Monday 11 December 2017

Brent Pope: All Blacks cemented their place as greatest team ever

Captain Richie McCaw of New Zealand holds up the Webb Ellis Cup after winning the Rugby World Cup Final against Australia at Twickenham
Captain Richie McCaw of New Zealand holds up the Webb Ellis Cup after winning the Rugby World Cup Final against Australia at Twickenham

Wallabies coach Michael Cheika admitted that New Zealand's ability to score just before and just after half-time was huge, in their World Cup win at Twickenham.

Sensational Kiwi winger Nehe Milner Skudder and big centre Ma'a Nonu, playing his last game for the All Blacks, scored either side of the half, as they turned a difficult 9-3 lead into an unassailable 21-3 advantage on their way to an unheralded third title and two in a row. More significantly they have shown that they have the ability to finally win away from New Zealand.

New Zealand not only became the first team to win back-to-back rugby World Cups, but in doing so maybe established themselves as one of the most successful sports teams of all time.

While many thought that this may be Australia's year, in the end, the class of the All Blacks shone through in what was a belter of a match. Finals are often tense dour affairs dominated by kicks and penalties, but not this one, and despite New Zealand apparently coasting at half-time, the Wallabies came crashing back in the second half to be at one stage within a single score of the Kiwis.

It is easy for me to say being a Kiwi, but in reality the best team did win. They had only lost once all year leading up to this competition, and have dominated the world game since they won back in 2011.

Rugby is not the main sport in Australia so they will recover and coach Michael Cheika has done a marvellous job to put the game back on the map in his adopted country, to come out of the pool of death unscathed was extremely difficult and eventually took its toll.

For New Zealand, rugby is like a religion, it is in many ways what defines us as a country, and for a small enough population something that New Zealanders can be immensely proud of.

The usually humble and subdued All Black leader Richie McCaw and out-half Dan Carter were allowed to be emotional, and as Carter's sublime left-footed drop goal finally put New Zealand seven points clear, Carter punched the air in celebration, he knew that after so many years of personal heartbreak he had finally reached his Everest.

McCaw, who will go down as perhaps the greatest rugby captain of all time, did not say publicly whether he would continue his amazing record of games (148) or wins, only to say "that moments like this was what sport was all about".

Caught up in the emotion he may be tempted to hang around. But he will never get a better chance to go out on top than this. And while the great Paul O'Connell sadly bowed out in the worst possible way, McCaw must now go on his own terms and at the top of the summit.

For both McCaw and the All Blacks it is an incredible achievement, and as a New Zealander living here for over quarter of a century I could not be prouder.

In many regards this World Cup final went the way of many of the other matches in this tournament (like Ireland's quarter-final against Argentina), in that one team dominated and rushed out to what most believed was an unassailable lead.

And then they et the opposition back in, before piling on the points in the last 10 minutes. Prior to the final New Zealanders had every reason to be nervous, the statistics favoured the underdogs Australia.

In all previous World Cup games played in both Ireland and the United Kingdom the Wallabies had played 18 and won them all, whilst the All Blacks' had only ever won their two previous world cups on home soil. The All Blacks' started the game with venom, and completely dominated everywhere on the park apart from the area that mattered most- the scoreboard.

At 21-3, Australia had nothing to lose and started to throw caution to the wind, and attack New Zealand with everything they had.

The mighty Blacks were suddenly in deep trouble, especially when a speculative kick saw big Australian centre Tevita Kuridrani in for another Wallaby try. What had looked like an unassailable lead for the All Blacks was suddenly down to just 4 points and the momentum of the game had shifted.

But like Ireland against Argentina, the legs in Australia's attack wilted and a stupid turnover gifted New Zealand back the ball, and when Dan Carter propped on to his left foot for a drop goal reminiscent of Johnny Wilkinson in 2003 it meant that the best Australia could do was draw and take the game to extra time.

It was just the break the Kiwis needed, knowing that if the worst happened it would still only be a draw, it settled the nerves, and in the end they finished far stronger as Australia wilted. Australia had been immensely brave, but their tough pool group and hard physical match against Argentina had in the end taken its toll.

The All Blacks deserve all the plaudits they duly received. In what turned out be to be one of the most sporting gestures ever in sport, All Black Sonny Bill Williams gave his winning medal to a young fan who had been hurt running onto the field. It showed that in the end - win, lose or draw - it is just a game.

To the two teams that played out the final congratulations, to the organiser's congratulations and to the Japanese team and the Irish fans congratulations all, you made me proud to follow sport.

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