Ahead of Saturday’s final between New Zealand and Australia, it’s safe to say Rugby World Cup 2015 has been a huge success, England’s humiliation aside
How the Rugby World Cup 2015 organisers must have cackled, eyes twinkling, when they realised the final would be contested at Twickenham on October 31, or Hallowe’en.
What a numbing disappointment for England supporters that it is to be trans-Tasman rivals New Zealand and Australia, rather than their men in white, doing the tricking and treating on the hallowed turf this Saturday.
Indeed, the red rose’s chariot was heaved over some weeks ago, rather sweetly and with embarrassing ease.
In short, Stuart Lancaster and his team had a shocker, becoming the first hosts in eight editions of the 28-year competition to not make it through to the knockout stages.
They were spooked in the final quarter of their second match against a ragtag Wales team. The Welsh, missing almost a dozen front-line players due to injury, came from behind to snatch a 28-25 victory, heroically. It proved a killer blow in Pool A, the so-called ‘group of death’.
The Wallabies were only too happy to apply the force required to shunt the ‘poms’ out of their own tournament. The record 33-13 victory by Michael Cheika’s side was some coup de grâce.
Lancaster’s best-laid plans bombed, alas. And the Cumbrian, who took the reins after England’s quarter-final toppling four years ago in New Zealand – then deemed to be the nadir before this ever greater low – will be haunted by the demons of TW2 forever.
Little wonder that the 46-year-old vowed not to watch any more of the action once the hosts had been slain, preferring to seek escape and solace in the remote wilds of the Lake District, with his wife.
The fallout, one suspects, will be gory. The Rugby Football Union’s review of England’s performance (a process to be repeated every four years, apparently) is already underway, and few pundits believe that – given the gulf of defeat to Australia at ‘fortress’ Twickenham – Lancaster will survive the cull.
England’s ghoulish humiliation aside, RWC 2015 has been a splendid success, with tricks (such as Japan defeating the two-time winners South Africa in the opening round of matches) and treats (including Diego Maradona leading Argentina’s fiesta, and Romanian scrum-half Florin Surugiu successfully proposing to his girlfriend on the pitch) galore.
Most importantly for the development of the game here and abroad, engagement levels have skyrocketed as interest in rugby has lapped a high-water mark. Over 2.4 million revellers have attended the games themselves (with 13 venues across 48 matches attracting an average capacity of 97 per cent), and billions more have tuned in to the action around the globe.
Saturday’s curtain-closing clash, which is the 155th meeting between New Zealand and Australia, should be a fitting finale. The All Blacks are hoping to become the first country to achieve back-to-back titles, and with many legends bowing out it will be an emotional affair, win or lose.
Captain and openside flanker Richie McCaw – the most capped Test player ever to have played the game, who will run out for the 148th, and last, time for his country – is likely to be joined by Dan Carter (currently 111 caps), widely regarded as the best fly-half in the professional era, hooker Keven Mealamu (131 caps) and centre Conrad Smith (93), and more will follow.
What a thrilling farewell it would be for that raft of greats if they were to lift the Webb Ellis Cup once more. It would be a just reward for an unmatched reign of dominance as the number-one side on the planet; Steve Hansen’s All Blacks have lost only thrice in their 53 Tests played since RWC 2011.
However, for all that there will be no guard of honour, no easy ride. After all, the Wallabies are the last team to have bettered the All Blacks, as they did 27-19 in August en route to claiming the 2015 Rugby Championship.
And in David Pocock the Aussies have the tournament’s breakdown champion, with the No8 – who has been restricted to featuring in just four matches, yet still managed to steal the ball 14 times, which is five more than anyone else – averaging a turnover every 21 minutes.
The stage is set for a frighteningly entertaining conclusion to RWC 2015, but spare a thought this Hallowe’en for Lancaster and his tortured team.