The most expensive sporting tournament for rugby fans in history has finally concluded. The 2015 Rugby World Cup, which saw 20 teams compete in 48 matches in front of 2,477,805 fans in 13 stadiums across England (and Cardiff), ended in a way you’d never believe and was, without a doubt, the most thrilling and controversial tournament in the sport’s history. From sprinting referees to blossom-caught Springboks, it had everything. Join us as we explore three of the key tales from 6 weeks of autumnal delight.
The Unmitigated Disaster
Oh England. Surely, with the home advantage of Fortress Twickenham and the nation’s interest, this was the best opportunity the side would have for a while to replicate the glories of 2003. But no. They failed to progress past the pool stage after losses to Wales and Australia in what was certainly the toughest pool in history (which also included Fiji and poor old Uruguay). In some parallel world that didn’t include New Zealand, all three of those nations would have held a serious chance of lifting the Webb Ellis Cup. Only two could emerge from the pit, and the hosts were benevolent enough to step aside.
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) October 15, 2015
Immediately, the sharpened finger of blame rotates until it finds some plausible scapegoat without any thoughtful inquest into what went wrong or what could actually have gone right. For many, that goat was Sam Burgess, the barnstorming rugby league convert who had crossed codes just a year before the tournament. His newfound club, Bath, couldn’t decide whether to play him in the centres or as a flanker. Despite the high profile (and high cost) of his transfer, there was no way he was worthy of a place in Stuart Lancaster’s squad. Nobody, just a year after crossing over, really can ever be.
And so, as Burgess returns to his former code on the most lucrative contract in its history, you can’t blame him. He got to play in a home World Cup, fulfilling his ambition, and joins a long list of players who have failed to make a successful transition across the divide. Unlike Jason Robinson, Israel Folau, and Sonny Bill Williams, Burgess was never going to be a flamboyant speedster bringing flair to the setup. He could have certainly developed into a fantastic union player, but the backlash against him has robbed us of that promise.
Lancaster, the head coach behind the debacle, parted ways from the RFU by ‘mutual consent’ this week. Given the mess he inherited from Martin Johnson’s reign in 2011, it feels harsh though, but with the Burgess obstacle cleared, someone’s head had to meet the chopping block. Lancaster’s meticulous organisation and at times unusual coaching techniques have put England into a far better position now than they have been ever in the last decade. The realistic chance at glory was to be 2019, and it is now of paramount importance that the RFU does not encourage Lancaster’s successor to undo this progress in the name of knee-jerk reactions.
The Heartwarming Promise
The next time this circus convenes will be in Japan in 2019, and fans of the Brave Blossoms had plenty to enjoy this time around – and not just the hordes that leapt upon the bandwagon. Their 34-32 victory over South Africa in Falmer was the most marvellous upset in 28 years of World Cup tournaments, and the moment that substitute winger Karne Hesketh crossed the line to seal the incredible victory will never be forgotten.
— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) October 11, 2015
Unfortunately for Japan, tough scheduling saw them face Scotland (the other tier 1 nation in pool B) just four days later. It was too quick a turnaround, and Japan subsequently – despite the heroic efforts of Ayumu Goromaru, who scored 58 points in just 4 games to finish as the tournament’s sixth-highest scorer – became the first team in World Cup history to win three games and fail to qualify for the knockout stages.
Argentina too found similar joy in their underdog status, but went on to greater success, which included a 43-20 extermination of northern hemisphere hopes. Anyone who saw them majestically crash the French party on the opening night of the 2007 tournament on their way to a surprise third place will understand their penchant for fun, running rugby and their remarkable consistency and skill. Since joining the Rugby Championship, they have come on even further and talismanic fly-half Nicolás Sánchez speared the charge, finishing as the tournament’s leading scorer just one kick short of a century.
Both sides are sure to flourish in the run-up to the next World Cup and beyond thanks to the impending expansion of Super Rugby that will see each field a team in a high-profile professional domestic league against the might of Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. The sides will reflect quite closely the makeup of the national teams and should help to spur on national interest and development in the sport, preparing them for convincing challenges at bigger glories in the future.
The Foregone Conclusion
Before the tournament, we all knew that injury would be the only thing that could get in the way of Richie McCaw and lifting the Webb Ellis Cup on Halloween would be food poisoning from a dodgy pumpkin pie or some other element that saw one of his colleagues tasked with leading the team to their inevitable victory. 18 long minutes between Ben Smith’s yellow card and Dan Carter’s cool-as-you-like drop goal aside, they were brutal and classy and vicious and skilful in equal measure.
To watch their quarter-final encounter in Cardiff with France was to watch the game of rugby union played as it should be. Their 62-13 dissection of a still-breathing French side was nearly flawless. Julian Savea is a good tip to win an Oscar for his depiction of Jonah Lomu as he scored a hat-trick on his way to a single-tournament try-scoring record.
And so, when it came to the grand finale at Twickenham, it was more a case of when than if the result would be secured in the All Blacks’ favour. Only the Australians, if anyone at all, had the ability and confidence to stop them, and for a spell it looked like there was hope. Then Beauden Barrett, the finest substitute in international rugby for the last few years, came on to score a sublime try orchestrated by near-pantomime villain Smith. Carter got to actually win the trophy, capping his unrivalled international career.
— SuperSport (@SuperSportTV) November 3, 2015
Worst of all for anyone else who fancies a taste of the sport’s ultimate prize is that there’s no likelihood of this stopping. The likes of Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Carter, and McCaw are unlikely to be around in four years time, but the youth in the country is perhaps the most exciting in the world right now. Nehe Milner-Skudder already spent the tournament showing that you don’t need to be a giant to dominate defences, scoring the opening try of the final to boot, and the likes of Malakai Fekitoa and Sam Cane thoroughly impressed when given the chance. Add in another Savea (Ardie, the flanker and younger brother of Julian) and the reigning World Rugby Under 20 champions and you’ve got a recipe for success that could defend this trophy in perpetuity.