Shame about the England performance itself; but let’s just say they were unlucky to be in that group of death with Australia and Wales, and might have grown if they’d got into the quarter finals from an easier group.
There’s no doubt that there are a lot of very talented young English players. We see that at Quins, and all the top sides are in a similar position. The challenge is to get them to play with the intensity, the pace, speed of thought – and confidence – that they are capable of when they pull on an England shirt. And that needs management which brings out that potential. Clive Woodward managed it in the years up to 2003; maybe the authorities should bring him back into the fold, at least to advise them on what to do next. Director of Rugby?
Won’t happen, of course!