There were thrills aplenty from the opening game at the Stade de France on 8 September right through to the final in Paris, with the Springboks pipping the All Blacks to retain their crown.
But which players lit up the tournament? And what moments will we best remember from a brilliant, if flawed, World Cup?
Here are The Independent’s end of tournament awards:
Luke Baker: A surprisingly tough decision this time around, whereas previous World Cups have often had an obvious standout player. Pre-tournament I’d have thought this was nailed on to be Antoine Dupont and, but for his fractured cheek and France’s heartbreaking exit, it may have been. Bundee Aki was also exceptional but it’s tough to give the accolade to someone who exited at the quarter-final stage.
That being the case, I’ll plump for Pieter-Steph du Toit, who thrust himself into the conversation for the greatest blindside flanker of all time, if he wasn’t in it already. A man who shines on the biggest stage (remember he was named World Rugby Player of the Year in 2019 after that World Cup win), he was brilliant in South Africa’s semi-final victory over England and ludicrously good in the final, making 28 tackles, flying around like an Exocet missile and being named player of the match. As head coach Jacques Nienaber said after the win over the All Blacks: “I always joke that if there’s a white plastic bag that blows over the field, he would probably chase that down as well. ‘The Malmesbury Missile’, he was like a machine.”
Harry Latham-Coyle: It’s Ardie Savea for me. The New Zealand number eight wasn’t quite at his brilliant best in the final, with South Africa throwing bodies at him to limit his efficacy, but Savea still had more involvements than just about any other player on the park. There was nobody with a more complete skill set than the back rower across the tournament in France – a sabbatical in Japan next year should keep him fresh for another crack at the crown in 2027.
LB: Lots of contenders here. Louis Bielle-Biarrey cemented himself as France’s first-choice winger, Manie Libbok showed he’s the future of South African rugby at fly half, Argentina’s Juan Martin Gonzalez showed his back-row brilliance to a wider audience, Nicolas Martins led Portugal’s surprise charge, Ben Earl confirmed his arrival as a complete Test match player and Mark Tele’a is the next great All Blacks wing. But Jac Morgan was thrust into a less-than-ideal situation as Wales captain after only a handful of caps following a slew of pre-tournament retirements from the country’s most senior heads. And he was spectacular, as good as any flanker at the World Cup and leading Wales with distinction. The quarter-final exit will have hurt but Wales’s next great flanker is here to stay.
HLC: To my colleague’s comprehensive list of contenders, I’d like to add the names of Fiji’s Luke Tagi and just about everyone who pulled on a Portugal shirt. My choice, though, is Ben Earl, who entered August on the fringes of England selection and ended October as one of Steve Borthwick’s most-important players.
LB: It has to be Australia. Maybe expectations were low but Eddie Jones was full of typical bravado ahead of the World Cup and delivered an absolute dud. A first loss to Fiji in 69 years was followed by a complete and utter hammering at the hands of a far-from-vintage Wales side when their tournament future was on the line to secure a first-ever pool-stage exit. They were then unconvincing against Portugal and, in retrospect, probably lucky to face Georgia in their opening match before the Lelos really got going in France. Jones’s decision to jettison senior heads such as Quade Cooper and Michael Hooper just before the tournament completely backfired as did the decision to hand the keys to No 10 to the inexperienced Carter Gordon with no other recognised fly half in the squad. A farce from start to finish and Jones has now fallen on his sword and resigned just a handful of months after signing a five-year contract. Worrying times for the 2027 hosts.
HLC: The obvious answer is the Wallabies, but I’m going for Scotland. We knew that Gregor Townsend’s side would struggle to get out of Pool B but they were totally suffocated by South Africa and then dominated for 60 minutes by Ireland. After so much hard work to build a side genuinely capable of challenging the world’s best, Scotland did rather fall flat – and there’s no guarantee that they are anywhere near this good again in four years’ time.
To have neither France nor Ireland involved in the final fortnight was also something of a shame given how special the Stade de France atmosphere might have been.
LB: So many incredible options here from the group stage all the way through to the final but the Ireland vs New Zealand quarter-final was particularly special. The whole narrative surrounding the game, with Ireland never having won a World Cup knockout match but heading into the match as favourites against the mighty All Blacks was fascinating and the game delivered in spades. So much tension, unbelievably high-quality play and two evenly matched teams at the very top of their game. It produced one of the greatest endings to a rugby match of all time as Ireland desperately went through 37 phases searching for a score but came up short, and their quarter-final hoodoo continued. As a neutral with no skin in the game, I’ve rarely felt as nervous as I did during those agonising final few minutes at the Stade de France, so I can only imagine how both sets of fans felt. A rugby match as spectacular as it’s possible to wish for.
HLC: A word for Portugal vs Fiji (more on that in a moment) and Japan vs Argentina, but how can you look past quarter-final weekend? Watching Ireland vs New Zealand in a packed Marseille restaurant may not quite have been the spiritual experience those inside the Stade de France had, but I’ve never seen a game of rugby played at a higher skill level. South Africa and France’s follow-up a day later wasn’t bad, either.
LB: It’s hard to say anything other than Siya Kolisi lifting the Webb Ellis Cup for the second time. What he means to rugby and to South Africa is hard to quantify – just a remarkable human being and rugby player. Only Richie McCaw now holds any sort of legitimate argument to be above him in the list of greatest captains of all time and he may well be the most charismatic man and best orator in the sport’s history. The Springboks are Kolisi and Kolisi is the Springboks – if he decides to run for political office in South Africa once his career is over, he’ll genuinely win in a landslide.
HLC: Rodrigo Marta’s match-winning try for Portugal against Fiji. These were two of my favourite teams to cover at this tournament, and Marta’s score closed a bonkers but brilliant final pool-stage game. The joyous scenes in Toulouse after Os Lobos secured their first World Cup victory were surpassed by those at the airport back home as Patrice Lagisquet’s side touched down to a heroes’ welcome – a joint Iberian/Italian bid for a future World Cup would surely prove popular.
One thing to change for 2027?
LB: In fairness to World Rugby (not a phrase I utter too often…) they’ve already addressed two of the biggest problems from this World Cup ahead of 2027. The groups being decided three years ahead of time was ludicrous, and produced a hilariously lopsided draw, so that being shortened to 18 months is a step in the right direction, even if still too early. The tournament dragging on for seven weeks was also a grind, so knocking a week off in total, and having the group stage be a whole fortnight shorter in 2027 is great news.
With those issues sorted, I’d like to see the matches, especially the final, kick off earlier. A 9pm local starting time meant an overly long build-up for fans during the day and not enough time to revel in the celebrations afterwards for players or supporters. It was inching towards midnight before the trophy was lifted by the Springboks, which is, frankly, too late. I appreciate that TV schedules dictate things and, in an ideal world, a 4pm or 5pm kick-off would be perfect but even 7pm as opposed to 9pm would make a huge difference. We’ll see how Australia play it in four years’ time.
HLC: Let’s give the tournament some proper prestige. Too often, this felt like a World Cup done on the cheap, with players and teams frustrated at staying outside of the cities in which they were playing, and a number of press conferences done in odd locations: Portugal’s first team announcement was bizarrely conducted while dodging children waiting for a judo class, while the entirety of South Africa’s media access in the week of the final took place at a village hall some way north of Paris. It hardly gave the decider the big-match feel it deserved.
Even the (really rather entertaining) pre-final performance by Mika felt hurried, the pop star squeezed into a corner of the stadium and rushing through his hits. Rugby may lack football’s profile but it can afford to have more ambition. Roc Nation – the talent agency founded by Jay-Z, which represents Savea, Kolisi and Maro Itoje among others - has offered its help to World Rugby, for example.
Team of the tournament
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