Whether or not this has been the greatest ever rugby union World Cup is a debate I will leave to the experts, but the quality of yesterday’s final is surely beyond any doubt.
It was a fitting climax to a tournament that witnessed one of the sport’s biggest ever shocks (courtesy of Japan’s victory over South Africa) as well a game that ended in controversy and recrimination as Scotland’s courageous effort against Australia resulted in heartbreaking defeat. The competition wasn’t affected by the early demise of the hosts, and despite the sterling efforts of the other home nations, all northern hemisphere involvement had ended by the semi-final stage.
Notwithstanding the manner of the Wallabies’ win against Scotland, I think the best two teams contested the final, and the New Zealand All Blacks produced a performance befitting the biggest match the sport has to offer, and were rightfully crowned world champions for an unprecedented third time.
The eighty minutes were every bit as physical and brutal as would have been expected, but there was also plenty of sublime skill on offer, as well as some passages of play that were open enough to stand out in amongst all the defensive discipline on show.
The picture shows three of the sport’s true legends with the trophy: Dan Carter, Richie McCaw and Ma’a Nonu, and it was Nonu’s superbly-taken try that appeared to put the All Blacks out of sight at 21-3 early in the second half. The opportunity was created by a magnificent offload by Sonny Bill Williams, but the talismanic dual international’s most memorable contribution to the day’s proceedings was arguably still to come....
It takes two teams to make a great game and Australia produced a stunning ten minutes of rugby to score twice whilst holding a man advantage and reduce the gap to just four points. The destiny of the Webb Ellis Cup suddenly looked far from certain, but Carter’s nerveless left boot added a forty-metre drop goal and long-range penalty to ease New Zealand back into a two-score lead, before Beauden Barrett’s brilliant opportunist try offered the All Black fly half the chance to end his international career with a relatively straightforward kick, which he duly converted... right-footed.
As with any final, there is a stark contrast in emotion between the victors and the vanquished, but the genuine respect between the players of both sides was obvious to all those watching. New Zealand undoubtedly deserved their victory and the trophy was raised aloft by Richie McCaw, one of the finest (if not the finest) players the game has ever seen.
The celebrations included a haka, and a brilliant moment when a young fan ran onto the pitch to hug the aforementioned Sonny Bill. The kid was unceremoniously flattened by a security guard, but Williams took over the situation, embraced the youngster, posed for pictures then led the lad back to the stand... at which point he took off his medal and put it over the boy’s head.
Pure class from Sonny Bill Williams and a wonderful way to end a very special day.