Thursday 20 June 2019

Worthy champions set a template for the rest to follow

All Blacks show value of intelligent fortitude and improvisation above rigid adherence to game-plan

Worthy Champions: New Zealand captain Richie McCaw lifts the Webb Ellis Cup after winning the Rugby World Cup Final at Twickenham
Worthy Champions: New Zealand captain Richie McCaw lifts the Webb Ellis Cup after winning the Rugby World Cup Final at Twickenham
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

For yesterday's final to have been a memorable day, a truly memorable day, Australia would have completed their unlikely comeback and we would have marvelled at the unpredictability of sport. In Test matches of this calibre adversity and opportunity are almost indistinguishable such is the nature of the change in the bounce of an oval ball.

Speed of mind too can change the course of a game but Australia were a long way short of corralling the momentum that was presented to them and they could not sustain it. New Zealand, now certain of their reputation closed out with cold-blooded calm, led by the inestimable Dan Carter, who willed his team to victory.

I said during the week that the Lions team would be blown out of the water in the 2017 Test series, and after yesterday's performance and given the strength in depth in even New Zealand's fourth and fifth-ranked Super 12 franchises, there is very little point in travelling Down Under other than to fulfil a fixture, realise some commercial opportunities and give the players the chance to pen that they were a Lions player on their CVs.

We do forget, and four months is usually a long time in sport, so the Six Nations will start again, but in truth all it is, is an elongated fifth-place play-off in world rugby. If all of our dreams had come true and Ireland had beaten Argentina and Scotland had beaten the Wallabies, how much would we have lost yesterday's final by? How heavily would New Zealand have taken advantage of our limited kicking game and our one-out runners?

We came close to New Zealand two years ago but we have now regressed and we saw in the second half when the numbers were jumbled up, when heavy forwards are on the line, the value of the off-load and the currency of players who know how and when to do it.

I don't think this New Zealand team is their best side of all time but they showed resilience and calm when all Australia needed was another bounce to favour them.

If the yardstick of quality is divided between Carter and Richie McCaw then your team have an unmatchable advantage. The speed of the leader is likely to be the speed of the gang. The All Black leaders were composed - they showed great temperament and a champion's disposition. The moral frame here is almost a primal need to win and when this game came on the line Carter and McCaw showed the light and their team responded.

In truth there were three games encapsulated into one. From kick-off to the 42nd minute it was a relentless procession forged by a steely determination. There is no question that there would have been a 30-40 point margin if New Zealand continued the trend. In the 51st minute Ben Smith was harshly adjudged to be responsible for a tip tackle on Drew Mitchell, whereas I would consider that one of his team-mates who grabbed him was more responsible for turning the player's centre of gravity, so tries from David Pocock and Tevita Kuridrani stopped what could have been a rout and turned the game back into a contest, and from the 51st to the 69th minute New Zealand demonstrated that they had the stuff of champions.

Whatever about sticking to a game-plan, where New Zealand had the real advantage was the number of improvisers who can react and think on their feet when the flow of the game is against them. To unshackle the strait-jacket of the game-plan is quite a difficult thing to do when the game is up for decision in the last 15 minutes.

Against South Africa in the semi-final Carter out of pure instinct knocked over a 40-metre drop-goal. He had no time and no space and yet the great ones seem to have this air bubble where nobody can trespass and he got his kick away. Yesterday when Carter's side needed someone to shine a beacon it came from a stolen lineout and a drop goal that was going nowhere else except between the posts. Breathing room and time to think.

All the way through the game the constant factor and separation between the sides was the immaculate quality and length of Carter's kicking. When the game became madcap and we had four or five moments where we were expecting the keystone cops to appear, Carter asserted authority and all was good and calm. His passing once again was truly sublime and it is the difference between him and a good out-half - he knows when to cut out players and throw the ball in surgical fashion straight to their hands.

I feel sorry for him that if he survives injury for the next two years, he will be kicking the ball in the air for Racing Metro. It's rugby but not as he knows it.

I have never observed a player like Pocock who has been genetically modified to play at the breakdown with such proficiency. His body angles, his centre of gravity and his pure obstinacy has marked him out. He was efficient yesterday and picked off three or four turnovers and this was what kept Australia in the game in the first 40 minutes, but here again as it has been for the last 10 years it was McCaw who was the master. Speed of mind and another-worldly prescience every loose ball was captured by McCaw who miraculously never seemed more than five metres away from it.

A complete modern rugby player needs to have the five S's - skill, speed, stamina, strength and smarts, and it is the latter category where McCaw excels. He is the most intelligent player I have ever seen and all the records and all the garlands and all the trophies are not a coincidence. Nine times out of ten in the field of play he will make the right choice; not only that, he will execute it properly. He is also without doubt the bravest rugby player I have ever seen.

He has been the bedrock of this New Zealand side. His contribution for the first try scored by Nehe Milner-Skudder demonstrated the difference between the All Blacks and ordinary teams. Ireland could score New Zealand's first try off a set play but wouldn't have a hope of scoring it from multi-phase. It was the champions, as they have all tournament long, observing the basics and doing them really well.

Michael Cheika had engineered a Damascene turnaround where he had nurtured and enhanced a team in car crash condition 53 weeks ago and had laid down a code of cheerful and focused obedience, but it was not enough in this instance. Great credit to Cheika and his team to demonstrate the sort of resilience they showed in the third quarter.

The best team won and that was important. Not only did they play with mental fortitude but with intelligent mental fortitude and their values were clear and they have fulfilled their destiny. Worthy champions.

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