Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Rugby World Cup 2011 Review

Written and published in Gair Rhydd, October 2011.

As Richie McCaw lifted the Webb Ellis Cup into the Auckland sky, the 2011 Rugby World Cup ended and the host's fairytale was complete. However, 24 years after New Zealand's only other victory, this was a World Cup featuring sub-plots far too complex for any bedtime story.

After years of disappointment on the biggest stage, this was the tournament in which New Zealand delivered. A nation expected victory on home soil and despite setbacks, there is little doubt that Graham Henry's side lifted the trophy on merit.

The group stage was ruthlessly negotiated by a squad boasting quality in depth, but the knock-out phase began with the greatest of blows. Dan Carter's tournament ending inury was not only a loss to New Zealand, but the World Cup as a whole. This tournament showcases the world's finest players at the top of their game. As Carter limped from the training field, the tournament lost its brightest star.

Despite ongoing fitness issues wih McCaw and centre Ma'a Nonu, Argentina were dispatched, before a scintillating semi-final performance sent rivals Australia home, much to the delight of the home crowd.

Wales were another team dreaming big. Following the frustration of a narrow defeat to South Africa, Warren Gatland's team flourished under the leadership of the immense Sam Warburton. The familiar bogey sides from the Pacific Islands were defeated, before an outstanding performance stunned an Irish side with great aspirations. Ironically, Ireland's 'golden generation' may have been better suited playing South Africa, a draw they avoided by beating Australia in the pool stage.

It was at this point that Wales began to believe. Heading into the semi-final with France, Wales were the tournament's form team and having equalled the finest performance from a Welsh side in a World Cup, were confident of going one step further.

However, for every dream, there can be a nightmare. As Alain Rolland harshly dismissed Warburton, the Welsh dream began to unravel. It is of great credit, but also great frustration to the Welsh side, that a superior kicking performance would have seen the 14 men record an unlikely victory.

For the Welsh squad and 60,000 fans inside the Millennium Stadium, this result was devastating. However, with talent including Warbuton, Jamie Roberts, George North, Dan Lydiate, Leigh Halfpenny and Toby Faletau here for the considerable future, there is great optimism. If the WRU can keep the management team intact, this side's finest day is yet to come.

For others, the World Cup was a less enjoyable experience. England's indiscipline both on and off the field resulted in an underwhelming campaign, whilst Scotland failed to emerge from their group after defeat to Argentina. For both, the next four years are a vital period of development. In the cold light of day, the overly cautious Martin Johnson is not the man to oversee this evolution.

New Zealand were heavy favourites ahead of the final against a France side whom they had comprehensively beaten in the group stage, with their shock defeat to Tonga intensifying rumours of discontent within. However, having ridden their luck in the extreme to reach the tournament's show-piece, Les Bleus provided a stern test in a tense final. Inspired by Thierry Dusautoir and Imanol Harinordoquy, France came closer to glory than anybody predicted.

If the tournament had shown that the All Blacks could exhilarate, this final proved they could also win ugly. With fourth choice fly-half Stephen Donald thrust into action after injuries to Carter, Colin Slade and Aaron Cruden, the favourites lacked fluency. Despite the setbacks, however, the phenomenal McCaw's side held firm to start one of the biggest parties Auckland will ever see.

As time moves on, the finer details of the World Cup will be forgotten. The record book cares little for how a World Cup was won. Three words are all that will matter to those of a Kiwi persuasion – 'Winners: New Zealand'.

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