Is it just six weeks ago when I looked forward to the 2019 Rugby World Cup (see here), which was about to start, and with its climax tomorrow when England play South Africa in Yokohama, Japan? I have been following the games on ITV 1 or Radio 5, especially once the “serious” encounters began following the group stages. I enjoyed the experience and the standard of play, and was wistfully whisked back to a day when I played for the school, when I was 11 and 12, but upon moving away sadly never got the chance to play again.
My first reaction looking back is it has been a wonderful tournament in every way, with imo the best eight teams progressing from the group stage into the quarter finals even though teams who had been successful in the past lost out. Japan have been wonderful hosts and the games have been good to watch and well refereed. Despite there being sending offs, they were right decisions. The respect players had for the referees was lovely to watch. I smiled when the referee said please when sending a player off and there was no fuss. The use of video to decide on difficult decisions invariably resulted in the right decisions. I loved the way the tournament was organized (credit to the Japanese hosts) and the spirit games were played.
As inevitably is the case, the group stage saw minnows pitted against serious contenders with as expected the minnows being well beaten, yet playing with credit and less scoreline margin as differences in ability was less that that seen in early years. I would say there were no surprises as to who progressed into the quarter finals and the best eight teams did prevail. If there was a surprise it was Japan, who beat both Scotland and Ireland, and Scotland being knocked out. Seeing the way the Japanese played and the way their game has progressed in recent years was a tournament highlight.
I enjoyed the quarter final matches and the high standard of play including individual skill, levels of fitness and tactical application according to the situation. Except for the Wales France, game the margin of victory of the winning teams was wide enough giving the right results, setting up two mouthwatering semifinals clashes: England and New Zealand; Wales and South Africa. I thought the England New Zealand game was the game of the tournament. I was pleasantly surprised how that England disposed of the world champions, still a formidable force, and the way they outplayed them, winning by a healthy margin despite two disallowed tries. The Wales South Africa game was tighter and, while I admired the way the Welsh played, I believe the Springboks were better. I thought they out kicked, were smarter tactically and performed better despite it being the one game that was tantalizingly close at the end.
That leaves the third-place final played today between Wales and New Zealand. This was a game neither side relished playing but to give both teams their credit they gave it their best shot, playing an expansive form of rugby. New Zealand were worthy winners and showed their superiority over the Welsh. This brings me to the final, to be played tomorrow and while it is going to be a busy day for me, it is planned around me watching the game. Based on what I have seen to date, I would have to predict an England win, but then that will be tempting providence. While I have been impressed by the English, especially the way they comfortably beat their Australian and New Zealand opponents, I cannot write off the South Africans. After losing their very first match they have gone from strength to strength and, while playing a more dour kicking game, displaying lots of physicality, they have also shown lots of adaptability.
So what to say? In a nutshell, South Africa did to England in the final what England did to New Zealand the week before, even though it wasn’t the expansive type of rugby seen last week. They were the better side on the day by a distance. They out muscelled, out thought, out defended, out played and dominated the game from beginning to end. In truth, England were not as good as last week, but all credit to the Springboks who did not allow them to be. There can be no complaint – the best side on the day won and are worthy champions, and if this uplifts that troubled nation, bringing together people from all sorts of ethnicicities and backgrounds, then that is an added bonus That is not to say England disgraced themselves. They have been magnificent throughout the tournament but today was not their day. From the outset they were on the back foot against a team that played to their strengths such as set pieces and kicking and their physicality, which is not to say they lacked skill – their first try especially was brilliant. Everything I said prior to the final e.g. around organisation, refereeing, skill, sportsmanship applied today. It has been a splendid tournament and a joy to behold. Credit goes to Japan who have been wonderful hosts. While I was disappointed for my England team, the best team won.