Rugby World Cup: A triumph of Springbok might and underdog bite

Was it the best-ever World Cup, how did the minnows cause such mayhem, what about England and were South Africa worthy champions? Chris Hewett supplies the answers
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The Independent Online

Everyone says it was the most satisfying World Cup of them all – the most competitive and least predictable, a tournament of light and shade. Can it really have been that good?

It was better than good. Far better. Four years ago in Australia, certain people inside the International Rugby Board bubble could be heard wondering aloud whether the thing would be a complete mess. How many 100-point annihilations might there be? How many amateur-hour nobodies might find themselves outclassed, outmuscled and in hospital? Would the French public turn out in numbers for matches between the minnows, as the Wallaby nation had in Perth and Townsville and Hobart? They always were a miserable lot, the administrators. The French put on a stunning show, organisers and supporters alike. As for the no-hopers ... well, ask the Georgians whether they got a kick out of almost beating Ireland, or the Tongans about how it felt to defeat Samoa, scare the Springboks silly and give the English a run for their money.

What does it mean, though? Have the rubbish teams improved, or have the good teams fallen apart?

The former, for sure. Take the Tongans. Awash with natural talent, they have always been destitute, even by Fijian or Samoan standards, so the money recently pumped in by the IRB for high-performance development was like manna from heaven. They now play meaningful rugby in the annual Pacific Nations Cup; more importantly still, they have two places in a six-team tournament involving all three main rugby islands that gives the home-based players a pathway to Test recognition. Also, they have a coach of their own in Quddus Fielea, rather than one imposed on them from outside. Fielea persuaded his main men from around the world – England, France, Japan, New Zealand – to commit themselves to the tournament. They all turned up, and for the first time in World Cup history, the country that gave us Jonah Lomu punched its weight.

Does the same go for the Georgians and Fijians? What about Argentina, who finished third. How did that happen?

Most of the Georgians play professional club rugby in France, so they knew what was what. Le Championnat is nobody's idea of a picnic, after all. The Fijians have always had the potential to frighten the wealthier nations (or, in the case of Wales, beat them), and now they have the benefit of an improved competitive structure, they should head onwards and upwards. The South Americans were slightly different, because everyone saw them coming. Corleto, Contepomi, Hernandez, Roncero, Ledesma, Albacete, Fernandez Lobbe, Longo – these were world-class players well before the start of the World Cup. Eternally at loggerheads with their domestic union – a bunch of Hooray Henrys, or Hooray Horacios, who still think rugby union should be an amateur game – they performed with the righteous anger of the disenfranchised. Agustin Pichot, their captain, is a heroic figure. More power to his elbow.

So what happens to the Pumas now?

The Argentine question is fiendishly difficult, simply because Buenos Aires is an unusually long way from everywhere. The mayor of Barcelona was in Paris last Friday night for the bronze medal match, in which the largely European-based Pumas put 30-plus points past France, and rumour had it that he offered them the city's Olympic Stadium as a home venue. It is some opportunity, but to make it work, the team would have to be welcomed into an expanded Six Nations. Will the senior members of this very exclusive club embrace them with open arms? Hardly. It took them years to agree to a six-way cut of the cake – indeed, their refusal to open the door to Romania set that country's rugby back decades. If you're waiting for them to agree to another cut in revenue, don't hold your breath.

Right, that's one problem unsolved. What's all this about the 2011 tournament in New Zealand cutting four teams and returning to a 16-nation format?

The word scandal springs very easily to mind here. It is definitely the case that Rugby World Cup Ltd, otherwise known as the IRB, is considering condensing the competition. Most people think this is because the New Zealanders are worried about the mushrooming interest in the sport – there aren't too many hotels in Dunedin, and the transport system in Auckland is not quite up to Parisian standards – and also suspect the All Black fraternity are sick and tired of being beaten in one-off matches and favour a shift away from a straight knock-out stage and towards a cricket-style "Super 8" phase. The top brass of the IRB swear this is untrue. We shall see. This much is clear: a 16-team tournament with 12 automatic qualifiers based on performance in France would result in Samoa, Georgia, Romania, Canada, Japan and the United States chasing four places. And as the IRB could not afford to lose the Asian market, the Japanese would be fast-tracked in – even though the other five would expect to beat them. What a joke.

Enough of the politics. If the Pumas and Fijians were so electrifying, how did England make the final?

By playing it the English way. Brian Ashton, the head coach, is not renowned as a proponent of 10-man rugby; in fact, he would rather watch the Nempnett Thrubwell Under-Nines Bar Billiards Championship than pay good money at the Premiership turnstiles on any given Saturday. But he is not a dewy-eyed romantic, either, and he knew that a full-strength red-rose pack, driven along by Jonny Wilkinson's kicking game, could cause some damage. Wilkinson missed the desperate pool performances against the United States and South Africa. On his return, he accumulated 61 points in four matches. As contests always become closer as a tournament grows older, a tally like that is worth its weight in a currency far stronger than the Euro – especially as opponents know he will goal-kick them to death unless they are out of reach by the hour mark.

They must feel good about themselves, despite losing the final?

Not as good as they should feel, sadly. All big-time professional sports teams are ego-driven, and when individuals are not given the chances they believe they merit, the back-biting and bitching breaks out. As one long-serving member of the England support staff said recently: "One of the saddest aspects of the World Cup victory in 2003 was the eagerness with which people tried to claim responsibility for it." Petty jealousy and rampant paranoia was a feature of red-rose life from the early days in France, and it was still swirling around in the hours after the final. Ashton may not be everybody's cup of tea, but as a head coach who helped an unexceptional side stay in the tournament long after the All Blacks and Wallabies had pushed off home, he deserves better than to be told it was nothing to do with him.

Should he stay on?

As Jason Robinson said: "I don't see why not." Ashton's strength is dealing with adults as adults. The problem arises when people he thinks are adults turn out to be children. He is an enabler, a facilitator, an encourager; he is not a play-it-by-numbers, do-as-you're-bloody-well-told control freak. English rugby has what looks very much like a golden generation of young players in the club system: we know about Mathew Tait and Toby Flood, Tom Rees and James Haskell, and we're excited by them; we know less about Ryan Lamb and Danny Cipriani and Dylan Hartley, but they are worthy of investigation. Ashton worked with most, if not all, these youngsters through their teenage years. If he fancies the first stab at making them better than they already are, he should be granted his wish.

The Springboks. Worthy champions?

Patently. They had a smattering of the tournament's form players – Bryan Habana on the wing, Fourie du Preez at scrum-half, Bakkies Botha and the majestic Victor Matfield at lock, Schalk Burger and Juan Smith on the flanks – and they found their spirit of teamship early. There were some nasty moments against the Pacific islanders, Tonga refusing to lie down and die against the South African second-string, Fiji summoning the best of their extraordinary selves in the quarter-final. But when the climactic 80 minutes arrived, they were all the things champions should be: calm and composed for the most part, ferocious when they had to be, entirely trusting of each other.

What, then, did we learn?

The bewildered New Zealanders, the humiliated Irish and the angst-ridden Welsh learned this: that by slaughtering a domestic game in an effort to please the voracious God of the World Cup, a rugby nation slaughters itself. They should be suspicious of "perfect systems", in the same way the great historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin was suspicious of "utopias". The South Africans learnt that a dozen years on from Nelson Mandela and the No 6 shirt, the "white man's game" can still rock the townships. And England? They learnt that even in the new rugby, the old virtues and disciplines count for something.

Three of the best The try, tackle and tirade of the tournament

Try of the tournament

Federico Martin Aramburu's try for Argentina against France in last Friday's play-off was the stuff of dreams – a six-man attack of such splendour that when Ignacio Corleto's breathtaking run was maximised by a pass of heavenly quality from Juan Martin Hernandez, it seemed the whole of South America's rugby tradition had been encapsulated in a single movement.

Tackle of the tournament

No contest here. Victor Matfield's try-saving hit on Mathew Tait in the 42nd minute of the final propelled the Springboks to victory.

Tirade of the tournament

"I told the referee: 'There are two teams out here playing, not one'. The jersey we wear represents the heart, the passion and the aspirations of our whole people, but the spirit does drop when things happen as they did today." Semo Sititi, the Samoan captain, discusses the New Zealand official Paul Honiss after defeat by South Africa.