Who predicted New Zealand’s defeat of Australia in the final of the Rugby World Cup?
Well, all right then. Everyone did. Bookies weren’t even taking bets any more. I met a man today who told me he had €50 on New Zealand winning by six or more points and yet the Aussies kept us guessing almost to the end. After scoring 14 points during an New Zealand sin-binning, they came within three points of equalising and some would argue that if they hadn’t fluffed an obvious try opportunity they might have nudged themselves into the lead. But in truth, as the ultimate victors took control of the game in its dying minutes and throttled the life out of the Australian challenge, everyone took to their feet to cheer the extraordinary style of the New Zealanders.
They were just better.
They were better in the planning, in the preparation and in the execution.
They were faster, stronger and more skilful than everyone else.
New Zealand left us Irish churning in our stew of hubris as we reflected on the misguided notion that we might ever challenge their supremacy in 2015. I suspect we might not feel confident to challenge them in 2019 or 2023 for that matter unless we conduct a fundamental re-think of how we play the international game of rugby, not only in Ireland but in the entire northern hemisphere.
How does it come about that the top-class leagues of England and France and the elite European Cup are unable to produce a single international squad capable of reaching the semi-finals of the rugby world cup?
We should be grateful to New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Argentina for reminding us that we are now in the second tier of world rugby. We should learn the lesson of Argentina who moved from the pedestrian European model to the expansive, creative, athletic southern hemisphere way of doing things and in the process, effortlessly brushed aside the Irish team, even if that team was admittedly robbed of talent and leadership by its bruising encounter with France the previous week.
It’s not enough. Excuses aren’t good enough.
We failed to beat Argentina because they were better than us and that’s all there is to it.
Ireland, France and Wales failed to progress because they simply couldn’t do it. Drawing a gentle veil across the England performance, only Scotland can have a genuine sense of grievance for referee Craig Joubert’s appalling decision to award Australia a penalty in the final minute of the game, but even then, reality has to intrude. If Scotland had really made it to the semi-final, they’d have been minced up and spat out by Argentina.
We can’t begrudge New Zealand their victory. Every one of them deserves credit, starting with the much-reviled Richie McCaw who has done nothing more than every self-respecting open-side ever did in the history of the game, operating on the fringes of legality, testing the referee’s abilities and leading his team with commitment and pride.
Who are we in Munster to judge? Our own Alan Quinlan fulfilled exactly the same role for years and we treated him as a hero with a nudge and a wink every time he bent the rules.
Let’s raise a glass to Richie, the best of the best, and another glass to Dan Carter, probably only equalled by Jonny Wilkinson in the out-half hall of fame. Let’s hail Ma’a Nonu, that mad heroic bastard and Sonny Bill, the gentle, religious, heavyweight boxing champion.
They’re legends, these guys, every one of them and we should point them out to our children, as our fathers pointed such heroes out to us.
But at the same time, we should be looking at them and asking, How can we be like them?
New Zealand has a population almost exactly the same size as Ireland’s, though it’s true we don’t have as many Maoris, which is undoubtedly a drawback. And it’s also true that, unlike New Zealand, we play many more sports, thereby reducing the pool of players, but still. It seems to be about more than numbers.
Judging by the New Zealand performance in this rugby world cup, it seems to be about attitude.
And let’s be honest, wouldn’t the world much prefer a Riverdance to a Haka?