Friday 24 November 2017

Keith Wood: Rugby World Cup final is worthy of its name

Australia's Israel Folau and All Blacks winger Julian Savea both make our World Cup Final combined XV
Australia's Israel Folau and All Blacks winger Julian Savea both make our World Cup Final combined XV

This has been a World Cup of joy, of promise and of exhilaration. In my life playing in this tournament , watching it or working on TV, I have not seen its like. The only World Cup to match it for occasion was the 95 RWC- but for entirely different symbolic reasons as President Mandela, used the opportunity to unite his country.

That World Cup had a historical context all of its own. England RWC 2015 has all been about the rugby and it has hit every mark.

Our own expectations were not reached and although we had high points, the overall sense of Ireland's performance is one of disappointment.

As in 2011, our epic last pool game was followed by a drop of intensity that made the hill too high to climb. There were differing reasons, particularly an injury list from which there was no coming back, but overall disappointing none the less.

Any amount of rationalising cannot mask this fact: eight Rugby World Cups and no semi-finals. If semi-finals and higher are aims for Ireland, we need to do things differently.

The unflinching support at Irish games and the record numbers watching on TV only highlight further how much Ireland wants their teams to win.

Of course, it's not all about us, whatever we may think. We can miss the global nature by our constant naval gazing but this World Cup has changed the global perspective at just the right time. 800,000 viewers in Japan saw their win over SA, 25 million watched their win over Samoa. A country comprised of smaller men has always struggled on the world stage and they were supported accordingly.

Having a 100% win rate over South Africa has given Japan the platform it so desperately needed. The 2019 hosts should offer Eddie Jones and his team the freedom of the country.


There are three stand-out factors in this World Cup - the quality of play in the second tier teams, the conservatism of the Six Nations teams and the re-emergence of a more skills-oriented game plan from the Southern Hemisphere.

For those looking for rational perspective and not bandwagon revisionism, the winner list tells the story.

Seven out of eight winners of the tournament have come from the Southern Hemisphere. These winners had the ability to play and change their game plans to win, the northern hemisphere seem to choose one approach and stick with it.

This ability to chop and change is one of the defining markers of our two finalists. They have changed when needed, to do enough to win.

Whereas New Zealand and Australia can win ugly they strive to play a game of beauty. In times past we scorned this tyope of play, as some of the early Super 12 matches resembled touch rugby.

But this is the real deal. This is a game that diehard purists warm to. Scrummaging has been brought back to its point of prominence, Dane Coles is one of the few hookers to cleanly strike the ball, and the maul has its place in this iteration.

But the beauty of these teams is the willingness and freedom with which they offload, safe in the knowledge that a player is running a positive line, a try-scoring line. Both these teams can arm wrestle but they don't always look to.

Be it coincidence or otherwise, it also seems to be safer. Both finalists have nearly a full complement of players available for the weekend, with only a couple of players having gone home due to injury.

Ireland and Wales, in particular, are like a scene from The Walking D ead. We have to assess what are the common factors, if any, that have led to the profusion of post World Cup surgery. We want our best players on the field and that is not happening.

But for me, the joy of this World Cup has been the second-tier nations. They seemed unstressed by their daunting games, liberated to have a go. What a turnaround from four years ago. I had my fears before this World Cup that the gap was expanding,but these fears were unfounded.

Professionalism at World Cup time has brought the standard higher across the board but most especially at tier two. We now need to continue this growth in the cycle between cups and my god we could be in for some shocks in Japan.

But in the meantime let's sit back and enjoy the two best teams in the world battle it out in the final. In this W orld Cup that just seems about right.

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