After the Springboks momentous win, Paul Williams looks at five things we learnt from the weekend.
Five Things We Learnt From The Rugby World Cup Final Weekend
Scrums aren’t ornaments
Over the past few seasons, scrums have been regarded as a messy feature from an age gone by. Like a once proud Toby Jug on a pensioner’s mantelpiece, scrums have become an afterthought that need dusting off and polishing every now and again.
But as we saw in the Rugby World Cup final, scrums are the keystone of rugby, without which everything else collapses. With Kyle Sinckler leaving the field in the opening minutes, the game tipped irrevocably towards the South Africans. It would be unfair to blame the entire scrum problem on the tighthead side. England’s loosehead side also conceded its fair share of penalties.
Eddie Jones tried to fix the problem with the introduction of George Kruis. But extra weight behind the props didn’t suffice. Without a scrum, England were unable to exploit Bok handling errors and perhaps more importantly, supply Manu Tuilagi with any clean phase-one ball.
England were outplayed in all areas of the field, but it started and ended at the scrum. A lesson that, despite a very positive tournament, the English pack will take a long time to forget.
Forwards for dough, backs for show
As much as Super Rugby fan boys like myself want 70m tries and miss-three passes to rule rugby, this RWC, as with most others, has proved that forward dominance is all that really matters. Without it you have nothing.
Against the All Blacks, England dominated the gain-line and the deck, providing stacks of fast ball for their backs. That wasn’t the case against the Boks. The Boks dominated every aspect of the collision and the breakdown. Against New Zealand it looked like England had eight carriers, against the Boks it looked like they had two.
It wasn’t just in defence that the Boks excelled, Duane Vermeulen was the dominant carrier on the field. Add to that the equally faultless Pieter-Steph du Toit and England’s flankers looked like the young players that they are, instead of the 80-cap players they appeared to be the week before. Both Sam Underhill and Tom Curry have had stunning tournaments regardless.
In commentary, the more you hear the names of your pack, the less likely you are to hear the names of the opposition’s backs. And that is exactly how it played out. At times it seemed as though my remote control had placed the English midfield on selective mute.
The end of an era
The third-place play-off not only saw the end of this year’s World Cup cycles for Wales and New Zealand, but it also saw the end of two rugby coaching eras. Steve Hansen and Warren Gatland may have had varying styles, and one of them may have lifted more of the big trinkets, but they are both undeniably the most successful head coaches in their nation’s histories.
Whilst Hansen got to lift the World Cup twice and dominate the Rugby Championship, it is Gatland who arguably deserves more praise. He simply did more with less. When Gatland arrived, Wales had admittedly won a Grand Slam in 2005. But the style of rugby and the structure that stood beneath was as stable as a soup pasty.
Gatland changed it all. Not only by making players fitter and more physical, but also by creating a rugby infrastructure that hopefully will last Wales another 50 years.
Gatland’s tenure wasn’t without criticism of course. Whilst Hansen was moving creative rugby forward, particularly in midfield and the back three, there was a period where Wales seemed obsessed with giant backs and contact. ‘Warrenball’ was denied as even existing by the coaching staff, when to many, particularly those exposed to southern hemisphere rugby, knew that it did.
However, Warrenball diluted significantly in recent seasons, and with it Gatland finished as he started – by taking Welsh rugby to levels of consistency and achievement that it hadn’t seen for 30 years. Thankyou Mr Hansen and Mr Gatland, you’ve both changed the game for the better and that is a mark of the true greats.
A win for the whole of South Africa
The Boks’ World Cup win was massive, for any number of reasons. But the most important is beyond rugby and undoubtedly bleeds into the social and political. It is impossible to detach sport and politics in South Africa. And rightly so. The country has a long history of social and political nightmares to clean up and rugby is a key part of it.
What makes this Springbok win seem different is the racial mix of the squad. Whilst things clearly aren’t perfect in South Africa in 2019, this Bok squad felt like a far truer representation of rugby in South Africa. Who could argue that Makazole Mapimpi isn’t one of the best finishers in Test rugby and arguably one of the best under the high ball? Who doesn’t think that Lukhanyo Am’s pass wasn’t one of the most ballsy plays ever seen in a World Cup final? Who doesn’t think Cheslin Kolbe is the most exciting player in the game, in any country? And who doesn’t think that Siya Kolisi now ranks up alongside Francois Pienaar as a great Springbok captain.
1995 marked the start of the revolution in South African rugby and whilst the journey is nowhere near complete, it is moving in the right direction.
World Rugby needs a ‘most improved category’
The final week of the World Cup saw World Rugby announce the Player of the Year and Breakthrough Player of the Year nominees. All of which are well deserved. However, it does leave a big gap for mid-career players. Unless you’re the best player in the world or the best young player in the world, there is little public recognition.
Test careers can stretch over 15 years, providing a large gap in which players can improve hugely. Particularly if you’re a lock or prop – just look at Cory Hill for example. Most locks or props don’t look comfortable in Test rugby until their mid-20a – players like Maro Itoje are rare. For most it takes many years to master the intricacies of scrummaging and lock play, not to mention adding the required mass.
The issue doesn’t just concern players in the tight five. If there was a ‘most improved’ award, this year may have seen the likes of Jonny May get a nomination. World Rugby have enough on their plate without me making more work for them. But if they get a quiet minute…
Don’t forget to follow Rugby World on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.