The All Blacks didn’t just win their third World Cup on Saturday, they set the bar for 2019. That’s at least the level of rugby, commitment and experience that will be needed if England, or anyone else for that matter, are going to replace New Zealand as top dogs in Japan.
I’m not old enough to agree or disagree with Heyneke Meyer when he says that this is the best All Black side ever, but you know that it’s in the nature of the beast that by the time we’re in Tokyo, they’ll be even better than the 2015 model. And from one to 15 on Saturday, they were pretty close to complete.
The best side won probably the best World Cup ever and for that matter provided the perfect stage for two of the best players of all time – Richie McCaw and Dan Carter – and also allowed the All Blacks to parade their near-perfect rugby intellect; it was their ability to think things through on the hoof and change what was going wrong that won the day.
For 20 minutes, every time the game went wide, David Pocock and Michael Hooper smashed the breakdown. So what did the Blacks do? They took the narrow-side option, found ways at lineout time to tie in Pocock and piled up the points.
It was that ability to recognise that something was wrong and change it that, without the 14-point yellow card against Ben Smith, would have had the Blacks home and hosed before the final quarter.
An instance to illustrate what we mean when we bang on about New Zealand being an all-court team. Five minutes before half-time, just after Carter had landed his third penalty, Bernard Foley kicked the restart long only to see McCaw and Ben Smith begin a rumble that took play back over halfway.
One phase later, Sam Whitelock took a clean lineout, the wing Nehe Milner-Skudder and the hooker Dane Coles passed their way 20 metres up the right, then Carter, Milner-Skudder again, Ma’a Nonu at centre, Owen Franks the prop, the back-rows Kieran Read and Jerome Kaino, along with the lock Brodie Retallick got into the Australia 22 before Conrad Smith, Aaron Smith and McCaw set up Milner-Skudder for the opening try.
There weren’t many All Blacks who weren’t involved. Not that it saved Conrad Smith from an early exit.
You sometimes think Steve Hansen wouldn’t think twice about substituting Carter or McCaw were it were necessary, so Smith, the coach’s go-to man for a decade and the linchpin in that try, was replaced by Sonny Bill Williams at half-time. Hansen wanted something different, something more direct; another decision that proved instantly successful for Nonu’s try and a 21-3 lead before that 14-point turnaround.
The All Blacks make it almost a point of honour not to lose points when they have a man in the sin-bin – in fact I’m sure there is someone who can tell me the average of the points they gain when a man down – but the Ben Smith yellow hurt.
Not only did the All Blacks go down to 14 men, they were penalised within rolling maul’s distance of their own line and, when Pocock steered his pack over the line, it not only closed the gap to 11 points, but gave Australia fresh inspiration.
Australian forwards had been walking to the set pieces and for the first time in the game their scrum had just been shattered by the Blacks, but suddenly spirits were up. Carter even missed a penalty to touch and when Kurtley Beale, an inspiration after replacing Matt Giteau, fielded another poor kick and ran it back, Will Genia box-kicked into space for Adam Ashley-Cooper to set up the Australian centre Tevita Kuridrani.
Suddenly anything was possible. Or would have been had anyone with less nous and experience than Carter been around. Simply, the fly-half stopped the rot with a drop goal and sealed the game with a penalty before Ben Smith and Beauden Barrett wrapped things up.
When McCaw, who seemingly doesn’t intend to retire just yet, said: “We’ve been in those situations before,” you knew just what he meant even without looking around the field at departing heroes such as Carter, Nonu and Conrad Smith. For once life was fair and Carter was heading for Test retirement after at least playing (and winning) in a World Cup final.
As for England, it was the final irony that having picked a squad which some said looked like one for the Six Nations – rain and mud – the World Cup played on their patch suffered only one rainy weekend.