Right and proper end to 2011 Rugby World Cup
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I’m not expecting many comments from my New Zealand readers today. Indeed, they are well excused for still partying like it’s 1987. In what’s been a tough year for their country, it’s time to allow the Kiwis their time in the sun.
And since they’re not reading, I might first indulge a few pars about the Wallabies breaking their Eden Park drought; a hard-fought 21-18 win in the Bronze playoff over Wales.
All in all, this was a bit of a letdown as a game. Even though I had forecast late last week that it might be a tight and torrid affair, and that the Wallabies might be facing their toughest match yet, it just never reached any great heights as a contest.
The first twenty minutes were decent enough, and the Wallabies opened with a well-worked try for Berrick Barnes. But the twenty minutes either side of halftime were très ordinaire at best. This period also unfortunately claimed Quade Cooper, whose serious knee injury capped off what must have been a tough campaign in his homeland.
Thankfully, the final twenty minutes made up for the previous sixty. Wales’ try after the bell might well have been the team try of the tournament, a 32-phase movement that started near their own 22m line. Happily, by that stage, Barnes had already sewn up both the result and the Man of the Match hamper (or whatever it is MotMs win).
Yes, Shane Williams’ foot probably was in row C in the lead-up to the last try of the game, but honestly, it doesn’t really matter. If we were happy for the players to be a bit lax in this game, then it’s only fair that we can’t go hard on the officials as well.
Cooper’s injury was a horrible sight – knees buckling in ways they’re not designed to rarely make for comfortable viewing – but his absence from the Spring tour in a few weeks gives Robbie Deans the chance to try yet more combinations.
Barnes has to be a death-and-taxes certainty now for the no.10 jumper. That much we can probably all agree on. But I reckon James O’Connor showed enough in the midfield to suggest that he perhaps should be given a run in London and Cardiff at inside centre. He’s played well over thirty Tests now, and it must be getting near time to throw some more responsibility on his vitamin-boosted shoulders. Let’s see if he doesn’t get tired or stressed in a high-pressure position.
Interestingly, this could be the beginning of a budding rivalry between two teams on the up, too. Both teams have young exciting players in the backline and some imposing young punks in the forwards too. The thought of Pocock v Warburton over the next few years is mouth-watering alone.
Friday night’s game was the first of five within eight months, and by the time RWC2015 rolls on in England, these two teams could well be toward the top of the rugby tree. Stay tuned, I suspect.
Of course, the main event of the weekend, in fact the main event of the last four years of international rugby, was what played out on Sunday night.
From the outset, this was always going to be a night to remember. Both sides belted out their respective anthems, but the early highlight of the night would come just moments later.
When France lined up in their arrow formation to face off against the All Blacks’ Kapo O Panga, you certainly hoped something more was to come of it. And boy, didn’t it!
Advancing not just beyond their sterile IRB-legislated don’t-dare-offend-anyone 10m line no-go zone, the French moved as one arm-in-arm just into New Zealand territory, and stared down the haka in a manner not seen since Wales’ brilliant standoff in Cardiff years ago.
This was an important statement from France: we’re here on your turf to take what you think is yours.
And how close they nearly came to doing it. Though the All Blacks’ defence would stand up and repel the constant barrage of French attacking waves, Les Bleus can be proud of their part in one of the games of the tournament.
From the opening whistle, it was obvious France wanted to play the same way they faced the haka: in the All Blacks’ faces. Maintaining both possession and their break-neck speed, it really looked as though the French really wanted to run New Zealand around.
Unfortunately, though, the opening salvo only lasted around fifteen minutes, where after a bungled French lineout and penalty saw the All Blacks make their first visit deep into attacking territory. The front and back of the lineout split in opposite directions, and suddenly Tony Woodcock found himself with the ball as the waters parted in front of him to the try line.
You felt that Woodcock’s try would be the start, but the French held on like they hadn’t before in the tournament. Players, stadium crowd, commentators, and the entire occupancy of my sports den seemed surprised that the score was still 5-0 at halftime.
Both teams were forced to go their bench early. The evident curse on No.10s over the last seven weeks had one last double dose to hand out, with both Morgan Parra and Aaron Cruden cruelly struck down before the break. Surprisingly, Graham Henry replaced Piri Weepu and Keven Mealamu not long into the second half, too.
Goal kicking was perhaps unsurprisingly off on such a high-pressure night, and so it really was a special kind of irony that Stephen Donald – of all people – would kick what would be the winning penalty goal. I can’t imagine he was thinking of that scenario when fishing on the Waikato a fortnight ago. But good luck to him, either way.
France produced a game against New Zealand that perhaps only France could; a spectacular kind of flawed brilliance only the most erratic of teams are capable of.
The stats will support a decent argument that perhaps the best team lost on the night, too, but then there isn’t a stat for Les Bleus’ abundant enterprise and flair. Nor is there one for the All Blacks’ resilience and ability to withstand what plenty of other teams at the tournament would succumb to.
No matter how wide France threw it, and often it was sideline to sideline and back, the All Blacks were there to cover it. New Zealand’s fortified consistency over the last however many years got them home.
This was a triumph for the hours upon months upon years spent honing their defensive patterns, where everyone knows their role within the garrison, and how to execute it to perfection. Steve Hanson very deservedly got the bulk of praise within the New Zealand coaches’ box as Craig Joubert blew time on the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
On fulltime, Richie McCaw was an exhausted, yet obviously proud captain. Likewise, Coach Henry’s upside down smile has possibly never been bigger. It both cases, it was highly justified.
The All Blacks will undergo something of a generational change in the coming years, with both coaches and some key players moving on. Other players may not make it to England in four years time for varying reasons. But one thing you can be assured of is that whoever comes into those places vacated will be just as good, and the All Blacks juggernaut will roll on.
As much as I willed France on to spring an upset on the night, I was happily satisfied that New Zealand lifted the quadrennial symbol to confirm what the rugby world has known for years.
It was just the right and proper end to what has truly been a memorable Rugby World Cup.
Brett McKay is a former non-tackling scrumhalf and not-quite-1st Grade middle order stalwart. A rugby and cricket expert for The Roar since July 2009 (having joined in Sept 2008), Brett has written for Inside Rugby and Cricket Australia, and is also PLAY Canberra's rugby correspondent. He tweets from @BMcSport