24 Years of Hurt Over… Just.

You could almost hear an entire nation sigh in relief.  Just as Ireland with the Grand Slam in 2009, New Zealand choked utterly, but still had enough in them to get the monkey off their back.  They completely lost their way in attack, became clueless, rudderless and allowed themselves to be dragged down to the level of the rest of the world, but defended magnificently, their heroic captain Richie McCaw to the fore.

Huge credit goes to France, and in particular their two masters of back row play, Thierry Dusatoir and Imaonl Harinordoquy.  Dusatoir entered the pantheon of rugby greats yesterday, if he wasn’t there already, while Harinordoquy showed himself to be the world’s greatest lineout forward, and he’s not even a second row.  They were the only team in the tournament capable of matching the Kiwis both for physicality and skill.  South Africa bring a physical challege, the Aussies have the skillset, but only France, on their day, can provide both.  Their magnificence was one in the eye for the likes of Stuart Barnes, who wrote a lot of nonsense about them last week.

The game itself followed a familiar pattern. Rugby is a relatively simple game – and the adage that forwards win matches and backs decide by how much is a useful starting point. How do forwards win matches? By manfacturing pressure, by dictating the terms of the set pieces and the breakdown, all of which forces thier opponents into mistakes. These mistakes under pressure, in the normal course of events, are penalized by the referee, and the team on top uses these penalties to get increase territorial superiority, and ultimately score a try, or 3 points from the kicking tee. As the team on top gets further ahead, the side under the cosh must take more risks and attempt to score from less advantageous field position, giving the team on top some gaps to play at.

However, for all France’s dominance on Sunday, the cycle above was broken by the referee not rewarding their superiority. Craig Joubert did not make any outrageous home town decisions, but the pattern was clear right throughout the 80 minutes, and it was to the detriment of France. We don’t want to harp on about refereeing (although our muse Gerry is now basically a referee-moaning vehicle), but it decided the game and the destination of the trophy. Rugby needs at least the appearance of probity, and the selection of a referee for a final based on an assessment process which seems to favour one side above another is clearly sub-optimal. Just ask Spreaders how his career went after the opening game of RWC07 – why would Craig Joubert disadvantage his own career by pinging NZ off the park? The process is the problem.

But New Zealand deserve a huge amount of praise for their efforts.  As we noted previously, they had to beat, not only their opponent but the weight of history too.  And they had to do it not just without Dan Carter, but with the sixth best New Zealand outhalf (Donald was fourth choice, and Evans and McAllister are obviously superior).  For Ireland to find themelves in such a position, it would mean Niall O’Connor seeing out the match.  We were left with the extraordinary sight of a man coming on with so little confidence invested in him, that his team almost refused to give him the ball.  And yet it fell to this very fellow to knock over the crucial penalty. You have to hand it to Beaver, and he had the grace to laugh on the podium when the camera was on him. They say you’re only as good as you’re weakest link and in this case he was able to knock over a simple, but pressurised penalty from in front of the posts.  Sometimes, in sport, that’s good enough.

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