Last weekend saw the glorious ending of a tournament that has really lit up the rugby world over the last six weeks. Saturday’s pulsating final saw New Zealand emerge as probably the most complete rugby team ever to grace a rugby pitch if not a sporting field period. Australia meanwhile showed that under Coach Michael Cheika they are rapidly becoming a force to be reckoned with and have plenty of promise for the future. On the other side of London on a cold and windy Friday night, South Africa and Argentina did justice to a match, that in many ways is the hardest match to play in any World Cup, the controversial bronze medal playoff.
The final at Twickenham was probably the most exciting final many of us have ever witnessed and was a refreshing departure from the low-scoring tedious defensive affairs that this fixture has tended to be in the past. New Zealand emerged as worthy winners with some spectacular displays of running rugby and a complete performance, but Australia made sure that the end result was never a complete certainty until the very closing stages of the match. South Africa showed their class against a depleted but very feisty Argentinian side that gave us repeated glimpses of the promise that this young South American team holds for the future. So let’s get the contentious issue of the bronze medal match out of the way first, before we revel in the glory of the final itself!
South Africa vs Argentina
Final Score – South Africa 24/Argentina 13
While many have called for the bronze medal match to be scrapped I must say that I do not sit in that camp. I fully agree that it can appear meaningless to some, but on the other hand to finish in the top three of such a prestigious tournament is still a significant undertaking. After these two teams soul-crushing defeats in the semi-finals I agree that it requires a real degree of motivation to get players to lift themselves for a match that much of the world sees as a complete sideshow to the main event of the last weekend of the World Cup – the final itself. Perhaps in future third place should be decided on a win record and points which in this case would have given it to Argentina who lost only one match as opposed to South Africa’s two. The merits and possible alternatives to this match will rage for many years to come and whether or not any changes will be made prior to the next World Cup in Japan remains to be seen. However, irrespective of the issues around it, I like many still enjoyed watching two teams, South Africa and Argentina who have made such an impression at this tournament, have one last hurrah in a match that did not lack in intensity.
If this match was such a dead rubber it certainly wasn’t reflected in a packed to capacity Olympic Stadium and some very clear emotions on the players faces as the national anthems were sung. Nevertheless it was clear from the outset that both teams were finding it hard to raise their game to the levels we saw the previous weekend in the semi-finals. Pride was still at stake but exhaustion and the still overriding thoughts of what might have been were clearly evident at times. Play was often sloppy from both sides and the game never really got the spark we have seen from both sides in the past few weeks, especially from Argentina.
South Africa clearly looked the better side as they were still essentially playing with their first choice XV as opposed to Argentina who were without a raft of key players. Argentina showed plenty of initiative but the lack of experience of some of the younger Pumas was there for all to see as the seasoned Springbok veterans stamped their authority on the game in the first half. Needless disciplinary errors cost Argentina penalties which allowed Springbok flyhalf Handre Pollard to kick for points and ensure that South Africa would go into the dressing rooms at half time with a solid lead. South Africa started the match as expected full of physical intensity and their first try was through some powerful forward work which left the Pumas scrambling in defence. JP Pietersen would dive over in the corner after a feed from a solid driving maul and only six minutes in Argentina would see themselves on the wrong side of the score board at 7-0 down. Handre Pollard would continue to capitalise on Argentinian errors in defence and slot a further three penalties to give South Africa a commanding lead of 16-0 at halftime.
Still it hadn’t all been the Springboks way as repeated efforts to give Bryan Habana the ball to enable him to beat New Zealand’s Jonah Lomu’s World Cup try scoring record would all end in failure. To be honest Habana had a poor game and while one could understand his teammates desire to see him beat the record, it did start to get tedious to see a series of poor passes to the winger fail to get the desired result. As great a player as he has been, Habana’s career is coming to an end and his execution at times leaves a lot to be desired. Habana was often simply not allowed to have the control over the ball he needed and Argentina’s defence was superb in shutting down the flying Springbok winger. Argentina meanwhile had run and tackled everything thrown at them and one of the most exciting players of the tournament, winger Santiago Cordero, was working overtime in the thrills department as well as providing some solid defence when needed.
The second half offered up much of the same, the only difference being that Argentina seemed to be more settled and certainly in the last fifteen minutes put in a massive shift to cross the Springbok try line. Argentine flyhalf Nicolas Sanchez once more showed his skills with the boot as he slotted a drop goal in the opening minutes of the second half to finally get his team on the scoreboard. The score clearly restored some spark to an exhausted Pumas team and the Springboks were made to work hard against a side that just refused to lie down. Realising that a comeback could be in the making South Africa ramped up their own intensity, and powerhouse lock Eben Etzebeth would go crashing over in the corner to seemingly seal the deal for the South Africans with half an hour to play.
Argentina however, continued to press and despite some bizarre decision-making in choosing to kick for goal when the game was clearly swinging in their favor from an attacking perspective, the Pumas remained doggedly in the match till the end. Their discipline improved and South African flyhalf Handre Pollard was only given the one chance at points through a penalty kick during the second half. He was replaced by Pat Lambie, who perhaps due to lack of game time during the tournament, just couldn’t find the mark when two key opportunities presented themselves for South Africa for another penalty and a kick for the touch-line.
Argentina almost had a definite try on the cards but for reasons best known to himself, Pumas number 8 Juan Manuel Leguizamon chose to hang onto the ball himself instead of offloading to Argentina’s wonder weapon winger Santiago Cordero who was free on the outside. However, in the dying seconds of the game and after sustained pressure from the Pumas, they would finally get their reward as replacement forward Juan Pablo Orlandi would haul himself over a pile of bodies and get the try that Argentina so justly deserved even if at that stage it was only a worthy consolation effort.
While it may not have been a classic, it was still entertaining and both sides have to be given credit for turning out and putting in the hard yards for a game that must have been mentally very difficult to play. As the crowd rose to their feet to salute the final appearance of Springbok legends like Victor Matfield, Bryan Habana and most probably Schalk Burger, they were also thrilled to see some of the enormous potential that Argentina has as they prepare for the next World Cup in 2019. For South Africa as their veterans hang up their boots for good, a long and difficult process of rebuilding is about to start. For the Pumas there is the nucleus already of an exceptionally exciting and talented young team, winger Santiago Cordero is only 21 after all, that I for one can’t wait to see develop over the next four years. Argentina may have finished fourth but after their performances in this tournament they have left the world hungry for more!
New Zealand vs Australia
Final Score – New Zealand 34/Australia 17
This was the grand finale that so many of us had hoped for – a glorious display of grit and determination from both sides coupled with five tries that gave a whole new lease of life to Rugby World Cup finals. Whoever you had been supporting over the last six weeks, you couldn’t help rejoice in the glorious demonstration of attacking rugby that Australia and New Zealand put on show to the world last Saturday at Twickenham. It had all the classic trademarks of a World Cup final as both sides fought valiantly and there were the usual drop goals, but perhaps not since the original tournament back in 1987 have we seen such a pulsating and exciting final. Those lucky souls who had taken out a second mortgage on their homes to be part of a packed Twickenham stadium must surely have felt they got their money’s worth. All credit has to go to both sides as New Zealand provided a master class from 1-15 while Australia in the second half fought back brilliantly to keep the game on a knife-edge until the last 15 minutes. New Zealand however in the end once again showed us how in the last quarter of any game they are for all intents and purposes unbeatable. Many have called this All Black team the greatest to ever grace a playing field let alone a rugby pitch, but what has really impressed me over the last four years is how they have become the consummate finishers in world rugby. The All Blacks have perfected the ability to simply close out any opposition in the last twenty minutes. It is for this reason that unless the rest of the world can catch up, their position as undisputed World Champions is likely to remain for at least the next few years, and them winning a third successive World Cup is not beyond the realm of possibility.
Let’s face it despite the half time score line of 16-3 for New Zealand, it was not exactly one way traffic for New Zealand as for the first half hour the score was only 6-3 in the Men in Black’s favor. What was clear though was that New Zealand were getting the basics right much better than Australia. Australia’s lineouts were often a mess and New Zealand were managing to prevent Australia’s loose forward combination of Hooper, Pocock and Fardy having much of an influence on the breakdown. When asked to kick for points flyhalf Dan Carter would not disappoint for New Zealand. But it was that man Nehe Milner-Skudder on the wing for New Zealand who, as he has all tournament, lit up the pitch for the All Blacks in the final minute of the first half to put the All Blacks firmly in charge at 16-3 as he went across in the corner. The whistle went for half time and it seemed impossible that Australia could come back from a seemingly one-sided All Black show.
The second half got underway and Australian supporters must surely have felt it was all over bar the singing as within a matter of two minutes of referee Nigel Owens blowing his whistle to get the second half underway, All Black centre Ma’a Nonu would break free and leave Australia scrambling in defence as he made one of his powerhouse runs through a series of holes that suddenly opened up in front of him. It was now 21-3 New Zealand. Still 40 minutes is a long time in Test Rugby especially for two sides of this calibre. Australia must take full credit for one of the greatest comebacks in a World Cup final we have ever seen. New Zealand in an uncharacteristic mistake from fullback Ben Smith would suddenly find themselves down to 14 men as Smith was caught tip tackling Australian winger Drew Mitchell. It was a marginal call at best and there was certainly no malicious intent, but the rules are the rules. Ben Smith’s ten minutes in the sin bin would see Australia bag 14 points and put them right back in the game at 21-17 with 15 minutes to go. David Pocock would be the first to score for Australia off a driving maul followed by some real genius in the kick and chase department from halfbacks Will Genia and Bernard Foley with centre Tevita Kuridrani completing the move.
It seemed to be game on once more and the crowd held its breath as they waited to see if New Zealand would once more show the world why they are such masters of closing out big games such as this and how they are the undisputed world champions of the last twenty minutes of such high pressure encounters. New Zealand did not disappoint as they calmly and clinically took the game away from an exceptionally spirited Australian comeback. First Dan Carter would provide the textbook drop goal to make it 24-17. A few minutes later yet another discipline lapse from Australia, an area that had plagued them all night, would cost them another 3 points as Carter made it 27-17. Then in the dying minutes, the man most likely to be wearing Dan Carter’s boots in 2019, Beauden Barret would seal the victory. Barrett would be set up by an initial error from Australia’s Drew Mitchell as he dropped the ball to have it seized up by New Zealand’s Ben Smith as if to atone for his earlier mistakes. A brilliant kick through from Smith and chased by Barrett and the rest was history as we can see below.
Your heart has to go out to Australia especially as they put in such a brilliant campaign from start to finish, especially in the pool stages. Their wobble against Scotland in that controversial quarter-final was the only real blemish in a spectacular run of form from the Wallabies over the course of six weeks. In the end, they would come incredibly close to getting their third World Cup but just fall agonisingly short at the final hurdle. Nevertheless Australia must feel excited at what lies ahead of them under the talented guidance of Coach Michael Cheika, especially when you look at the dramatic turnaround in the team’s fortunes in the space of less than twelve months since Cheika took over.
New Zealand meanwhile bids farewell to a veritable legion of superstars in the shape of Richie McCaw, Ma’a Nonu, Dan Carter and others. However, the future looks so incredibly bright as the All Black factory churns out yet another batch of rising megastars in the shape of Savea, Milner-Skudder, Barrett etc, that most New Zealanders are going to have to continue to wear shades. As one of the greatest players of all time, New Zealand’s Richie McCaw lifted the Webb Ellis trophy for New Zealand one more time, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind whoever they had been supporting during this World Cup that they had just watched a performance by probably one of the most complete and gifted teams in the history of international sport. Whether or not New Zealand can recreate this kind of form again in four years time remains to be seen but one thing is for certain – most of us will be glued to our television screens watching them try!