Five Rugby World Cup final bottlers
Wrapping up our six-week love affair with the Rugby World Cup, we cast a cold eye on New Zealand’s win over France on Sunday – and call the All Blacks out for the bottlers they are.
Now that the Webb Ellis Trophy is in safekeeping, the New Zealanders won’t care a whole lot about this, but there’s no denying they bottled it on the biggest stage again on Sunday. Here are some examples.
1. Stephen Donald's cowardice
On the face of it, everything should have been set up for Donald when he replaced the injured Aaron Cruden in the first half on Sunday. He was the only fit out half left in the country – Cruden followed Colin Slade and superstar Dan Carter onto the hospital heap – so there shouldn’t have been any inferiority complex for the Bath-bound playmaker.
But Donald has shown a lack of mental depth before, and that was painfully evident again the more Sunday’s game wore on. Okay, he’ll be remembered for being the player who kicked the winning points, but that stat deserves some mammoth footnotes.
For starters, as an out half who’s made his name as a reliable kicker, he should have been demanding the ball when he arrived on the field. Instead, he allowed Piri Weepu – about whom more anon – to dig himself deeper into a hole of embarrassment. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he slunk off into the shadows when New Zealand were given a clearing penalty in their 22, with Israel Dagg failing to find touch with a scuffed kick of his own.
Donald manfully grabbed the ball for the kick which ultimately put the Blacks out of reach. Is it being mischievous to suggest that the only reason he did so was because it was dead straight in front of the posts? And he almost missed it.
2. Piri Weepu’s kicking
Almost inexplicably, lost Belushi brother Weepu went into Sunday’s big game as one of the nominees for the IRB Player of the Year. That was despite the fact that he started the tournament as second choice scrum half and, having taken on the goal-kicking mantle following the injury to Dan Carter, had fluffed his lines badly in the semi-final against Australia.
Any hopes he had of winning the top individual gong disappeared in a whirlpool of choke in the final. He missed kickable penalty after kickable conversion after kickable penalty, and also sent a couple of restarts straight out of play. Was eventually hauled off in the second half, and he surely won’t be able ever to look on his winner’s medal without several pangs of regret at the day he screwed up royally on the biggest stage of them all.
3. The back row’s invisibility
Going into the game, the All Blacks back row was weighed down with garlands. Jerome Kaino was a contender for World Player of the Year, Kieran Read was the best Number 8 in the world and Richie McCaw was God’s manifestation on earth for all Kiwis.
So where did these three giants of world rugby go for the last hour of Sunday’s game? They paled into insignificance as their opposite numbers – the remarkable Dusautoir, the irrepressible Harinordoquy and the revelatory Bonnaire – gained the upper hand.
It may have been his crowning glory, as the first New Zealander to lift the trophy in 24 years, but to these eyes the McCaw legend took a few bumps and bruises. And not only from the finger of Aurelien Rougerie.
4. The back three’s ineffectiveness
We were all lavishing praise on Israel Dagg, Cory Jane and Richard Kahui ahead of the final, but where were they when the whole thing was up for grabs? None of the three ever really looked like making a line break, never mind a burst for the try-line.
Their dash, spurred on by the centre partnership of Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith, was one of the tournament’s shining lights, but such was France’s dominance that they were reduced to nothing more than tacklers for most of the game the other day. Much like the rest of this vaunted All Blacks side.
5. The referee's convenient paralysis
Finally, any piece on the lack of bottle on display at Eden Park on Sunday would be incomplete without a big shout out to South African official Craig Joubert.
Joubert penalised McCaw for one second half penalty – which Iachvili skewed wide – but he could have pinged the All Blacks captain at virtually every ruck. As the game ticked into the last ten minutes, and high tackles and offsides and breakdown offences went unseen, you got the feeling that a New Zealander would have to be guilty of attempted murder for Joubert to raise his arm.
Fair play to the All Blacks, they managed to not execute anyone before the fina whistle, thus earning the victory they so craved. But to the rest of us, that victory will always be a hollow one.