Well there it is. The pre-tournament favourites New Zealand are world champions again. The best team in the world. Deserving winners of what’s being hailed as the greatest world cup ever. Record attendances, record TV audiences (25million Japanese viewers watched their team beat Samoa!) Nearly 2.5 million tickets sold, representing 98% of total availability. £80 million into the coffers of World Rugby which will help to develop the game world wide. A profit of £15 million for the English Rugby Football Union. Off the pitch the story was one of success and, more importantly, on the pitch the tournament was a real firecracker. The tone was set on the opening weekend with Japan’s epic victory over the Springboks and it’s been the contribution of the ‘tier two’ nations which has made this world cup so enjoyable. Throughout the pool stages the majority of teams were prepared to throw caution to the wind in pursuit of victory and that is why the rugby has been so enjoyable. Inevitably, quality told in the end and an Australia, New Zealand final paired the tournament’s two most impressive sides.
Friday night saw the defeated semi-finalists, Argentina and South Africa play off for third and fourth place. After defeat in the semi-final it is extremely hard for the teams involved to raise genuine enthusiasm for this game. It was the final match for South African stalwarts Victor Matfield and Schalk Burger and perhaps a desire to see their team mates retire with a win gave the Springboks a little extra determination. They dominated the game from first to last and finished with a 24 – 13 victory.
That was the curtain raiser and on Saturday was the final. The finalists are not only the two most skilfull sides in the world they are also the two most intelligent sides in world rugby. Australia have two of the best back row forwards in the game in Pocock and Hooper and their speciality is quickly stealing, or ‘jackaling’ in rugby parlance, the ball from players who have been tackled to the ground. The All Blacks countered this threat by trying to keep the ball off the ground as much as they could. Rather than allow themselves to be dragged down with the ball they constantly passed and ‘off-loaded’ from the tackle, before they went to ground. By keeping the ball moving they limited the chances of having the ball stolen. Australia tackled as though their lives depended on it but a team of New Zealand’s ability will always make the most of the slightest of opportunities and in spite of the Aussies courageous defence, wave after wave of All Black attacks was rewarded when they took a 21- 3 lead minutes into the second half. It seemed that it was all over, but not a bit of it. When a yellow card for a tip tackle reduced New Zealand to 14 men for 10 minutes the Wallabies sensed a chance. Two converted tries while they had a man advantage saw them right back in the game at 17 – 21.
In such a tight game at this exalted standard, experience is invaluable. Dan Carter was playing his last game for the All Blacks. The world record points scorer, and one of the game’s all time greats, kept his nerve to kick a dropped goal and push the lead back to 7 points. It calmed his team mates, focussed minds and when he kicked a penalty a few minutes later Australia were suddenly 10 points, at least two scores, behind.
The Wallabies threw everything into attack but a dropped ball was grabbed by New Zealand full back Ben Smith. Most players would have just booted the ball to safety but he ran with it, and when the defenders closed in on him he kicked ahead for Beauden Barrett to chase and score the decisive try. As ever, with the maelstrom swirling all around, it was a calm head and clear thinking which won the day.