RUGBY union finally presented a plausible case to be taken seriously as a global sport during a consistently entertaining World Cup which paraded all the sport’s virtues and vices.
The latter were certainly evident during
a monotonous final at the Stade de France on Saturday night between South Africa and England.
After 80 minutes of aerial ping pong, in which both teams persistently put boot to ball, the Springboks eventually prevailed by winning the William Webb Ellis trophy for the second time.
Yet the tournament will still be remembered as the best of the six to date, primarily through some magnificent matches in the opening round and two of the great upsets in the quarter-finals.
The Cup began when the hosts froze under the weight of expectation and lost 17-12 to Argentina at the Stade de France.
Argentina’s thoroughly deserved victory had two crucial consequences.
Firstly, they topped the group after dismissing a disappointing Ireland side and were accordingly rewarded with a quarter-final against Scotland which they duly won.
Secondly, the New Zealand All Blacks, overwhelming favourites to win the tournament for the first time in 20 years, were then faced with a quarter-final against the team they fear most on neutral territory in Cardiff.
The Cardiff match showed the split personality of the French team under departing coach Bernard Laporte. In the first half, France employed a futile kicking game which the All Blacks countered with little trouble.
In the second, the French gave full vent to their glorious attacking instincts to knock the All Blacks out, their first exit at the quarter-final stage.
The other quarter-final of the day featured defending champions England against Australia.
England had been woeful in their opening match against the United States and were then humiliated 36-0 by South Africa, even though the Springboks noticeably eased up in the second half.
The return of Jonny Wilkinson at flyhalf after yet another injury and the immense pride in the squad took them to victories over Samoa and Tonga when elimination from the tournament was a distinct possibility.
England then demolished Australia in the scrum and went on to defeat France 14-9 in the semi-finals when the hosts reverted to the conservatism which will remain the hallmark of the Laporte regime.
On the other side of the draw, South Africa, who had been tipped to make at least the final before the tournament, ended Argentina’s dream with a 37-13 semi-final victory.
While the traditional giants of world rugby had been battling for their place in the sun, a clutch of nations primarily there to make up the numbers were providing most of the excitement in the tournament.
Southern France, the heartland of French rugby, had passionately embraced the World Cup and the teams responded in kind.
Georgia, with their tough, robust forwards, held Ireland 14-10 after at one stage threatening to produce the biggest upset in the tournament’s history.
Fiji, the pick of the exuberant Pacific island teams, went one better by beating Wales 38-34 in the match of the tournament. Tonga gave the Springboks’ second XV a mighty scare before losing 30-25.
The levelling of standards, primarily due to the number of players from the minor nations who now play the game professionally in the European leagues, and the performance of Argentina were the most heartening legacies of the Cup.
Argentina ended the tournament as they had begun by beating France in the third-place, or bronze medal, playoff. Their case for admission to either the Six or Tri-nations is now overwhelming.
The biggest disappointments were New Zealand, who preach and practise the running game which makes rugby at its best such an exhilarating game.
Their early departure meant that the teams with the best defensive organisations prevailed and the final, in which neither side managed to score a try, was no advertisement for the game.
Last Saturday’s final at least proved that the superior side do sometimes win. The Springboks were the best team in their group and the best in the knockout stages and now join Australia as the only teams to win the trophy twice. — Reuters.