So let's hear it for the great and good of Rugby World Cup Ltd, who finally confirmed something the rank and file had long suspected: that they could not plan a ?*!@-up in the nearest thing international sport has to a brewery - namely, a rugby ground. There were a number of other planning matters that proved entirely beyond the badges and blazers on the tournament committee. Their attempt at fixture scheduling almost paralysed the biggest and most lucrative competition in the history of the sport, their ticketing arrangements left untold thousands of genuine enthusiasts disenfranchised and their disciplinary procedures were an affront to common law. They also negotiated a broadcasting deal that left millions of armchair viewers searching for someone with access to ITV2, whatever that may be, or enjoying The Bill rather than New Zealand v South Africa. Well done. Congrats all round.
Actually, a degree of congratulatory back-slapping is in order, for the players and coaches were, almost without exception, magnificent in rescuing the whole thing from the flames of ineptitude. The tournament threw up more 80-minute classics, both minor and major, than any of its three predecessors: the England-New Zealand, Wales-Samoa, France-Argentina and Australia-South Africa contests were special, and the France-New Zealand semi-final spectacularly and gloriously beyond belief. There were moments of such vivid colour that Van Gogh might have put them on canvas - the first half of the pyrotechnical All Black-Tonga match springs easily to mind. And there was tension, too; the last five minutes of Ireland-Argentina in Lens may have been bone- headed from the tactical perspective, but it was gripping from every other angle you care to mention.
Agreed, defences were in the ascendant for much of the six-week jamboree; the Springboks conceded two tries in their half-dozen outings and none at all in their final five, while the Wallabies leaked just one in the 500 or so minutes of rugby it took them to secure the title. But it was ever thus. New Zealand and South Africa conceded five tries each in claiming the 1987 and 1995 tournaments, the Australians only three in winning their first Webb Ellis Trophy in 1991. The inestimable depth of desire common to all world champions is seldom manifested in attack. It announces itself only when the backs go up against the wall and the barricades are there to be raised. Great sides make a virtue of playing without the ball, as well as with it.
The rugby landscape looks more vibrant now than at the beginning of last month. The game in South America has taken a big step up the hill, not just because the Pumas emerged from a horrendous summer of fratricidal squabbling to make the last eight on merit, but because their small-fry neighbours from Uruguay won one of their games and succeeded in keeping both the Scots and the Springboks honest in the others. There were some big statements from the South Seas contingent, too, although the clear advance made by the Fijians and the proud commitment of the Samoans may yet be undermined by the departures of their respective coaches, Brad Johnstone and Bryan Williams.
Along with the Tongans, who continue to donate wonderful rugby players to countries who offer nothing but dismissive high-handedness in return, these two nations should be nurtured and encouraged. The Fijians, in particular, could be semi-final material in four years time and, while the Samoans must discover new Pat Lams and Va'aiga Tuigamalas before they can re-establish themselves as a top-eight side, there is enough natural talent in the twin islands of Savaii and Upolu to keep the wheels turning and the fires burning. All these instinctive and gifted rugby folk need from their privileged Antipodean peers is time and respect and the odd home game. Heaven knows, they have earned it.
Just as those who sanctioned a five-pool tournament across as many national borders earned every last brickbat hurled in their direction. Vernon Pugh, the chairman of the International Board and a RWC director, was quite correct in his assertion that the single-venue extravaganza we witnessed in South Africa four years ago could not be repeated; the unique political and social factors that gave the '95 tournament its unprecedented momentum were exclusive to time and place and not available for export. But this competition would have enjoyed much greater impetus had the organisers settled for a combination of Welsh passion and English stadia.
Of course, the Aussies will get it right in 2003; they get everything right, damn them. The new infrastructure is rising from the bush as we speak - a new all-seater amphitheatre in Brisbane, which already boasts Ballymore and the Suncorp arenas, and a 49,000-capacity football coliseum in Melbourne. The Australian Rugby Union will take matches to the up-country regions of Queensland and New South Wales, as well as to Canberra and Perth. "We want 20 teams, just like this time, but our proposal is for four groups of five rather than five or four," said John O'Neill, the ARU chief executive, last week. "It makes more sense logistically to have a straight quarter-final, rather than make the knock-out stage unnecessarily complicated."
In O'Neill's considered opinion the next World Cup will send rugby league, still the premier oval-ball code in Wallaby country, sliding towards the oblivion of minority status. It is a bold call, even for an Australian. We can therefore expect him to organise a tournament where tickets are available to those able to tell a blind-side flanker from an ironing board, where matches are played on a daily rather than a weekly basis, and where television viewers can watch their rugby on their existing sets.
Chris Hewett's Team of the Tournament
15 ALFRED ULUINAYAU (FIJI)
The most uninhibited attacking runner in the tournament, Uluinayau's eye for the gap and serious after-burn might easily have accounted for both France and England before the quarter-final stage. A glorious and exhilarating free spirit.
14 BRIAN LIMA (SAMOA)
A third World Cup for the combustible force of nature from Apia, who was no less committed this time round than he had been in 1991. No wing on earth tackles like Lima; his display in adversity against Wales was deeply felt, even by his own standards.
13 VILIAME SATALA (FIJI)
The let's-make-it-happen element in a Fijian back division that bordered on the mesmeric. At 27, he has finally been lured away from his Pacific island by the French club Mont-de-Marsan, who have negotiated themselves a real bargain.
12 TIM HORAN (AUSTRALIA)
In the midst of a shambolic and often sour professional era, Horan brought a purity of motive to the competition: he was more enthusiastic about his third World Cup than some were about their first. He played a bit, too, bless him. One of the greats.
11 JONAH LOMU (NEW ZEALAND)
Eight tries in six matches, all of them extraordinary and one of them from No 8 rather than left wing. This Lomu was a more rounded, flexible performer than the one who dominated the 1995 tournament, but at bottom, he remains a monster.
10 STEVE LARKHAM (AUSTRALIA)
It was not a vintage World Cup at No 10: Mehrtens, Bachop, Lamaison flickered all too briefly. Larkham's was hardly a classical performance, but his subtlety and raw physical courage took him to the top of the pile.
9 GEORGE GREGAN (AUSTRALIA)
Any scrum-half who can live with a Van der Westhuizen operating at the peak of his powers is worthy of acclaim. Gregan did that and more in the Wallaby-Springbok semi-final, proving himself the most competitive individual in the tournament.
1 OS DU RANDT (SOUTH AFRICA)
One of the great loose-head props, the "Ox" delivered by the hundredweight when the chips were down against England. Worryingly gifted for a man constructed on such a vast scale, he remains the most potent symbol of Springbok rugby.
2 MARIO LEDESMA (ARGENTINA)
Called in to replace the best hooker in the world, Ledesma achieved a very passable impersonation of...well, the best hooker in the world. That the Pumas did not miss the injured Federico Mendez one little bit tells the whole story.
3 FRANCK TOURNAIRE (FRANCE)
A real handful, in more ways than you care to mention. Tournaire is French rugby made flesh: passionate, massively accomplished, distinctly dodgy. As horrible to his opponents as he was tender to the daughter he insisted on carrying around the pitch.
4 ABDEL BENAZZI (FRANCE)
The great rugby warrior from the Moroccan town of Oujda was back on top of his game. If he never plays for the Tricolores again, his performance in the first 20 minutes of the semi-final classic with New Zealand will keep his name in lights.
5 JOHN EALES (AUSTRALIA)
Too nice to be a captain, especially an Australian captain? Don't you believe it. When the best player in the world needs to get nasty, then nasty it is: Eales fought tooth and nail with the French in the final and duly out-pointed them.
6 RASSIE ERASMUS (SOUTH AFRICA)
Bobby Skinstad's anonymity put the Springbok back row under serious strain, but Erasmus grew in stature through the tournament to provide a razor-sharp cutting edge in the loose. South Africa's next captain? Yes, if Nick Mallett has any sense.
7 OLIVIER MAGNE (FRANCE)
Having gone toe to toe with Josh Kronfeld and emerged a clear winner, the scrum-capped greyhound from Montferrand is now officially the finest open-side flanker in the world. He could well be the star of the forthcoming European Cup.
8 TOUTAI KEFU (AUSTRALIA)
Lawrence Dallaglio did it against the All Blacks, but Kefu did it against all-comers. He was the iron in the Wallaby soul, the granite in the defensive wall that made Australia all but impregnable. Immense, both physically and metaphorically.
HIGHS AND LOWS
Late arrival of the tournament: Fabien Galthie. The Tricolore selectors were not on speaking terms with the Colomiers scrum-half, so perhaps they e-mailed him. Whatever, Galthie answered an emergency call to arms by re-joining the French squad before the pool game against Fiji, and promptly guided his countrymen to a second World Cup final.
Early departure of the tournament: Jeremy Guscott. The Prince of Centres abdicated in unique fashion, running 80 metres to put a try past the Tongans while suffering from a chronic groin injury that, less than a week later, caused him to abandon his Test career. Remarkable.
Strategic withdrawal of the tournament: John Hart. He knew he would face the "Go Now" messages on arrival at Auckland International, so he decided to save his paint-spraying critics some time and bother by stealing their thunder. The All Black coach bowed out with humour, dignity and his usual impeccable timing.
Strategic nightmare of the tournament: Clive Woodward. Poor old Woody. The last time his team played in Paris, they lived it up in a Versailles hotel that made Sun Kings of them all. Before the quarter-final, it was back down to earth: an ugly concrete monstrosity within a Jannie de Beer drop kick of the Peripherique. The strategy against the Boks was not much to write home about, either.
Quote of the tournament: Dave Waterston. "I had to get rid of a few uncles' nephews," said the Tongan coach, describing the selectorial nepotism he encountered on arrival in Nuku'alofa.