The report card, and indeed the history books will show one thing: New Zealand won their second World Cup in 2011 and there won’t be an asterisk beside that fact. The rest of us will remember that New Zealand basically didn’t lose the World Cup, a World Cup that was theirs to win, played at home with a final where the referee lacked the bottle to spoil the party.
Nor will the result tell that they were down to their third and fourth choice scrum and out halves respectively, or that the world’s best/most effective player was playing on one foot.
Newly retired coach Graham Henry commented that this victory would give him inner peace, and despite the fact that the country had undergone such tragedy in Christchurch, one still got the feeling that the 24 years without winning the World Cup were weighing almost as heavily on their minds. This was their ultimate mission, and winning the trophy has hopefully eased both pains for them.
In terms of how the team performed in the tournament, no one could really argue that they were not the best team in the world, prior to or during the tournament, but in the final they were outplayed and, as Neil Francis commented in the direct aftermath, they bottled it again, only to creep by a schizophrenic French side by the narrowest margin possible.
Their front five competed admirably throughout the tournament, but Brad Carnegie Thorn in particular upped his game in the knock-out stages, providing the kind hard-bastard style second row play that teams like Ireland really miss. (Yes, I’m talking about you Donncha). Owen Franks is only 23 and setting out his stall as one of the world’s premier tightheads, while Woodcock topped off solid performances throughout with his try in the final. Mealamu and Hore shared time in the No2 jersey but both looked past their respective peaks. The French repeatedly attacked the New Zealand lineout in the final to great effect. Similarly, their scrum creaked loudly against the force of Poux in the final, only to go unpunished. Usually a strength in their game, their lack of set piece in the final went a long way to making this team look much more ordinary.
In the backrow, New Zealand were again outplayed in the final, but only due to some superhuman performances that are unlikely to be repeated (by anyone) from Dusautoir and Harinodoquy. McCaw was a nuisance but went mostly unpunished, until Aurelien Rougerie decided to take his own nasty, reprehensible retribution. Read was coming back from a long term injury and was yet to play his best rugby while Vito just underwhelmed entirely. Jerome Kaino was the biggest improvement here, his performances highlighting what a talent he can be when he plays to his considerable potential. That said, perhaps the lasting image of him from this World Cup will not be casting aside opponents in the pool stages, but his unpunished infringement in the last ten minutes of the final.
Behind the scrum things got messier than anticipated. Diiiihn Kahtah’s unfortunate injury denied him the honour of winning the World Cup in the manner his performances deserve, but the performances of those behind illustrated the strength of Carter’s gravitational pull. First up was Colin Slade who lasted about 20 minutes before his body decided it wanted out of the pressure cooker and decided to tear its groin. The brave, but ultimately tiny and ineffective Aaron Cruden came next – his heart and ability to take the ball flat to the gain line being his biggest assets. Dusautoir hunted him in the final and put a hurting on him before a nasty knee-bent-wrong-way-in-slo-mo moment put paid to his aspirations. Steven Donald did kick a straightforward penalty from in front of the posts to win the World Cup, but did little else (one half break aside) as his team tried to not pass to him and they shat themselves over the finish line.
At scrum half, Andy Ellis may have had the pleasure of ending the final by booting the ball to touch but did little else other than take Piri Weepu out of the firing line. Weepu had bravely (again!) tried to take the weight his nation on his shoulders in the aftermath of Carter’s injury. In a one-sided match against Argentina he did the business, but as the pressure levels went up, the weight of Kiwi expectancy crushed Weepu as his scrumhalf game and then his kicking game went to pieces in the semi and final respectively.
While the Mole was delighted to see Mils eventually get his 100th cap, having been such a great servant to his team, his injury did not leave a particularly big hole. Israel Dagg won many admirers and was the man coming. A few wobbly punts aside, his ability under the high ball, on the counter and through contact was a joy to watch, and the try he set up for Nonu in the semi final was a thing of beauty. His shrug-off of Rocky Elsom was not the first instance of Dagg shaking off a back-row with a big reputation. The Mole considers that Dagg could become one of international rugbys biggest stars over the coming years.
Elsewhere Nonu and Jane shone as the tournament went on. Nonu is at the peak of his powers, adding fantastic passing to his bulldozing ability, while Jane’s experience as a fullback served him in good stead fielding the numerous highballs that prevail in cup match rugby.
Things were not so rosy for Zac Guildford, who was something of a bolter after a fantastic Super Rugby campaign for the Crusaders. He found himself handling the pressure of the situation badly both in his on and off field performances.
In general New Zealand have a ridiculous array of talent to play with outside their halves (I haven’t even mentioned Conrad Smith, Richard Kahui or Sunny Bull), but as the tournament wore on it showed less and less. This was almost certainly to do with the quality of their halves, but also to do with their mindset. After struggling to breakdown the gamey, ball-killing Pumas for 70 minutes, the only real moment of genius in the backs came with Nonu’s aformentioned try, the rest of the time, they simply tried to avoid errors as the all-consuming panic set in.
Once you’ve reached the top, the only way is down…
So New Zealand have managed to not lose the World Cup and finally displayed their dominance in the tournament where they had failed to do so for years. What comes next?
Firstly, McCaw and Carter will face long term lay-offs from injury, and there is likely to be more long-term absences from the squad as members of it head North in search of a well earned pay-day. Furthermore, they will be losing Graham Henry, as unlikeable as he is, will leave with an 85% win ratio and a list of honours (aside from the recent World Cup) which is frankly phenomenal. Many fancy Steve Hansen to follow on from Henry as he did in Wales. Without their coach and two best players, how will New Zealand cope?
One thing is for sure, they are never shy on producing talented new players, who often end up looking like world beaters at the start of their international careers, due to a combination of confidence, talent and an aura of mystique that Northern Hemisphere teams are trying harder and harder to not buy into (see Matty Williams’ BNZ campaign.) Players like Read, Franks and Dagg will most likely be the new generation of stars and leaders for this team, but with Ireland travelling down under for an end of season tour, it may be the best opportunity we have to beat them in quite some time. We have come close on a few occasions in early June as the Kiwis start their season and this could be their biggest period of upheaval in recent years.