Watching the World Cup final amid the distractions of a packed clubhouse, the eventual outcome seemed inevitable and there was almost a sense of anticlimax at the final whistle. Even the New Zealanders in the room had the slightly dissatisfied air of men who finally get everything they have ever wanted.
On second viewing, however, there really wasn’t much in it. The Wallabies got off to a horrible start. Will Genia, so impressive all tournament, was particularly guilty of handing New Zealand early momentum, and made more mistakes in the first ten minutes than he usually would in an entire game; a charged- down box kick, followed by a knock-on and a couple of dodgy passes.
More damagingly, their lineout was pretty ordinary (that’s Australian for rubbish). Like most of the top nations, Australia keep things pretty simple from touch with minimal dummy movements.
But simple lineouts place huge demands on the quality of execution and here their timing, lifting and throwing just wasn’t good enough.
Despite all that, they were keeping themselves in the game, largely due to the quality of their breakdown work. Referees have had a lot of airtime in this World Cup and it was interesting, as a neutral, to witness key marginal decisions again going the way of the favourites. I genuinely had no preference as to who won, so I don’t think it’s Scottish paranoia talking. For example, I’m pretty sure Scott Fardy should have been awarded a penalty at the breakdown immediately preceding New Zealand’s first try. Then, in the second half, there was the arcane bit of procedural law which prevented Nigel Owens going back for a high tackle on David Pocock and a certain three points for Australia. Pocock, elsewhere, looked baffled at not being better rewarded for his efforts in the steal, while Richie McCaw’s “gate” seemed to be of the five bar variety.
Vague conspiracy theories aside, what a great match. It’s hard to think of a better major final in any team sport. The two teams’ familiarity seemed to free both sets of players from the usual nerves and to produce rugby of the very highest quality. There is no doubt the southern hemisphere sides are slightly ahead in terms of their basic skills but how much advantage do they derive from the timing of World Cups? While they were finding their groove in the Rugby Championship, the Six Nations teams were still flipping tractor tyres and shifting tin in the gym.
At best, they were attempting to manufacture Test match intensity on the training pitch; and as England and Sam Burgess discovered, there is nothing like the real thing.
Wales and England, in particular, made a lot of noise about their conditioning in the run-up to the World Cup, and perhaps there is an argument that any rugby team comes out of pre-season with an unwitting emphasis on brawn over brain. With the southern giants coming to the end of their season, all that vomit-inducing work is for them a distant memory and not once did I hear any of the eventual semi-finalists bang on about how fit and strong they were. There is no doubt that the All Blacks are the best- conditioned team in the world but they seem to view that fitness as facilitating the type of rugby they want to play, rather than an end in itself.
Perhaps in that sense we are getting that balance right in the professional game in Scotland.
The physical appearance and capability of Scotland’s professionals has improved beyond measure in recent years, but happily there has been a concurrent improvement in basic skills.
Up front, we have always had skilful forwards, but the extra bulk we have across the board is what allows those skills to be executed in heavy traffic. In the backs, meanwhile, we have deceptively strong players like Finn Russell and Mark Bennett, who you could say are in the Ben Smith or Beauden Barrett mould; naturally talented, relatively normal looking guys who punch well above their weight.
Players like Smith and Barrett will ensure that New Zealand remain the benchmark for the foreseesable future. Steve Hansen, of course, has his “succession plan” and has also been instrumental in shaping the whole culture of the New Zealand squad for the past decade. They don’t like to talk about it much, but humility and constant improvement are their watchwords.
Neither tenet can be easy to live by when you are already as good as these guys “He could smile”, was one nearby New Zealander’s first comment at the final whistle, “his dour Kiwi schtick is getting a bit tired.” But I’m sure Hansen’s relatively low-key reaction to their win was partly down to him practising what he preaches. Part of him probably wanted to go the full Jose Mourinho but, even in the greatest moment of their careers, he and his players seemed wary of accusations of smugness or gloating from the rest of the rugby world. It seems an unfair burden to carry, but their quest to be seen as humble giants of the game was certainly helped by Sonny Bill Williams giving his winner’s medal away to a teenage fan (have a look at the footage if you haven’t already seen it, but be sure to have a tissue handy).
Not a bad spot to find yourself in life, handing out World Cup medals in the knowledge you have a couple of spares back home.