Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

Peter Bills: All-Blacks streets ahead but other teams lacked quality

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - OCTOBER 24: All Black Captain Richie McCaw holds up the Webb Ellis Cup during the New Zealand All Blacks 2011 IRB Rugby World Cup celebration parade on October 24, 2011 in Auckland, New Zealand. The All Blacks won the 2011 RWC Final last night by defeating France 8-7 at Eden Park. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

New Zealand has had enough earthquakes in the last 18 months.

All Blacks are streets ahead Kiwis glitter and grasp gold, but why could their opponents not rise to the occasion?

It was a good thing there wasn’t one of the sporting kind at Eden Park, Auckland on Sunday when the All Blacks beat France to win the Rugby World Cup final.

By common consent, it was New Zealand's turn to win it after a wait of 24 long years. But now it is over, it is appropriate to assess Rugby World Cup 2011 and ask some tough questions. Foremost among those would be, why was it that the standard of most countries seemed so ordinary, nowhere near the level of the All Blacks?

The fact is, New Zealand did not play at their peak in this tournament.

They showed in patches some of their immense potential but an injury ravaged squad was probably the reason they only occasionally hit the top note many thought them capable of doing.

Dan Carter’s loss through a torn groin muscle was critical to this aspect.

They just weren’t the same cohesive unit without their chief playmaker and goal kicker. Then there were the injuries to Richie McCaw and Kieran Read.

But it was a measure of the strength in depth enjoyed by New Zealand rugby that they could find sufficient replacements to cover Carter’s loss and rely on the quality of other senior men to put them on the road to glory.

In players like Israel Dagg, Corey Jane, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Richie McCaw, Jerome Kaino, Brad Thorn (pictured), Keven Mealamu and Owen Franks, the All Blacks have had some of the best players in the world in their positions. That has made the difference.

But still you wonder why there was a level of disappointing mediocrity among most of the other nations. South Africa were also denied two key men, Bakkies Botha and Frans Steyn, through injury, but would they really have saved the Springboks’entire World Cup campaign? I doubt it.

One factor, little mentioned, did contribute significantly to the holders losing their crown. Fourie du Preez was never the same player after his long lay-off and injury. Outside him, Morne Steyn kicked plenty of goals but didn’t do a great deal more.

Heinrich Brussouw’s injury early in the quarter-final was disastrous, almost as catastrophic as Bryce Lawrence's refereeing that day.

It may even have cost the ‘Boks the game. Yet South Africa never really suggested they were about to make Rugby World Cup history by successfully defending their trophy. Too many of their players looked old, tired and past their sell-by date.

Two other former winners of the Webb Ellis Trophy, Australia and England, also disappointed. Australia never threatened to upset the All Blacks in a one-sided semi-final and they should never have got past the Springboks in the quarters.

Australia’s game has gone backwards on the evidence of this tournament.

They’re now playing dull, often dumb stuff with the only real sparks coming from the brilliant Kurtley Beale.

Quade Cooper looked like a liability for most of the tournament, riddled with uncertainty and completely unreliable. Few teams can prosper if their No10 is as off the money as that and, for me, coach Robbie Deans erred in not introducing Berrick Barnes earlier.

When he did, Barnes walked away with the man of the match award in the 3rd place play-off game against Wales. He brought authority to a key position.

Australia do have a lot of talented young players. But they’re a long way off greatness at the moment and their tactics may need examining closely if they are to get the best out of those players. England, winners in 2003, were a sad joke, full of indiscipline off the field and poor on it. They never came to terms with the demands of such an event and even managed to lose to a woeful French side in the quarter-finals.

France, riven with internal dissent in their camp, somehow managed to stumble all the way to the final. But they had hardly played any decent rugby along the way. But, typically perverse, they kept their best performance for the final and it was so nearly enough for a shock win.

Ireland had one marvellous moment, beating Australia in a pool match. But they couldn’t lift themselves against Wales in the quarter-final and made their customary exit at the stage of the last eight.

Wales were just about the only side which showed the quality expected at a World Cup, New Zealand excepted. Their cruel single point defeat to France in the semi-final robbed us all of a potentially outstanding final.

Wales discovered some players of real talent along the way. But they threw away their chances, chiefly because their goal kicking was so poor.

They should have beaten South Africa in the pool game and they ought to have got past France, even without their captain Sam Warburton for an hour of the semi-final. Even so, it will be a surprise if they are not now a force to be reckoned with.

But of the rest there was too often a sense of disappointment. None of the minnows have made the sort of progress needed to challenge the top tier nations on a regular basis. Sure, Tonga beat France but the French knew they’d go through anyway and were having one of their hissy-fit days.

The way the tournament was structured was a clear disadvantage to the smaller nations. But for that, Samoa might have beaten Wales.

However, what still made this a great World Cup were the people of New Zealand. They paid often exorbitant ticket prices to fill stadia even for matches between two minnow nations. They bought into the concept in a whole hearted way. The hosts’ original boast that theirs would be a World Cup held in a stadium of 4.4 million, was gloriously borne out.

Yet the small island nation will end up with a deficit of around £27m and that has to be absurd for a country going to all the trouble of hosting.

That factor amongst several others ought to be re-examined by the IRB when the dust has settled on Rugby World Cup 2011.

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