Gordon D'Arcy: World Cup was won with offloads and line breaks

Carter delivered, but it was New Zealand’s outstanding tries that decided both games

Archive: The New Zealand All Blacks, the first team to retain the Rugby World Cup, arrive home in Auckland. Video: Reuters

 

How will this World Cup be remembered? That question must be viewed from two perspectives – the champions and Ireland’s – because each provides vastly different answers.

As much as Australia tried to make this tournament about turnovers, line breaks and offloading became the signature actions. That made it all about the All Blacks. The semi-finalists were always going to have place-kickers with 90 per cent returns so it was that extra attacking element which would make the difference.

Dan Carter delivered with crucial drop goals in both semi-final and final, but it was New Zealand’s outstanding tries that decided both games.

For all of Carter’s magnificence, Ma’a Nonu was the key figure each time.

Nonu’s try was the dagger in Wallaby hearts. Plenty more happened thereafter but it was the game’s pivotal score. Really the credit goes to Sonny Bill Williams as much as it does Leinster’s major problem in December.

A coach looking back at it might argue that the defenders on the inside of Williams could have arrived earlier but his athleticism was absolutely ridiculous.

Williams had just carried and offloaded to put Nehe Milner Skudder over the gainline. Straight away he was back as first receiver to side step Michael Hooper and draw two more tacklers. There was a tiny hole as Stephen Moore and David Pocock scampered around the other side. But Nonu caught them with a rapid change of direction as he caught a one-handed basketball offload from Williams, who was seemingly in the ideal position to be choke tackled.

How can a defender read that? Nonu is one of the only people who could. He was attuned to the offload and that’s the difference. Instantly he had to step a defender. Then he beat Kurtley Beale in the back field. Then he out-sprinted Drew Mitchell while avoiding a repeat of the fumble he made over the French line in the quarter-final.

In many respects New Zealand will miss Nonu more than the other retiring players, especially considering Sonny Bill Williams is focusing primarily on Sevens ahead of the Olympics.

Gainline

Almost all of New Zealand’s first-phase attacks were based on Nonu carrying over the gainline. It was the first thing they did in the final. Because Aaron Smith’s pass is so quick and Carter takes possession so flat, he’s already in the space New Zealand need to be in to score off second or third phase. Or fifth or sixth. Whenever the inevitable soft shoulder materialises.

This was back to basics rugby; the simple skills of catch and pass in perpetual pacy motion with straight runners and nobody breaking stride. That was how the World Cup was won.

New Zealand are about to enter a season which could put Ireland’s crushing injury list into context. Their top five players are gone.

For Seanie O’Brien see Richie McCaw, Johnny Sexton see Carter, Jared Payne’s rugby brain see Conrad Smith and so on.

They can replenish their ranks like no other nation, but Australia and South Africa know they are automatically closer to them. They know what players hurt them the most in Twickenham.

In the final New Zealand made 19 line breaks. Australia had four. Against South Africa it was only 5-3 but for defenders beaten it was 20-3 in New Zealand’s favour, with three offloads to none by the Springboks. The semi-final in the rain was compared to a Six Nations game. If that’s the case then New Zealand would have a lot of Grand Slams.

In both matches New Zealand scored their key tries – the Nonu assist for Beauden Barrett and the Nonu try – and then Carter played territory.

Another glaring area of superiority throughout the tournament was New Zealand’s metres run with ball in hand. In the semi-final they clocked up 387m to South Africa’s 149m.

Second Captains

No team should lose with these statistics. And they developed a culture of always finding a score when they needed it most. In the semi-final they drew the 10 minutes without Jerome Kaino, 3-3, while in the final Australia took advantage to get their two tries with Ben Smith in the sin bin. But it always felt like New Zealand would go down and get another score.

It was five minutes after Tevita Kurindrani’s try that Carter’s drop goal made it a seven-point game again. That erased any doubt in All Black minds.

The one moment I thought they were in trouble was when Kieran Read went down on his ankle so early in the match. Read probably mangled his ligaments but you would be surprised how long a player can keep going on a serious injury in one of the biggest games of their lives.

Stubbornness

I wrecked my ankle in the 2011 final against Northampton but there was no way I was coming off or letting my performance dip. Read kept going. It’s adrenaline, stubbornness, you get where you need to go.

In contrast, Australian bodies began to crumble (another theme of this World Cup). Matt Giteau and Kane Douglas were not supposed to be gone so soon. That severely damaged Michael Cheika’s replacement strategy as Dean Mumm and Kurtley Beale were slated to make fourth-quarter impacts.

Add an unfit Israel Folau to this situation and Australia were robbed of the chance to play a perfect game.

Same happened to Ireland. Now the dust has settled the overriding emotion I feel about Ireland’s World Cup campaign is regret at not seeing them perform in the quarter-final with something close to their best squad.

If Johnny and Paulie stayed fit I have no doubt we would have reached the semi-final. Even in the face of that brilliant Argentina performance.

I said before the tournament we needed most of our best players on the field to go further than ever before. We don’t have the strength in depth of other nations. That has improved immensely since 2011, and that’s down to Joe Schmidt, but we still don’t have a really strong playing base. That can only come by coaching our under-12s to a higher skill level .

But I spent the summer preparing with this Ireland squad so I know they were ready to do something special. We all saw it in the way they slipped into autopilot to put France away in that second half.

This group of Irish men were primed both physically and mentally. They were unlucky.

Could New Zealand have won this World Cup without McCaw and Carter?

Could Beauden Barrett and Sam Cane have made the necessary difference against South Africa and Australia? We’ll never know but it would have been even closer than it was.

What we do know is Ireland became a vastly different side without Paul O’Connell and Johnny Sexton. Those two, Seanie O’Brien and Mike Ross were irreplaceable at this moment in time.

I played professional rugby for 17 years but only once did I get hit anything like the way Louis Picamoles caught Johnny. I blame Felipe Contepomi. It was against Leicester at the RDS when I saw his pass floating through the air as Alesana Tuilagi built up a head of steam.

Oh God this is bad, I thought, as ball and Alesana arrived at the same time. Unlike Johnny, I just shifted my hip before getting body slammed into the ground so I wasn’t caught cold. I got up straight away and slow jogged into midfield trapped in my hurt locker.

That little hip shift was the difference between my day ending and surviving. But what happened Johnny is so rare. All 120kg of Picamoles nailed him when he wasn’t protecting himself. Johnny could have flicked on the ball and braced himself but he’s too selfless a player to even consider that. He took it in two hands, passed it, then braced for the hit as it was happening. He was a millisecond too late.

Paulie could play another 20 years for Ireland and that injury, while spread over a ruck, wouldn’t happen again.

Jared Payne broke his foot running.

Passion

I have sympathy for Seanie O’Brien too. He played with a passion that drove Ireland past France, that proved so inspirational to all those around him, but for one second in the early seconds that fury boiled over.

Except for Pete O’Mahony, who typically forced his body way past breaking point, all the injuries were freakish occurrences.

Now take the Welsh injuries. They were dislocating shoulders running head on into people. They looked physically drained after the England game.

Argentina broke down in the semi-final, Australia broke down in the final. New Zealand broke down in 2011. Maybe they learned a valuable lesson from that.

Ireland were unlucky and now, regrettably, we will never know how good that group of players could have become under Schmidt’s coaching.

But this World Cup was about offloads and line breaks. That’s how it was won. Ireland would have met Australia in the semi-final and three or four players would have been needed to clear any attacking ruck where there was a Wallaby backrow.

We saw the havoc wreaked by Pocock, Hooper and Scott Fardy at almost every New Zealand breakdown. McCaw needed to be at his ageless best to stop them.

Look what Australia did to Argentina in the opening minutes. It’s hard not to think we would have arrived into that game in a similar emotional and physical state as the Pumas.

Basically, the two best teams on the planet made the final. Life moves rapidly on. Leinster must brace themselves for back-to-back matches against Toulon next month. And they must make sure they are alive after Wasps and Bath.

Ireland remain the best equipped squad to win the Six Nations. The 2011 aftermath was tough to take. We took a few weeks off, spent time with our families, had a few beers and then went back to base camp to scale another peak. There’s always another mountain to climb – 2011/12 proved one of the best ever seasons to be wearing a Leinster jersey as we retained the Heineken Cup.

The provinces are a great place for an Irish player right now as they return to a competitive environment where other players have been trying to steal their jerseys while they were away. I got into the 2004 Six Nations squad off the back of not making the 2003 World Cup.

The game moves rapidly on. Plenty of well conditioned, in-form young lads will remind them of that.

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