A World Cup painted glorious black
New Zealand lived up to its promises with a tournament that expressed a national passion
We were promised that New Zealand would provide a "stadium of four million" for the seventh Rugby World Cup and almost everywhere we travelled up and down the North and South Islands of this beautiful country, the reality matched the hype.
From the oyster-rich shores of Invercargill over the mountainous Remarkables to Queenstown and Dunedin; sadly bypassing the shaken ruins of Christchurch; across the Cook Strait to Wellington and Palmerston North (where it seemed only natural for Georgia to play Romania in front of men with yellow buckets on their heads and middle-aged Kiwi ladies wearing red spangly wigs and screaming "Go Georgia" at every opportunity) and the central hub of Auckland, All Black flags fluttered on flagpoles, smirking ex-All Blacks joshed on radio and TV and shop folk and doctors, waiters and prime ministers discussed the ruck and the maul and the sweet spot on the ball. England, who are the next hosts in 2015 in a football-dominated country unlikely to bill itself as a rugby stadium of 50 million, have a lot to live up to.
After today's final there will be the re-examination of the laws that follows each of these global gatherings. Expect the awful scrum engagement call of "crouch, touch, pause, engage" to be revised and the lack of aimless kicking here to be applauded. The number of reset scrums that had been building to ruination was mercifully reduced, but mercilessly too by referees penalising front rows. Australia suffered that fate against Ireland and lost a pool match that gave a Heimlich hump to what was panning out as a lifelessly predictable, drawn-out event.
The romanticism of following the "minnows" as they drown in pools dominated by traditional teams has begun to weary into accusations of an old pals' act holding the game back. The double votes available to the home unions on the International Rugby Board play awkwardly against whole areas of the planet lumped together with just one raised hand. The Georgians looked the likeliest to upset the order soon but after 24 years of World Cups we were left again with a quarter-final line-up of eight teams you could have picked without the fuss of 48 matches, the All Blacks' entirely expected march to the final and the £19 million loss to the New Zealand government and organisers.
But to have done without all that would have been to miss out on the simple pleasure of rugby people gathering for a seven-week party. If some of England's players misunderstood the exact ratio of fun to hard work expected of them it should not be forgotten there were those such as Simon Shaw and Lee Mears who had only the "couple of beers" prescribed by Martin Johnson and made friends wherever they went. What a shame the early indiscretions of a few were not jumped on. Change is afoot for the red rose.
Wales lost three matches but won friends; Ireland had their day against the Wallabies; Scotland must reflect on how much their lofty place in the scheme of things is based ever more on history.
As Johnson said, the All Blacks' league-sevens-union hybrid style is easy to copy but difficult to do as well as them. It does not look so beautiful to some. Overall though in this land the South Africa coach Peter de Villiers described as having "five seasons in one day" we were happy to charge our final glass of pinot noir and say, "Cheers New Zealand, you smashed 'em, bro."
Seen and heard...
"Smashed 'em, bro'!" – TV catchphrase, translates into English as "jolly good tackle old boy".
"Fear the Beard" – Canadian supporters greet three hairy players into Napier.
"I didn't think my accent was that strong" – Georgia's Scottish coach, Richie Dixon, after half his reply to a question was translated into... English.
"And hopefully he never pulled an opponent's shirt again" – young female museum curator on an old photo of Wales hooker Jeff Young lying face down with a broken jaw.
"Public enemy No 1" – routine NZ media description of NZ-born Wallaby fly-half Quade Cooper.
"Nine days derailed us because we lost momentum" – Dixon says too long a gap between matches can be just as bad as a short turnaround.
"International rugby has changed. If you're not able to compete physically you will struggle" – Wales attack coach Rob Howley.
"We call ourselves an exclusive club and we'd like other members to join it" – All Black lock Gary Whetton, a 1987 World Cup winner.
"You can't have guys getting suspended out there, on or off the field" – So much for Martin Johnson's warning to his squad on 20 June. There were bans for Courtney Lawes and Delon Armitage, fines for Lawes, Lewis Moody and Manu Tuilagi and reprimands for James Haskell, Dylan Hartley and Chris Ashton.
"For us a big night out was the Masterton Operatic Society's production of 'Oklahoma'" – John Taylor recalls the 1971 Lions tour.
"The crown jewels are a bit sore" — Moody after an accidental kick where it hurt from the Queen's new relation, Mike Tindall.
Team of the tournament I Dagg (NZ); V Clerc (France), C Smith, M Nonu (both NZ), D Ioane (Australia); M Kvirikashvili (Georgia), D Yachvili (France); C Healy (Ireland), K Mealamu (NZ), A Jones (Wales), B Thorn (NZ), R Gray (Scotland), J Kaino (NZ), S Warburton (Wales), M Gorgodze (Georgia).
Try of the tournament Ma'a Nonu for New Zealand against Australia in the second semi-final.
Moment of the tournament Mike Phillips' try for Wales v France in the first semi – a shocked, sad, sullen depression after Sam Warburton's 18th-minute sending-off turned to intense joy and hope. Up to a point. Wales still lost.
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