Kiwis prove World-class in hosting duties
New Zealand has excelled with a bloody good party, as promised, says Eddie Butler
At the time of writing, the sun is shining, the waters of Auckland harbour are glistening, the French band, as they have been tirelessly doing for days, are belting out Hello Dolly on Quay Street, and all is well with the Kiwi world. As it has been for seven weeks.
The hosts have been fabulous, embracing the outside world, adopting alien teams across the towns of provincial New Zealand with unfailing humour and generosity. New Plymouth, home of the Cold War minnow special between the USA and Russia, was a treat, stormy of weather, utterly heart-warming of welcome.
A touch of malice, just to show that this is no plastic facade, was reserved for Quade Cooper, not for being a New Zealander who left to become outhalf for the Wallabies, but because he had a sly dig at Richie McCaw.
To have a go at the All Blacks' captain, Quade, mate, put you in the category of fair game for a pop. He was booed at every turn until he collapsed against Wales, after which he departed Eden Park to resounding applause. Even the panto villain was cheered.
New Zealand had to overcome the dice loaded in their favour: the best team, given home advantage. Could anyone have bent further over backwards to make it easier for them to win the World Cup for the first time in 24 years?
Injuries turned the sympathy vote their way. There was the saga of McCaw and the loose screw in his foot. That and Dan Carter's snapped tendon. New Zealand told us that this World Cup would be won the hard way, and no mistake.
They told us lots of things about rugby. There was a moment of saturation, before a ball had been kicked, when every front page ran the story that room had been found for a television advertisement between the haka and kick-off. It really was time to get on with the rugby.
All in all, though, there seems to have been no overestimation of rugby's place in a nation's life. True, we were spared no detail of Dan's operation to his groin, but when somebody tried to equate the blow to the All Blacks' prospects with the Christchurch earthquake, they were roundly slapped down.
And far more serious comment was reserved for the disaster of the Rena, spilling oil off the coast of Tauranga than for the vicissitudes of a sporting tournament. The sums of the World Cup in these recessionary times may not amount to the profit the International Rugby Board were hoping for, but New Zealand has excelled at laying on what it never promised would be anything other than a bloody good party.
This was the World Cup of heavy drinking. Or of heavy drinking reported in the media, and not just by Martin Johnson's England. Ireland gave it some in Queenstown, too, and Piri Weepu, who stood up to be counted on all fronts, dashed off to drag Cory Jane and Israel Dagg out of the boozer.
Add to the drunkenness the mutiny in the French camp -- a breakdown between the coach, Marc Lievremont, and his players -- and it would appear that rugby is not a very professional sport. How can it be that binge-drinking England can qualify unbeaten from their pool, and a France team without a trainer can go to the final? As the grand day approaches, all that is seen of Lievremont is by workers on a building-site opposite the French team hotel, smoking out of his bedroom window.
And what about dear old Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu and his tweets? If it was obviously a taboo to put Christchurch and rugby misfortune together, it didn't stop the Samoan centre and lawyer making a connection between the lack of a decent rest between games and the Holocaust. And then have a go at the Welsh referee Nigel Owens as a racist oppressor of the downtrodden islanders.
All might have been forgiven if there had been some decent rugby. New Zealand -- we sort of take it for granted -- refused to compromise on their open style. Even Wales ran out of style at what became known as the 'business end' of the World Cup.
The tendency to call the knockout stage by another name suggests that it was not so much KO as asphyxiation. We grew used to 'tournament rugby' at the 'business end'. It taxed our staying power. The laws of rugby remain an impenetrable mess, at the scrum and the breakdown. Every effort to introduce clarity merely reinforces rigidity.
Sam Warburton wasn't sent off by Alain Rolland, but by the directive from Paddy O'Brien, head of the Refereeing Politburo, that all tip tackles were life-threatening and should be punished with a red card.
And even if the point is conceded that the Wales captain should have known better, one thing is clear: referees enjoy a star status that is inappropriate. They give a running commentary in English during games because communication is important, their mandate stresses. None of them spoke Georgian or Japanese.
How about a minimum of words from the mouths of the whistlers, something short delivered in Esperanto to say when a tackle becomes a ruck? And use their signs for the rest, so that non-English speakers at a World Cup can understand what is going on? As France have proved, teams don't need a coach to go a long way, and there is no need for referees to try to fill the gap with their incessant chatter on the field.
Just when it seemed safe, with only two games remaining, to go to Eden Park without having to shout at a ref, along came Wayne Barnes -- and his touch judge Romain Poite. How could they not see that the pass to Shane Williams from James Hook couldn't have been more forward if it had pulled the winger's shorts down?
The tournament needed a towering game to save it, and never quite found one. Ireland had their three halves: two against Australia and one against Italy.
Wales managed more but found that without Adam Jones, Warburton and -- amazingly -- Rhys Priestland, their approach faltered at just the wrong moment.
Stephen Jones and Hook have been part of the Welsh furniture for years, but it took the arrival of the Scarlets outsidehalf to show that perhaps the old rivals needed shifting as much as anyone. Priestland and Jamie Roberts forged an instinctive understanding and while these two fired anything was possible.
And then there was England. There's the team, still in denial, still the hapless playing face of an edifice -- the Rugby Football Union at Twickenham -- that needs to get rid of every single name associated with its decline over the past eight years. And if that includes Clive Woodward and the authors of all the so-called independent reviews that are going to pile up across the shires, so be it. You are a damned generation and you should be gone.
As for the team, you do not have to know or care if they were more or less guilty than their headlines would have it. But when their camp left New Zealand a cloud was lifted. You had to go some to be unpopular in New Zealand. Even Quade had a round of applause. England departed unloved and uncheered.
Sunday Indo Sport