Final thoughts on a superb RWC 2011 tournament

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Spiro Zavos     27 Oct 2011     Getty Images

The best team in the tournament, and as it happens in world rugby for the last two years, won the 2011 Rugby World Cup tournament.

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The All Blacks were the only team in the tournament that was undefeated in all its matches. It would have been a savage blow to the integrity and credibility of the tournament if France had won the final.

France would have been acclaimed as World Champions, despite the fact that in the tournament they lost to New Zealand and Tonga.

This would have made a nonsense of the event.

With the All Blacks winning, just, by the closest margin of any final, the precedent of every tournament winning side in Rugby World Cups since 1987 winning all their matches has been preserved.

And this goes to the heart of the matter about how the teams performed throughout the tournament.

The All Blacks played with their hearts and guts in every match. They scored 37 tries leading up to the final. They had a very tough finals draw, having to play Argentina, a physical side in the quarter-finals, and Australia, a side with huge potential in its back line and (in my view, the second strongest side in the tournament), in the semi-final.

Contrast this with France.

They coasted through their pool rounds, taking hardly any energy out of themselves. They contested against the All Blacks in their pool round for about 12 minutes and then gave the game away, threw it to put it bluntly, to get access to the easier half of the finals draw.

Then they lost to Tonga.

They played a strong opening 40 minutes against a poorly-coached England side in the quarter-final. They almost lost to Wales, who played with 14 men for much of the match.

When it came to the final, France had many more reserves of energy left in the legs of the players than the All Blacks.

France surprised everybody (probably including themselves) by coming so close to victory. But coming close, having a chance to win as they did with two penalty attempts in the second half of the match, is not the same as deserving to win.

The French are concocting a myth that somehow they were cheated out of victory by the referee, Craig Joubert.

Let’s kill this snake right now.

The penalty count was 10 to 7 in favour of the All Blacks. Four of the All Blacks penalties were at the breakdown, two at scrums and one for collapsing a maul.

Seven of the French penalties were at the breakdown, two at scrums and one for offside.

From a diligent watching of the match, it seemed to me that these penalties reflected the outcome of the play.

The All Blacks got most of their penalties in the first half when they were dominant. Many times throughout the match, the New Zealand halfback was clearing the ball with bodies of French defenders lying around him.

Both sides played a very flat defensive wall. And the packs seemed to be evenly matched at scrum time.

The All Blacks made 121 tackles (missing 13) and France made 129 tackles (missing 16). The All Blacks had 13 turnovers and France had 18. The All Blacks won 14 of their 16 lineout throws and France won 15 of their 17 lineouts.

These statistics, which come from the New Zealand Herald, suggest a very even match, with the statistics slightly, ever so slightly, favouring New Zealand, as did the scoreboard.

Throughout the tournament the New Zealand Herald has been running a very informative column by the former Test referee, New Zealander Kelvin Deaker, analysing the performance of the referees. His judgment on Joubert is a judgment that I endorse: “If Sunday night proved one thing, it is that the right man was in charge. Craig Joubert was the referee of the tournament by some distance …”

Deaker went on to note that the breakdown was policed slightly more leniently than in previous matches, with Joubert choosing to use verbal warning on the run rather than the whistle. This “allowed both sides to re-cycle possession … I liked the fact that the game was there for the players to lose or win.”

Between the 71st and 74th minute, France put on 15 phases inside the New Zealand.

It was clear that they were playing for a penalty, the northern hemisphere way possibly, rather than actually trying to score a try or even set up a drop goal situation. It was noticeable, too, that the All Blacks kept diligently to Joubert’s instructions about hands in the ruck and keeping behind the off-side line.

Here was a classic situation where France could have won the match and become World Champions if they had tried to play more positively. They were content, though, to smash up in the hope of forcing a penalty.

This was the moment when their cynical and (let’s face it) rather lazy approach to their matches in the pool round and the semi-final against Wales came back to bite them. They had not extended themselves in their matches.

Now when they needed that little bit extra, they could not find the energy or the inspiration to do it.

Practice makes perfect, the cliche runs. The French had not practised for that moment when everything was on the line, when their lungs were bursting and legs wobbly, to match that final, gut-busting, inspired play that is the mark of champions.

Instead, it was the All Blacks who had played with passion and energy every match of the tournament, who defended as splendidly as they had attacked in previous matches and who forced the mistakes from France when turnovers were gold.

It now seems that France may have succumbed to the disease of trying to eye-gouge their way to a victory in the final minutes of the match.

There is television evidence that suggests a French player might have eye-gouged Richie McCaw. This was the incident when McCaw went down and needed treatment.

Again, this incident, like the tactic of playing for a penalty, goes to the character of the side.

In my view, as splendidly as France played in the final (with the exception of the foul play towards the end of the match), it would have been a travesty of what a World Cup tournament is about if they had snatched the victory.

The win by the All Blacks, which was ‘a close run thing’ (The Duke of Wellington’s summary of the Battle of Waterloo), was a victory for the credibility of the World Cup tournament and, therefore, a good thing for the world of rugby.