World Cup review: Blossoms set tone for feast of rugby

‘Irish Times’ team looks back at an eventful tournament and pick their highs and lows

Dan Carter and New Zealand win best player and team awards at the World Rugby Awards, Australia's Michael Cheika named coach of the year. VIdeo: Reuters


Gerry Thornley

Match of the tournament? Spoilt for choice. Japan provided the best finish, Australia v Argentina was the most breathless, but that heroic Welsh comeback at Twickenham which rocked the World Cup and its hosts to their very core had the best mix of occasion, atmosphere and climax.

Player of the tournament? Dan Carter. To come back from his injury four years ago, and all the injuries and loss of form up until this year, to coolly guide the Blacks as he did cemented his status as the best outhalf ever.

Best Try? Spent way too long on this, but it was fun. The 84th-minute try by Karne Hesketh in the last play was a reward for eschewing a penalty to draw and for the bravery in trusting their skills and going wide. But, the deciding factor, it gave Japan a win against a Springboks team defending for their lives. What’s to debate?

Biggest shock? Japan beating South Africa, and in the manner they did. The Brave Blossoms indeed.

Will miss? As it should be, the sustained quality and entertainment of the rugby. For a little while, everything else will seem a little antic-climatic.

Won’t miss? Cardiff hotel congestion and pricing, and the London transport system. Efficient though it is, won’t miss three hours or so of seemingly daily commuting.

Funniest/strangest moment? Two very different things. But Nigel Owens ticking off Stuart Hogg for diving at St James’s Park was good: “There was nothing wrong with it [the tackle]. If you want to dive like that again, come back here in two weeks and play, not today. Watch it.” Loved it.

Also an English journalist asking me for Irish highlight.

“Beating France.”

Pause. “At least you have one.”

Strangest one is not for publication.

How will history judge Ireland’s campaign? Came up short of the breakthrough semi-final with a flawed effort against Argentina (defensively too narrow) but stirring comeback and there were mitigating circumstances. They were, after all, close on Ireland’s five most influential players. There’s always next time.

Matt Williams

Match of the tournament? For pure theatre Japan’s victory over the Springboks was mesmeric and the immense courage of the Australians against an inspirational Argentina was rugby at its best. However, the commanding display by New Zealand in tearing France asunder in the quarter final was some of the finest rugby I have witnessed. A masterful display of attacking rugby.

Player of the tournament? Aaron Smith has reinvented scrumhalf play. A jockey-sized man, he is living proof the game is not all about giants. He is lightning fast and the pace of his pass is one of the fastest from the ground to receiving man I have seen. And the lines of running in his support play are revolutionary.

Best Try? A rare New Zealand dropped pass that led to the ball being hacked through, then a more than fortuitous bounce for the Georgian fullback, Beka Tsiklauri, to gather, race 20 metres and swan dive over for a try against the best in the world. A try Beka will dine out on for the rest of his life.

Biggest shock? The return of the running game, in all its glory, to once again make rugby ‘The game they play in heaven’. I hoped and wished, but did not predict, that the tier two teams would play such expansive attacking rugby.

Will miss? Top-quality, exciting, running rugby every game, every week . . . except when Ireland played.

Won’t miss? Scrums that take three minutes to set, then referees giving penalties to the wrong team. In truth, the referees are getting it wrong more than 50 per cent of the time.

Funniest/strangest moment? Nigel Owens standing quietly, weight on one leg, hands behind his back, looking wistfully into the stands. Meanwhile, all 16 of the French and New Zealand forwards are giving each other the full handbag treatment. Nigel waits until they calm down and says, “Are you all quite finished?” Not sure how that translated into French.

How will history judge Ireland’s campaign? The Irish tactics were the same as taking a knife to a gun fight. The gameplan was a dinosaur. The game has evolved. For Ireland this World Cup was a huge missed opportunity. It’s gone and it’s not coming back. Let’s hope Ireland have learned some lessons.

Second Captains

Liam Toland

Match of the tournament? Rugby is often a tough game to watch but with the exception of Ireland v Italy every game of this World Cup has been simply brilliant. All have had their own personality and story and major incidents.

How could 15 Welsh not score against 13 Wallabies?

How could a Wallaby scrum demolish the English? Where did all those Argentinian offloads come from? But what a last few minutes as Japan scored in the corner to sink the Springboks.

Player of the tournament? Pre-tournament it was Nehe Milner-Skudder but on the other wing Julian Savea has stolen the show. Then there was our own Iain Henderson, or so many other secondrows such as Alun Wyn Jones or Brodie Retallick.

What about Namibian smasher Jacques Burger or Georgian captain Mamuka Gorgodze’s man-of-the-match performance in losing 43-10 against the All Blacks? But by single-handedly y forcing elite opposition to change their tactics – David Pocock.

Best Try? Savea bouncing three French men over to score or Joaquín Tuculet doing likewise against us or Wallaby tighthead Sekope Kepu’s outrageous offload to Kurtley Beale for Bernard Foley’s try against England. But Japan’s 83:55 minute try against the Springboks was the best; firstly ignoring the three points and a draw by electing for a lineout against the best lineout in the world before the big fend from Amanaki Mafi with Karne Hesketh scoring in the corner. Magnificent.

Biggest shock? Easy. Japan v Springboks but a bigger shock has been how every game has been simply brilliant.

Will miss? Stuart Barnes, the rugby, the fan zones and the many, many fancy dress leprechauns.

Won’t miss? TMOs.

Funniest/strangest moment? While indignantly queuing up outside O’Neill’s pub in Cardiff the night of Ireland’s massive victory over France, I received on Twitter a notice from @Flan8 Rory Flanigan “@LiamToland7 a plan has been hatched to get yourself and gallimh into o’neills. DM for further details (as i don’t know how to!)”. The genius plan from @Flan8? To smuggle us in the back window! Success!

How will history judge Ireland’s campaign? Those who control the present (Southern Hemisphere) control our knowledge of the past (RWC ’15).

We dominate the Six Nations and deserve huge credit but the Six Nations is not fit for purpose so Ireland’s campaign will be judged as a watershed if we adjust. If not, it will be judged poorly.

John O’Sullivan

Match of the tournament? The easy answer would be Japan’s seismic win over South Africa that shredded preordained notions but for me it would be Australia’s utterly compelling victory over Argentina at Twickenham, a match whose imperfections enhanced rather than detracted from the spectacle, a homily to the mental and physical qualities of sport in its rawest form.

Player of the tournament? Australia’s blindside flanker Scott Fardy. His backrow team-mates Michael Hooper and David Pocock captured the headlines but it was Fardy’s work ethic, selfless dedication and his effectiveness in all facets of play that allowed the twin terrors to go foraging with impunity. Argentina wing Santiago Cordero shows that there is a place for the non six-footer in the modern game: a scintillating runner.

Best try? Replacement Karne Hesketh’s match-winning try for Japan against South Africa; the match clock had turned red and from a scrum that back-pedalled the Japanese showed the fortitude and precision, using the full expanse of the pitch, to score that match-defining try.

Biggest shock? The Brave Blossoms were exactly that in defeating the Springboks. It was a massive shot in the arm for the tournament and a persuasive argument for World Rugby to re-examine tour schedules and fixture lists to incorporate the tier two nations on a more regular basis.

Will miss? South West Trains and the gentle journeys through the Surrey countryside and beyond en route to Weybridge, Cobham, Sunbury, Guildford, Teddington South Croydon and Bagshot. Argentina, and the way they played throughout the tournament. Oh, and Bizarro Italian restaurant in Paddington and the salame piccante pizza.

Won’t miss? The disorganised, chaotic mess that was Cardiff train station.

Funniest/strangest moment? Definitely the most surreal was standing on the platform at Cobham railway station returning from an Italian press conference and looking beyond the trees and into Chelsea FC’s training ground where a number of their teams, including the first team players, were going through their paces.

How will history judge Ireland’s campaign? There is obvious mitigation in the absence through injury/suspension of five front-line players ahead of the quarter-final against Argentina but it won’t assuage the overwhelming feeling of crushing disappointment, primarily attributable to the manner in which the game was lost, as much as the defeat itself. Unlike most other quarter-final defeats, this one will be filed under ‘what if?’.

Johnny Watterson

Match of the tournament Pool game; Argentina v New Zealand. It gave an ominous sense of what was to come for Joe Schmidt. A nimble, offensive, high-tempo, physical and dauntless Argentina, who had individual players with brilliance and who would meet Ireland. They led New Zealand for about 50 minutes (no trolls please on that stat).

Player of the tournament Aaron Smith runs though puddles without splashing. That kind of effortless speed and the passing authority he brings to scrumhalf is the heartbeat of how the All Blacks shape their fast game. Understated and magnificent.

Best try New Zealand winger Julian Savea against France. Knocking away three French players was, well, very poor from them. But this is what rugby has largely become, a series of rhinoceros charges. But Savea kept his balance, poise and played that hard game wonderfully.

Biggest shock? Has to be Michael Cheika declaring that the referees should back their mates when World Rugby panicked and nailed Craig Joubert for his wrong penalty call in Australia v Scotland. Cheiks lite? No, he’ll be running for president, mate.

Will miss? Wembley Stadium for rugby. Ireland v Romania and a world record crowd. Hyde Park parrots. London cabbies – “Here’s what I think about rugby . . . zzz.” Waterloo station. Shish Pipes in Bayswater. London.

Won’t miss? Snapshots of posh authority in Penny Hill Park Hotel: “You shouldn’t be ha, you should be tha.” Cardiff train station, a meat grinder after the Ireland games. Couldn’t get on the train? Actually couldn’t get on the platform.

Funny/strangest moment The terrible, anti-tier two, poorly judged, tournament-killing decisions sent down by the judicial officers for foul play. The terrible, anti-tier two, poorly judged, tournament-killing decisions sent down by World Rugby for making Japan’s tournament five days long.

How will history judge Ireland’s campaign? It’s a wake-up call. Players will strive to be even better athletes, not just bigger. Ireland need to change a mindset; they need to get a Masters degree in spatial awareness and living in small spaces. A little liberation. The world of rugby, finally, has become a tad bigger. Joe Schmidt is safe. Some players are not.

Gavin Cummiskey

Match of the tournament? Wales beating England was special as those final few minutes changed the entire tournament dynamic. It also revealed the body count that comes with winning. New Zealand versus South Africa came a close second – ’twas a titanic Test match.

Player of the tournament? Dan Carter. For Ireland, it was Peter O’Mahony. Not for the first time, and hopefully not the last, he wrecked his body to maintain world class blindside flanker standards.

Best Try? As a collective effort, Japan’s third, by Karne Hesketh, against the Springboks is only bettered by Bernard Foley’s brilliantly worked score with Kurtley Beale, to crush England at Twickenham. But number one has to be Julian ‘Lomu’ Savea boshing three big French defenders.

Biggest shock? Japan beating South Africa (watched it in the Millennium stadium with English, Welsh, Irish, Canadian and two Japanese journalists).

Will miss? The work. The games. Reading on trains. My Kew Road Airbnb. Surprisingly, London – especially Notting Hill and Richmond.

Won’t miss? The food, or lack of, in media centres. All the pettiness.

Funniest/strangest moment? Being fluent in Afrikaans and following the horrors of Brighton, I was welcomed into the Springbok camp by my life-long friend Victor Matfield to be their mental skills coach. Waking up on a desert island and realising it was all a dream. Actually waking up in Cheltenham of all places. Odd few days.

How will history judge Ireland’s campaign? Cursed. If any two from O’Mahony, Jared Payne, Paul O’Connell, Seán O’Brien and Johnny Sexton were on the field against Argentina it was a vastly different game. But they weren’t. That the French broke three of them further highlights a major Irish weakness – our inherent lack of durability.

Joe Schmidt spent over two years developing a cautious yet effective territorial approach but like 2007 and 2011 the superior rugby nations evolved quicker than Ireland could between the Six Nations and the World Cup.

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