When the final whistle blew at Eden Park two weeks ago it was the end of 24 years of pain for the All Blacks, as they finally took the trophy that had eluded them since they hosted the inaugural competition back in 1987. In front of a home crowd New Zealand finally delivered, and in a year which had seen their country suffer the incredible hardship of 3 earthquakes, victory could not have come at a better time.
Despite the attritional nature of their 8-7 victory over France to clinch the Webb Ellis Cup, the All Blacks were outstanding throughout the tournament. They were ruthless in the group stages and powered on into the knockout rounds turning over a committed Argentinian team in the quarter finals. Yet the best was to come with a comprehensive dismantling of Australia in the semis. They did this, we must remember, without talismanic fly half Dan Carter who was injured in the pool matches and the kiwis actually finished the tournament with Stephen Donald, their fourth choice stand off on the field. Indeed, the way in which the team coped with the loss of Carter is a testament to their all round ability. In the pack, Richie McCaw led by example despite suffering from a foot injury and credit must also go to the powerful number eight, Kieron Read, and veteran Brad Thorn who were both outstanding throughout the tournament. In the backs meanwhile, Israel Dagg announced himself as one of the most dangerous strike runners in World rugby, while Ma’a Nonu showed not only what an effective battering ram he is, but how much he has developed the rest of his game, particularly his kicking, to become the complete inside centre.
Of course the tournament was not just about the New Zealand team. Wales and Australia both showed off a new generation of young stars that look set to see their sides’ blossom into formidable units that can the challenge the All Blacks in coming years. The likes of Toby Faletau and George North played like seasoned internationals despite having just 25 international caps between them. Australia meanwhile have unearthed a gem in open side flanker David Pocock, whose performance against South Africa in the quarter finals was arguably the best individual display of the tournament.
It would also be wrong not to mention the ever-unpredictable French, who came within a whisker of becoming the first team to win a World Cup despite losing twice in the group stages. Their run to the final was certainly not a conventional one, but in the final they matched New Zealand blow for blow. Skipper and recently crowned IRB World player of the year Thierry Dusautoir alongside the brilliant Imanol Harinordoquy proved inspirational leading by example from the front. The evergreen Aurelio Rougerie was another who stood out with some sterling performances at centre. As always however it is a case of wondering how good France would be if they could discover some consistency.
The group stages also allowed for rugby’s smaller nations to make their mark. It was wonderful to see watch the highly charged clash between the United States and Russia, while the performances of the likes of Georgia and Japan showed that rugby is steadily on the rise as a World game. All we can hope is that the IRB gives these nations the financial support they deserve so they can rise to compete with rugby’s traditional elite.