You may recall the article I wrote previewing the competition in the first edition of the year where I compared the World Cup to a Shakespearean drama. It certainly did not disappoint in being dramatic nor in terms of quality.
There is nowhere else to start but with an honourable mention to the hosts Japan. The brave blossoms not only lived up to their nickname but were one of the highlights of the tournament playing an attractive, offloading brand of rugby which saw them top Pool A and reach their first ever quarter final beating Ireland and Scotland along the way. They eventually lost to overall winners South Africa 26-3. Overall, they were excellent hosts, earning plaudits for their friendly and welcoming nature in helping out visiting rugby fans from around the world. The Japanese authorities must also be applauded for somehow being able to get Yokohama Stadium in perfect condition a day after Typhoon Hagibis, Japan’s worst storm since 1958. It is all the more remarkable considering three games including New Zealand and Italy had to be cancelled due to the typhoon.
Speaking of storms and natural disasters, Ireland’s World Cup was one of seismic proportion: an emphatic defeat in the quarter finals. It’s the hope that kills you as they say, but in this instance, one feels that Joe Schmidt didn’t help his team’s chances by being overly loyal to players who were underperforming such as Rob Kearney and Rob Henshaw. Players such as Jordan Larmour, Chris Farrell and Andrew Conway had excellent tournaments yet could not get a look in against the All Blacks. From the heights of 2018, Ireland became more conservative, narrower in attack and did not seem to have any plan B or X factor which could turn a game on its head. The writing was on the wall after the Japan defeat. Regardless of six-day turnarounds and holding things back, Ireland were out fought and outclassed by a superior team on the night and in the tournament. Many of the players have played their last World Cup and possibly their final International match for Ireland. Its a great pity that Rory Best and Joe Schmidt’s Irish careers had to end on such a sour note but as we know only too well, sport is cruel.
Shock defeats and emphatic results were not kept to just Pool A alone. Uruguay picked up their first ever World Cup victory by defeating Fiji 30-27 in one of the biggest shocks in the history of the tournament. We have already mentioned the giant killers Japan, turning over Ireland and also Scotland in one of the best matches of the tournament 29-22. England also produced one of the great world cup performances by preventing New Zealand from making it 3 titles in a row when they were stopped 19-7 in the semi finals. In that game, we also witnessed one of the great haka responses when the English team led with the smirk of Owen Farrell set up in a v formation. Interestingly enough they were fined by World Rugby for this as it apparently broke their rules in relation to stepping over the halfway line while the haka was performed. The intensity and skill level displayed by the English was a sight to behold and they will have regrets for years to come that they could not finish the job against South Africa in the final.
On that note, it was of course South Africa who claimed their third Webb Ellis Cup since 1995 when they outmuscled England 32-12 in the final. Munster supporters could potentially lay claim to some of the success with the Springboks’ management including former Munster coaches Felix Jones, Aled Waters, Jaque Nienaber and of course Head Coach Rassie Erasmus. For a team revered for their attritional style of play, it was their two smallest players who gained most of the plaudits. Scrum half Faf De Kierk and winger Cheslin Kolbe were two of the players of the tournament and are both under 5 ‘10” . Without them, it is arguable that they may not have reached the summit and they are both players who are on their way to becoming global superstars. Last but certainly not least, we witnessed one of the great post final speeches. Springbok captain Siya Kolisi, who grew up in severe poverty and endured tragedy when his mother died when he was 15. Since 2014, he has adopted his half siblings who were left with nowhere to go when their mother died. In his speech Kolisi said that “We appreciate all the support – people in the taverns, in the shebeens, farms, homeless people and people in the rural areas.” A class act from a class player.
This World Cup although unique, retained many of its usual features, a southern hemisphere victor, new superstars, an Ireland quarter final exit but most importantly of all, some breathtaking rugby which displays how far the game has developed since the last World Cup in 2015. A new era begins for rugby and it can’t come soon enough.