The Rugby World Cup Final.

Jonny. Pre-game. Almost worryingly earnest, as so often. Turning his analysis into yoga, players out there behind him. Then ‘that wry smile’ – Farrell’s, not Wilkinson’s and a ‘break’. ITV: okaaay but also weird.

But what a good, solid and sometimes *actually inspiring* tournament this has been. Japan the clear winner, for their childlike embrace of the thing, for their politesse and their Proper Rugby Passion too. (Oh – and their team played arguably the most entertaining rugby in the tournament).

Rugby, World Cup Finals, in Japan. Strange how intelligent administration, free from bias or bung can turn out well, eh FIFA, eh ICC? You get to expand the game and enrich the experiences of everybody, pretty much, from spectator to waiter. The sport benefits.

The sight of Japanese, young and old, belting out the beautiful but relatively inaccessible Welsh national anthem has felt wonderfully symbolic of the potential richnesses – rarely located but found here – that the confluence of sport and peoples can aspire to. Simply, rugby does goodwill particularly well. Japan seems to have done it magnificently.

To the game.

Unusually for me, no live updates. Wanted to watch. What follows is therefore some abstracted thoughts…

 

South Africa and England may be high on the list of unloved rugby nations but ultimately there was a heartwarming bundle of That Good Stuff washing around Yokohama and the airwaves, at the whistle. The Boks had freed themselves up and begun to cut deep and wide, as England, disconsolate, near-humiliated England slipped into hopelessness.

The scenes at the culmination of an emphatic win – the rainbow of joy and wider-spread satisfaction around the host nation for a supremely hospitable tournament – may camouflage the fact that this was a game in which only one team turned up: South Africa.

Questions will inevitably be asked about tactical matters: how could the Boks dominate so completely a game that they entered as underdogs? Was this not an obvious case of one coaching team out-thinking another? Did Jones not know the go-to strengths of Erasmus’s side? Of course he did. But this was a World. Cup. Final.

England looked overawed from the start. Arguably not every player, of course but there was that awful error/contagion/überangst coursing right through them. Painful for Eddie Jones and his backroom staff to see, as they will surely have wanted and quite possibly expected to replicate the carousel of brilliant, confident attacking that characterised their start against the ABs. Instead there was simple error after dubious choice: they were more woeful than mixed, as exemplified by Youngs, on ten minutes, hurling a pass metres high and wide of any colleague, metres into touch. Wow. Shocker.

For Sinckler, the young English prop, there was barely time for nerves. Pre-game, I had a hunch that his personality, his wit, indeed, may have a real influence on this encounter. The fella’s sparky and spunky in a good way: strong but also somehow nimble. He left the pitch, cruelly accidentally concussed, on four minutes: England would miss both his bulk and his capacity to defy, to intervene.

Apologies. This may all underestimate the early power and control of South Africa – who were immediately ahead on the board and looked likely to stretch that lead further the more the first half continued. (Pollard missed a straightforward kick/there was a pret-ty continual siege going on against the England defence, albeit all over the park, as opposed to close to the danger zone).

In the ether, much had been made of the Erasmus plan to stifle and smother but without being electrifyingly expansive in the first period, South Africa went through a certain level of positive phases competently enough – unlike England. Continually and consistently, often via de Allende or Le Roux, the Springboks threaten to threaten.

The men in white, by contrast, for whom I thought Daly (most obviously) and both halfbacks underachieved, either through error or conceding possession too cheaply, were unrecognisable from the week previous. The opposition today were magnificently robust, it’s true but if Game Plan A for England was to hoist (without effectively chasing down) and re-set, as soon as this was patently neutered, surely the halfbacks must initiate another challenge, or twelve?

Youngs and Ford disappointed, in this respect. And yes I know they my have put many man-hours into that Plan A, and that the coaches may have over-egged the need to keep faith with it, but when Am, de Allende, Etzebeth, Kolisi and co are smashing you back decisively on nearly every contact, surely it makes sense (when it’s a known strength of your own) to look to play at pace and with width?

Instead, Pollard and wee Faf could dictate the nature of the play… because they had both momentum and – courtesy those box-kicks and ‘clearances’ – possession of the ball!

Simplistic? Maybe. Less arguable was the palpable superiority of the Boks, not just around contacts but notably and maybe surprisingly at line-out and scrum. Even accepting that the reffing of scrums often seems arbitrary, the concession of penalties by England in this facet of play was both a) remarkable b) completely reflective of Springbok dominance. England were repeatedly smashed.

In line-outs, too, the English were alarmingly out of synch, given their previous high standards. If the throw from George was caught, the movement around – the development – was clunky. The fizz from Underhill, Curry and Vunipola(s) remained well and truly corked.

England escaped the first forty within range, somehow. (6-12). But the imagery was set: blurs and errors and lack of flow from men of The North, and a deep, formidable squeeze from t’other side.

For a few minutes, into the second half, we almost had a game: England almost roared. After the inevitable fifty-odd minute personnel changes, the South African scrum was almost shockingly vulnerable – momentarily, as it turned out – as Marler or Cole or somebody similarly heave-tastic forced a pen. Farrell profited, bringing the scores to 9-15 but then crucially (possibly) failed with a toughish but kickable effort from about 45 metres. Before any meaningful momentum could be gathered, Daly sliced poorly into touch, England conceded a further pen after the line-out and Pollard pinged over.

If those exchanges settled the match, it was the two South African tries in a delirious and exhilarating last fifteen minutes that delivered the flourish. Am threw a peach of a no-looker to put Mapimpi in, then Kolbe danced with some ease round a somewhat movement-restricted Farrell, following a crunching, ball-spilling tackle on Slade. The South Africans (and maybe the competition?) got what they deserved: a stylish, joyful kindofa win.

I’m not big on stagey celebrations or presentations but how could we not enjoy the Bok Party? With its *stories*. How could we not raise a glass to Kolisi and to the idea of shared, enlightened progress? And also how could we not note the South African skipper’s gracious acknowledgement for the stricken Sinckler, moments before rising to collect the World Cup, himself?

Wow. Rugby can be great; sport can be great; people can be great. Nice work, Japan – nice work.

France can’t win because…

It’s the finalist of all finals, the most singularly lopsided. The homesters versus the recently unloved; the latter, (the French) having excelled themselves at the fine art of pretending to be England, minus the booze, the women (probably) and the ferries. Is there even a sort of Daily Mailized Forces of Order and Good v Dale Farm Junkies and Dishonourable Reprobates about it too, I wonder? The fearsomely beautiful and no doubt milky-lamb-cuddling ‘Blacks v the foie gras munching bootboys with no respect. With press this bad, surely even the French don’t want France to win? But could they?

The answer is a relatively confident No. And given that time is now short and that once more it feels appropriate to spill the guts of an argument rather than tease it out surgeon-like, here are a few reasons to be fearful for the French.

  • They’re outgunned in every department, pretty much, lacking the blistering intensity levels the All Blacks have copyrighted as their own since… since Agincourt. (Where’s the French Nonu or McCaw or Dagg? Etc.)
  • The All Blacks, in case it’s slipped you’re notice, are at home, with the heat of a nation – a truly great rugby nation – scorching at their backs.
  • Though we might expect a few nervous moments, a chronic and infectious bout of under-achievement should not blight the All Blacks, or enough of the All Blacks for long enough, to give the French a look-in.
  • If on the contrary the AB’s start as they did against Australia, the French capacity to sulk and even disappear may be invoked by about the 15th minute; because the cause may already be lost.
  • Whilst the French pack may be reasonably competitive in the scrum (maybe) they will surely not live with the AB’s at the line-out/breakdown/generally marauding round the park?
  • Perhaps Harinordoquy and Dusautoir aside, the French lack the crucial combination of real class and spirit. And they are relatively faceless behind the scrum.
  • Israel Dagg, I fancy, may have a field day whilst opposite number Medard is likely to wilt.
  • Whilst 9 and 10 are not special for the AB’s, they are functioning and brilliantly supported by the midfield and by loose forwards. Yashvilli and Parra have had nothing around them except chaos.
  • Most obviously perhaps the difference in belief and unity should tell; the Blacks are mighty and together and they know it; the French are cock-fighting or backing different snails.
  • Lievremont is enigmatically unloved; Henry is the Headteacher worth listening to.

Most important of all, dear reader, we the World Community of Rugby Lovers simply won’t allow it (a French win, I mean).

  • Because without any doubt the All Blacks – the New Zealanders – are fine and even magnificent exponents of and believers in rugby as an electrifying, honourable pursuit.
  • Because they will give EVERYTHING and truly, sadly, the French have given virtually nothing (and arguably therefore, have no right to represent the North. That honour should surely have ideally fallen to the Brotherhood of Redness – see 57 previous blogs).
  • Because, in other words, put crudely but honestly, the All Blacks deserve it. And we will congratulate them.