New order as rugby world flips upside down

Early exits of All Blacks and Wallabies a crushing disappointment but emergence of Fijians and a reborn South Africa are welcome tonic
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The Independent Online

Just a short train ride from the Stade de France, scene of last night's Rugby World Cup final, the great powers formulated the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. They thought it would establish a new world order.

Rugby union's bosses have been locked in talks for most of this week with a similar theme in their sporting domain. And given the astonishingly fluctuating fortunes of the southern hemisphere countries at this 2007 Rugby World Cup, it has become increasingly clear that a new order is being established in the world game. It involves an obsession.

France's 2007 World Cup, a vibrant, racy affair that has encompassed foie gras, fine wines, flying boots and a massive media presence in no particular order, will go down as the tournament that saw the early exclusion of the great New Zealand and Australia, the last roaring of the white-dominated Springbok team and the intriguing emergence of the Fijians.

We did not expect this when we arrived in Paris at the beginning of September, ready to embark upon a six-week odyssey. Way back then, the old order seemed established. New Zealand would reach the final; it was simply a matter of who they would meet there. South Africa were my tip 18 months ago, and they justified such faith. But the All Blacks were a crushing disappointment.

There is no doubt that the New Zealand management got their preparation completely wrong. The seven-week conditioning programme back in February that took the top New Zealanders out of the Super 14 helped turn men into physical monsters. Daniel Carter looked twice the man but half the playerby the time he had finishedthe programme.

The former Australian great David Campese watched the denouement, sniffed in his usual laconic way and remembered: "After the 1991 World Cup, Bob Dwyer told me I needed to get bigger, to add some weight. I worked in the gym, added several kilos and by the 1995 World Cup I was much bigger. Unfortunately, I was yards slower and half as effective."

Some said the All Blacks' management had never had such fantastic raw material with which to work. But this World Cup proved otherwise. For a start, they did not have a captain. Richie McCaw is a brilliant player but a hopeless leader. Another long-standing weakness was compounded when their one qualityjumper, Chris Jack, was omitted from the team. Jack, at his best, was a world-beater, but he could not produce his best under the coaching structure.

Outside the scrum, Byron Kelleher was the epitome of a ninth forward: strong, powerful, bustling and busy. Unfortunately, he was a half-back who played with his head down, not up in the classic traditions of a Chris Laidlaw, Dave Loveridge or David Kirk, probably the three finest half-backs New Zealand have ever produced.

Then there was the strange affair of Aaron Mauger. As a second five-eight (inside-centre), the Leicester-bound player had shown that he was the perfect foil for Carter. He offered vision, control, cool and cunning. But after his public criticism of the All Blacks management's rotation policy, Mauger was never guaranteed a starting place again. New Zealand rugby officials never forget those who break such taboos as public criticism of the All Blacks coach. Mauger was dropped, reappeared briefly but was replaced in the side by Luke McAlister, talented at 23 but just not the cool, wise head Carter needed alongside to produce his best.

It showed. Add the weird decision to stick the full-back Mils Muliaina at outside-centre against France and you have the seeds that grew up to ruin New Zealand's assumed crowning at the summit of world rugby.

Australia had quality outside the scrum by the bucketload. Unfortunately, they did not have a scrum, as England reminded them in Marseilles. Four more years of going back to basics beckon for the Wallabies, but only fools would write them off. For a start, they have two fabulous No 10s vying for the jersey now vacated by Stephen Larkham: Berrick Barnes and Kurtley Beale. Put the outrageously talented Matt Giteau inside either of them at No 9 and you could have the world's most talented half-back combination at the 2011 World Cup.

But Australia have to find a front row, and a scrummaging mentality. The astute, highly knowledgeable Michael Foley did not have time to be effective at this tournament, but is surelythe man to solve the problem, whoever is brought in above him as the senior coach to replace John Connolly.

No tournament can afford to lose the likes of Chris Latham, Stirling Mortlock, Lote Tuqiri, Matt Giteau, Siviveni Sivivatu, Joe Rokocoko, Dan Carter, Aaron Mauger and Mils Muliaina at the quarter-final stage. But that is what happened here, and the World Cup was the poorer for their early departure.

Watching England go all the way to the final with what can only be described as a rag-and-bone approach hardly eased southern hemisphere minds as the tournament reached its climax. Connolly says that was unfair; he acknowledged that, within their obvious limitations, England did very well and were streetwise, cunning and clever.

But Connolly is concerned at the game's obsession. "I don't accept it was a disaster Australia and New Zealand went out so soon. The records show both countries were ranked No 1 and No 2 in the world.

"It just reminded us the World Cup is a one-off tournament, but the trouble is the game has become obsessed with it. Nothing else seems to matter now, and that is wrong. You can't ignore or devalue four years of rugby between tournaments.

"Whatever happened in Paris, New Zealand are the best side in the world. England were quite clever and they had a bit of luck. South Africa reached the final so fresh because they had a dream run, Fiji and Argentina in the quarter- and semi-finals.

"But rugby needs to learn from soccer. There, other competitions have enormous importance: the European Championships, the Uefa Champions' League. World Cups have their place, but the game doesn't sacrifice everything just for that one event. Rugby must learnthat lesson."

And what of the Springboks? Much will surely now change; an era has come and gone. By 2011 they will have far more meaningful integration, real opportunity for all, and probably under a black coach for the first time.

South Africa enjoyed a fine World Cup but in essence, Connolly is right. New Zealand remain much the best team in world rugby. One poor day at the office does not make the world's leading executive a clown.

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