IT MAY have been a tale of rather more than two cities but Dickens' adage holds true: this World Cup was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
For pure, unadulterated, nail-biting, wide-eyed, Technicolor drama this show will not be bested for many a long year. It was a World Cup of upsets and near misses, of big hair and big hits of forward passes and referee blunders, and it was a tournament when the minnows bared their teeth and bit back.
That was the best of it. The downside was the standard of rugby on offer at what should have been the sport's pinnacle. All too often it was kick and chase stuff, a seventies-style war of attrition that had watching neutrals yawning.
Overall there are sighs of relief at the IRB's Dublin headquarters. Before the event started seven long weeks ago there were threats of a media blackout, accusations of profiteering thanks to sky-high ticket prices and the usual doubts about playing a "French" World Cup in Cardiff and Edinburgh.
The tournament has come and the tournament has gone and it has left in its wake a huge swathe of goodwill, not to mention oodles of cash: the governing body has banked something like 150m.
Only the south-west of France and Paris count themselves as rugby regions, yet across the Channel the stadiums were filled to 95% capacity during the pool stages as the French supported the event in their droves.
Perhaps aware that their participation in RWC was up for debate, the minnows gave their best ever performance and have surely made it impossible for the IRB to ask less than 20 teams to compete at New Zealand 2011. The authorities' policy of offering help in the form of high-performance conditioning coaches bore dividends as smaller nations were able to physically compete with the big boys for the first time.
Four years ago England ran up 84 points against Georgia, but this time round the former Soviet republic finished within four points of Ireland and were only denied the winning try by the width of Denis Leamy's broad chest.
Portugal may have conceded a bucket load of tries against New Zealand but they also grabbed one themselves and finished within a score of Romania. Tonga boasts a population of 102,000 yet they finished within five points of the mighty Springboks and were desperately close to victory when Pierre Hola's chip kick bounced into touch instead of into the waiting arms of winger Tevita Tu'ifua in the dying minutes.
But their near misses only served to whet the appetite for the main course of dramatic upsets that stared with Fiji beating Wales in what was undoubtedly the match of the tournament. The islanders were magnificent in victory and "the Dragons" only marginally less impressive in defeat.
Even that result proved no more than a blip on the radar in comparison with the double whammy to follow on Saturday 6 October, a date that will forever be known as the day of the underdogs. In a tournament that had threatened the humiliation of Northern Hemisphere rugby, England and France suddenly produced two performances of quite breathtaking passion and self-belief to dash the hopes of Australia and New Zealand respectively.
Despite a moment of magic from Freddie Michalak it was a victory of defence over attack, of passion and determination over skills and flair. And, if there was any remaining doubt, those two wins confirmed the type of limited, low-risk rugby that proved successful at this World Cup. Despite all the drama the actual play on display was all too often prosaic rather than poetic, a throwback to another era of high balls and forward battles. Too little attention was paid to space and speed and creativity and guile.
When South Africa, of all teams, show more ambition than any other team in the World Cup semi-finals then something is amiss. All the countries who prefer to play with the ball in hand had exited this contest by or before the quarter-finals. Tonga, Samoa and Wales were in the pool stages, followed by Australia, New Zealand and Fiji one round later.
England had scored exactly 12 tries ahead of last night's decider, accumulating the lowest average score per match (22.33) that any finalist has ever totalled. South Africa had scored 33 tries before the final. Scotland managed 15.
With teams coming under intense pressure to win at any cost, the kicking game was king and entertainment was deemed a small price to pay. Too many matches became an aerial battle of ping pong with almost every team determined to play rugby only in their opponents' half of the pitch where a mistake would not automatically be punished by three, or even seven points. It was risk free but in realty it risks alienating huge numbers of supporters who want some spectacle to go with their drama.
The worst culprits were France who, under the baleful eye of Bernard Laporte, have turned themselves into a poor man's England. After scoring two tries with the ball in hand to beat the All Blacks, Les Bleus reverted to a tactical kicking game against England. When Michalak was asked why he had hoofed the ball for the last 20 minutes against Les Rosbifs, he replied: "You had better ask him," with a nod in the direction of his coach.
Laporte has much to answer for. Whoever is handed the keys to French rugby next - Patrice Lagisquet, Philippe Saint Andre or Fabien Galthie - they must remain faithful to the true spirit of the sport over there. If any one country simply apes another's modus operandi they are never likely to be as efficient at it as the team they are copying.
Above all else modern professional rugby now has to remember that it is a part of the entertainment industry and it will rise or sink on that basis. Teams will win any which way they can including kicking the leather off the ball, so the IRB must act decisively to reduce the value of a penalty and drop goal in relation to the try; two points should do the trick.
This tournament has thrived despite, not because of, the rugby it has offered. William Webb Ellis has given his name to a quite beautifully proportioned gold cup because he picked the ball up and ran with it in contravention of all the rules. Let us hope that some of this generation of players emulate his example, in contravention of all current practice, when New Zealand hosts the next finals in four years' time.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Wednesday 19 June 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 16 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 12 C to 20 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North east