Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Rugby World Cup: France denied by a fate that once defied New Zealand

Self-taught videographer Jared Brandon says he is "blown away" by the success of his video on the World Cup final - the agony and the ecstasy as NZ defeats France 8-7.  Vimeo link to Jared's video.

Decisions went against France, the better side, in the final – just as they did for the All Blacks in 2007

By Paul Rees on The Guardian's SportBlog

DIMITRI YACHVILI summed up 45 days of Rugby World Cup 2011 when asked a few hours after the All Blacks had lifted the Webb Ellis Cup whether he thought the better team had lost the final.

The France scrum-half had predicted after the All Blacks had convincingly beaten France in the group stage that the two sides would meet again in the final. "We had the luck against Wales in the semi-final, but not tonight. The referee did not want us to win but you have to say that the best team in the tournament won."

France had a legitimate grievance with referee Craig Joubert and his two assistants, just as New Zealand had with Wayne Barnes and his two touch judges in the 2007 quarter-final in Cardiff. The decisions went the way of the hosts. What goes around comes around, as it is said, which is bad news for those countries that will never be able to stage the tournament.

France were outstanding in defeat, led by the indomitable Thierry Dusautoir and Imanol Harinordoquy, two players who unquestionably deserved to be in the final. The All Blacks had the ideal start, scoring a try after 12 minutes, but as Piri Weepu wasted penalty opportunities, a combination of nerves and resolute opponents reduced New Zealand to virtual all-out defence.

Much had been made of the All Blacks' determination to learn from their failed campaigns of 2003 and 2007 but France also had players who had missed out in those years, even though it passed without comment in the build-up. Their resolve was as hard as New Zealand's, but their quest for the World Cup had not become an obsession and the final was an occasion to enjoy rather than endure.

Veterans took the edge
Veterans like Nicolas Mas, Lionel Nallet, Yachvili and Aurélien Rougerie all got the better of their opposite numbers and France's loose trio was the more effective back row unit. The All Blacks had to defend a one-point lead for 32 minutes, and if Richie McCaw's influence as an open-side was compromised by the foot injury that has plagued him for most of the tournament, his fighting spirit ensured there was no choking this time.

The All Blacks will go to England (and maybe Wales) in 2015 with, as the chief executive of the New Zealand Rugby Union Steve Tew put it, King Kong off their backs, even if they still have to win the World Cup on foreign soil. There was a fear that this tournament would fail because New Zealanders, so desperate for an end to 20 years of World Cup heartache, would be too wrapped up in their own obsession to embrace 19 visiting teams and more than 100,000 supporters.

From the moment that Tonga arrived in Auckland and were welcomed by some 10,000 supporters, that concern melted away. Everyone knew here what the World Cup meant: inclusiveness. Those who were around in 1987 recalled an inaugural event that was underwhelming, shared as it was with Australia. A crowd of some 20,000 turned up for the opening match at Eden Park between the All Blacks and Italy, media interest was muted and it hardly sparked a tourist boom.

The Rugby World Cup is now big business but New Zealanders also grasped that rugby union being their best export, this was a chance to showcase a country that is, for most of the major rugby playing nations, on the other side of the world. And they did it superbly.

The France hooker Dimitri Szarzewski may not have been allowed to take his young children on to the Eden Park pitch after the semi-final against Wales and one of Graham Henry's sons had the police called when he tried to join his father on the field after Sunday's trophy presentation, but this has been a tournament when the officious have taken a holiday.

Volunteer army
An army of 6,500 volunteers, clad in aquamarine World Cup jackets, has been on call around the two islands to help visitors at airports, in towns and cities and in and around the stadia. Some gave up their holiday entitlement to do the unpaid work and they all contributed richly to the undoubted success of the tournament, something for England to take on board in 2015.

Using choirs to lead the singing of the national anthems was another idea that worked perfectly. New Zealand has done the little things well, making the fears of some on the International Rugby Board that it was not just a financial mistake to bring the tournament here unfounded. The only question is when – not if – it will return.

The colour was provided in the group stage. The tier two and three nations complained, rightly, about the short turnovers they had to endure between matches, something that will change in 2015, if only because the broadcasters like the idea of the top countries playing in midweek, but they all had their moments, even Namibia who showed flashes in their opening match against Fiji.

The schedule became too much for most of them, but Russia continued attacking to the end, becoming the first side since Wales in 1987 to score three tries against Australia in the World Cup. They did not have a line-out and their defence was not the tightest, but they looked to move the ball.

Romania had one of the best scrums in the tournament, Japan were dangerous in broken play, Canada and the United States were organised and Georgia showed glimpses of life beyond a 10-man game.

Fiji disappointing
Fiji were a disappointment, politics blighting their campaign, but Tonga defeated France and Samoa might have made the quarter-finals. Their Gloucester centre, Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu, twittered against any perceived slight, and more, but at least one of his complaints may have been taken on board by the International Rugby Board.

He was angry that Samoa's final group match against South Africa was refereed by a Welshman, Nigel Owens. It was a game that was likely to have a bearing on Wales's progress to the quarter-finals and the fuming Sapolu felt that nationality should have been taken into account when the appointment was made. Italy had the same grievance in their penultimate group game against the United States, which was refereed by George Clancy of Ireland, the Azzurri's final opponents.

The International Rugby Board is considering shaking up the process of appointing referees. The power currently lies with a committee which is chaired by a Welshman, David Pickering, but there is a proposal to achieve greater transparency by having an independent chairman.

The knockout stage gripped without stimulating. England were sent home early having been fortunate to beat both Argentina and Scotland, whose ambition to play expansive rugby was not matched by their ability to do so; Ireland failed to take advantage of their epic victory over Australia and fell to Wales; age caught up with South Africa and the Pumas took it to the All Blacks.

The semi-finals and final yielded a mere four tries, but they were not a repeat of the kicking contests of 2007. The intensity was at times frightening and rugby union at the top level has become a place where footballing skill shows itself infrequently. The stand-out players in the tournament were mostly sevens and eights reflecting the way the breakdown has come to dominate the game.

Rightful winners
New Zealand were the rightful winners, unbeaten throughout and overcoming the loss of their leading back, Dan Carter, in the group stage. With McCaw limping through the knockout stage, they looked vulnerable.

Four years ago they may have cracked, but by persevering with the coaching team that took them to the 2007 World Cup, they had insured themselves with experience. And that, in the final reckoning, is what helped them in the final minutes when they were one kick away from another World Cup inquest.

France had felt guided by destiny all tournament, a notion quickly disabused on Sunday by some of the decisions that went against them, but fate, in exactly the same manner it defied them in 2007, was with the All Blacks.

Graham Henry, the redeemer redeemed.

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