Probably the greatest rugby team ever?
2nd November 2015
The review of England’s World Cup campaign will be able to reach one swift conclusion: they would not have won the final no matter who was in charge because New Zealand played at a level few teams in the history of the game have reached. Australia were the best of the rest but they were a distinct second to the All Blacks, despite a brief rally in the second half when they had a man advantage, as the holders became the first team to retain the Webb Ellis Cup and win it for a third time.
Four years ago, New Zealand limped their way to victory in the final against France in Auckland, and not just because Richie McCaw played on one foot. It had been 24 years since they had won the tournament and they were beset by nerves, looking to do enough and no more. Their first emotion on hearing the final whistle was relief rather than joy, but here, their first World Cup success on foreign soil, the reaction was one of rapture. A team at the peak of its powers played with assurance from the start and was not thrown by the few moments when Australia were more than a speed bump.
New Zealand will start the series against Wales in the summer with a new look: no more McCaw, probably, as he would not talk about his future after the match, Dan Carter, who has developed a penchant for drop goals late in his career, landing one from 42 metres here to puncture Australia’s comeback, Ma’a Nonu, whose solo try at the start of the second half was not that of a player whose best days were behind him, Conrad Smith, whose typically clever foot and hand movement helped create the opening try, and Keven Mealamu, the hooker who led the haka that was performed with an aggression the All Blacks took into the match and sustained.
For any other team, the loss of so many iconic players would herald a period of significant rebuilding and a drop in success rate, but the All Blacks have never stockpiled pedestals, although their coach, Steve Hansen, did afterwards describe McCaw as the greatest ever All Black, with Carter a close second. New Zealand won the 2011 World Cup without Carter on a night when McCaw played following the recurrence of a foot injury. Whoever replaces them – and Sam Cane and Beauden Barrett have stealthily accumulated caps in recent years – will come into a setup made strong by its whole even more than its individual parts.
Australia kicked off here in calm conditions only to find themselves facing a hurricane. It is to their credit that they were not blown away in the opening blasts: Owen Franks upended Israel Folau, Conrad Smith knocked Michael Hooper back in a tackle that could be heard in the stands and Brodie Retallick charged down Will Genia. Australia’s main players were picked off and the area that the Wallabies needed to control to have a chance of winning, the breakdown, became McCaw’s domain. The combination of Hooper and David Pocock in the back row had disoriented the All Blacks in Sydney last August, but they were ready for the duo, looking to split them up from the start and, while they had individual successes, they were not, apart from one occasion, in a danger area. Pocock did thwart Jerome Kaino after Aaron Smith had taken a penalty quickly, but there was a period in the first half when New Zealand forced four turnovers in less than 90 seconds.
When Australia, who were not helped by early injuries to Kane Douglas and Matt Giteau, did win the ball back, they rarely held on to it for long. By the middle of the first half they were kicking the ball directly in touch and far enough over the line to prevent a throw from being taken quickly, grateful for the brief rest and opportunity to gather themselves, but New Zealand did not let them settle for long. It was to the Wallabies’ credit that they were only 6-3 down after half an hour, two Carter penalties to one by Bernard Foley, despite being overrun. Despite the overtly physical nature of the All Blacks, they used the quick feet of Nehe Milner-Skudder to get over the gain line more than the brute force of Nonu or Julian Savea, mixing things up and sapping the strength of a side that badly needed the interval.
By the time it arrived, New Zealand had scored the first try of the game. It was created by Conrad Smith in what turned out to be his final act in an international, changing direction in Australia’s 22 to create an overlap on the right, the hands of Aaron Smith and McCaw setting up Milner-Skudder. The No13 was replaced by Sonny Bill Williams at the start of the second half with Hansen looking for swift hands and offloads to finish off the Wallabies. Williams’ first two touches were in the move that led to Nonu’s try 90 seconds after the restart, the second from above his head to take out three tacklers, although his centre colleague had a bit to do 50 metres out on a run that confounded five more defenders.
At 21-3 up, New Zealand looked home but Australia, finally, after 50 minutes, got into their opponents’ 22. The All Blacks’ full-back Ben Smith was so surprised that he tip-tackled Drew Mitchell and became the first player in a World Cup final to be sent to the sin-bin. One lineout later and Pocock was driven over the line. Smith was waiting to come back on when Genia chipped into space in the All Blacks’ 22, Mitchell won the race for the ball and Tevita Kuridrani finished off.
Four years before, New Zealand were rattled when France scored a try in the Auckland final. Here, there was barely the raising of a collective eyebrow. Carter, a player who would probably emerge from half an hour in a sauna without any evidence of sweat, dropped a goal from 42 metres and then landed a penalty from near halfway, his longest of the tournament, to give the holders a cushion. When Ben Smith profited from Mitchell’s knock-on and kicked ahead for Barrett to pick up and score, it was confirmation of what had long been known: New Zealand are by some distance the best in the world and it will take even more than the loss of a number of players of the rarest quality to drag them back.