Thursday 20 June 2019

Rugby World Cup Awards - Farewells, fans, flops, haircuts and Hollywood endings

Monday breakdown: The best, worst and weird of the eighth Rugby World Cup

Julian Savea scores one of his tries against France
Julian Savea scores one of his tries against France
Dan Carter
Pascal Pape

Ruaidhri O’Connor

And so, the curtain falls on a World Cup that became the Rugby Championship and, eventually, the Bledisloe Cup.

A competition that began in an Indian summer and never got cold. A tournament that once featured England as expectant hosts but played out to a sound-track of recriminations around Twickenham.

It was England's World Cup, but Wales stole a march on and off the field with Warren Gatland's men stunning their neighbours and Cardiff featuring highly on the list of best venues as it came close to bursting at the seams on quarter-final weekend.

Over the course of 48 matches, almost 2.5m people came through the turnstiles and to witness what must surely have been the best World Cup ever.

In the end, New Zealand won again and deserved their victory, but from the very beginning this tournament drew its audience in and gave the rugby world plenty of storylines to reflect on. Here are the highlights.

Best game

Wales' win over England narrowly beats Japan's victory over South Africa. It seems like a lifetime ago when Stuart Lancaster's team looked like world beaters as the steamrolled their neighbours only to run out of steam.

The hosts were exceptional at times, but once Warren Gatland's Lions-laden team came back at them the doubts emerged and they shrank into their shells.

Lloyd Williams' chip for Gareth Davies' try was sensational, while Dan Biggar held his nerve to edge his team in front.

Then came 'the decision'. Chris Robshaw made his call and has had to stand by it since, but going to the corner rather than kicking for a draw ended up being a death sentence.

Hollywood Ending

Dan Carter used to kick through the posts in his back garden imagining he was playing in a World Cup final. On Saturday, New Zealand's golden boy got the finish his great career deserved and he even threw in a conversion off his bad foot as his last act in a black jersey.

No one deserved it more than the greatest out-half of the professional era who missed the 2011 win through injury.

MVP

David Pocock's contribution to Australia's cause was sensational, his ability to produce game-changing turnovers propelled the Wallabies to the final. Worth his weight in gold. Canada's DTH van der Merwe and Japan's full-back Ayumu Goromaru in the running.

Best fans

We like to pat ourselves on the back in Ireland and the sizeable green army made an excellent contribution aside from that dreadful afternoon in the Olympic Stadium, but it was the Argentinians who take this award after they took over Twickenham and, led by cheerleader-in-chief Diego Maradona, lifted the roof off.

Even in Cardiff a week before, the moment Ireland knew the game was up came when the pockets of Puma fans found each other and began to bounce up and down. Truly enriched the tournament.

Best try

Julian Savea has long been compared to Jonah Lomu and so it was fitting that the All Black winger reprised his hero's finest moment by swatting aside a host of French defenders to score during that awesome performance in Cardiff.

Try that wasn't

Simon Zebo's effort against Romania was the pick of a plethora of great scores ruled out by the pesky TMO. There should be a clause inserted to allow outrageous skill cancelling out petty issues like feet in touch.

Mischief maker

Jamie Cudmore's attempt to join the opposition forwards' huddle during Canada's game against France was just superb. Not that the French really looked like they knew what they were doing during the tournament.

Best venue

Covering Ireland meant that the Irish Independent didn't see much beyond Cardiff and London and, while the Millennium Stadium was superb as ever, Wembley was the best stadium we visited. It was just a shame there weren't more games at the home of the Beautiful Game.

Worst venue

The Olympic Stadium was a woeful place to watch rugby. A running track always sucks the life out of a ground, but the upper tiers were a good 30m further back from the lower sections due to the inexplicable presence of a moat in the middle. Situated in the middle of a park disguised as a building site and next to a large shopping centre, it was devoid of any atmosphere. West Ham fans have little to look forward to unless improvements are made.

Loudest crowd

The noise at the Millennium Stadium when Ireland beat France was sensational and proved that the roof in Cardiff can survive anything. It felt like a World Cup final, it proved to be Ireland's World Cup.

Most costly game

Joe Schmidt and Ireland paid the price for beating France. Was it worth avoiding New Zealand and a six-day turnaround to lose Paul O'Connell, Johnny Sexton, Peter O'Mahony and Sean O'Brien? Probably, but it hurt them a week later.

Best decision

Japan captain Michael Leitch's decision to go for the scrum and bid for history. Even if they didn't get their try, they wouldn't have died wondering and were unlikely to get out of their pool either way. That they scored a brilliant try and lit up the tournament was a just reward.

Worst decision

A week later, Chris Robshaw made a similar call to Leitch's by going to the corner when England were three points down to Wales. Owen Farrell hadn't missed all night and, if he had, there was still time for the restart. A crazy, crazy decision.

Ill-timed haircut

Ian Madigan's decision to go for a buzz cut before Ireland's quarter-final was discussed long into the night. What did it mean? Did it show a lack of focus? Is he some sort of Samson-like figure? Whatever the reason, he probably should have left it as it was.

Strangest PR move

Ireland's decision not to confirm Paul O'Connell's injury for 48 hours despite the fact he was clearly out of the tournament. It showed a fundamental misunderstanding of the impact the news would have as the captain's retirement from international rugby dominated the agenda for most of the quarter-final week.

Code breaker

Pascal Papé is a man who plays the game a certain way, as Jamie Heaslip can perhaps attest. However, after inciting Sean O'Brien into a reaction that wasn't picked up by the officials and playing on, the France lock let himself down by crying to the flanker's hearing about feeling a "violent pain".

O'Brien deserved his ban for his moment of madness, but a man's got to have a code and Papé is no shrinking violet.

Biggest flop

No one summed up England's failings more than Sam Burgess, who is now beating a hasty retreat back to rugby league if he can manage to convince Bath to let him go. As far from an international class centre as you'll get.

Fond farewell

The end has come for some all-time greats, with Victor Matfield, Schalk Burger, Fourie du Preez, Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Ma'a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Keven Mealamu and O'Connell among those who have played their last game of international rugby.

Biggest rip-off

The people of Cardiff took the lead from their hotelliers and flogged their houses on Airbnb for extortionate prices. The Millennium Stadium was a great venue, but the Welsh capital was oversubscribed for the quarter-final weekend and they made the most of it.

Off the rails

You'd swear no one told the British rail companies that this was coming. They simply couldn't cope with the demand on the London-Cardiff trains and failed to adapt as the tournament went on. Considering the eye-watering prices they charge it was a joke.

Worst call

Whatever about Craig Joubert's decision to give a penalty to Australia in the closing stages, World Rugby's decision to issue a statement throwing the referee under the bus was worse.

Will miss

The matches, the stadiums, Steve Hansen and Michael Cheika's press conferences.

Won't miss

Packing a 25kg bag every three or four days, the in-stadium coffee, lugging said bag around London, wires, overzealous media officers calling time on grouped interviews after 90 seconds, sterling prices.

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