Rugby World Cup - Brilliance amidst the mundane

•    South Africa deserved to win but Argentina was the team of the tournament
•    The player of the tournament was Juan Martín Hernández, the Argentinean fly-half. But Bryan Habana was the most thrilling player to watch
•    Overall, disappointing rugby in the later stages but scintillating rugby from many of the “minnows”
•    Ireland the most disappointing team of the competition

By Brent Pope

Argentina was the team of the tournament. The best spirit, a great pack, two outstanding backs, Juan Martín Hernández, the player of the tournament at fly-half, and Felipe Contepomi the second best player of the tournament at inside centre. They had a great scrum-half and captain in Agustín Pichot, an outstanding pack, particularly their prop, Rodrigo Roncero. The best supporters, one of the best coaches, Marcelo Loffreda.  And the best performances relative to the team's assets. They were a joy. They showed they could win with just 30 per cent to 35 per cent of the ball. Had they got to the final they might have run out of steam, as France did in the semi-final against England. But they were a great team and they must now be brought into either the Tri-Nations or Six-Nations tournaments.

Argentina were unlucky in not beating South Africa in the semi-final. They made critical errors at critical periods and they were playing the second best team of the tournament. But, in truth, there was no injustice in South Africa winning. They were the best prepared, they had the steel to go all the way, they had the best coach in Jake White, they had some outstanding players: at scrum-half Fourie du Preez, at fly-half Butch James, on the wing one of the outstanding payers of the tournament, Bryan Habana, Schalk Burger at number 7, and Victor Matfield at lock, the best lock of the tournament.

In many ways South Africa were lucky. Lucky that New Zealand and Australia were knocked out before meeting them. Lucky to meet England in the final – they were never stretched in that match, although the score seemed tight at times. Lucky to meet Argentina on a day when some of their best players played beneath themselves. Lucky indeed to get through against the most exciting team in the tournament, Figi. But that said, South Africa were magnificent.

Bad tactics and leadership let down New Zealand

Aside from Ireland (more about them later), the big disappointment was New Zealand and much of the blame for their exit at the hands of France must be laid at the feet of Graham Henry. There was an arrogance about his selection and his tactics. The rotation system which he used throughout the tournament and for long before, eventually let him and New Zealand down. Ian Jack should have been played in the second row against France. Leaving out such a crucial player was reckless.

Of course losing two fly-halves within 10 minutes was unfortunate, but it should never have come down to a chance occurrence like that.

New Zealand should have been well ahead and they weren't because of poor selection and poor tacticsYes, there was the psychological factor with New Zealand. They had not been tested in the pool stages and there had been, and obviously remained, a mental block about the World Cup. So when it came down to the last few minutes against France, with France ahead, they froze to an extent.

They remain the world's best team, whether they remain that for the next four years is another matter, especially as the victorious South African team is a very young one and many of its players will be around in 2011. South Africa's attitude toward New Zealand is like what England's might be towards Ireland now – you can win as many of the local tournaments as you like (the Tri-Nations, the Triple Crown) but when it comes to the big time, you are not there.
Tennis rugby, no excitement

The later stages of the tournament were disappointing in terms of the quality of rugby played. The best rugby was played by the likes of Figi and, certainly, the Figi-Wales game was the best of the tournament. But so many of the matches showed 10 man rugby with the outhalf kicking the ball as high as he could and then the “attacking” team hoping for a mistake, followed by another high kick in response and on and on.

A problem I saw was backs playing off-side at rucks and mauls and being allowed to do so throughout entire matches by referees and touch judges. This meant that the attacking backs had to run 10 meters to reach the gain line while the defending backs had to move only one metre. It was one of the factors that killed off games. Argentina, the team I have singled out for special praise, I must acknowledge, did a lot of that. But as well they were the kings of the turn-over.

One of the intriguing questions about the tournament was: how was it that England improved so much? I think the answer is a growing self-belief. After the South Africa match in the pool stages they began to recover. They put a few wins together and started to believe in themselves. Of course the fact they had such experienced players in the squad who had been through all this before was a huge advantage. The return of Johnny Wilkinson was another crucial factor and the flourishing of Andrew Sheridan as the world's best loose-head prop, was a crucial factor. But they had no game plan other than kick and hope, which was a pity with such talented backs and Mathew Taite and Toby Flood.

Before the tournament I thought it should be restricted to 16 teams, not the 24 that took part. But the so-called minnows brought the excitement to the tournament. Figi obviously, but also Tonga who were wonderful too, Georgia, who deserved to beat Ireland, one of the so-called stronger nations, even Japan. A statistic I found amazing was that Japan secured 100 per cent – or almost that – of their ball in the line out. And because they don't have players six foot five tall and over, this was entirely because of tactics and fitness. It shows it can be done.

There is a case for involving Figi or at least a combined Pacific Island team in the Tri-Nations. Certainly, Argentina must be accommodated either in the Tri-Nations or Six-Nations and there are obvious logistical problems with doing either but it must be done.

Dismal Ireland

As for Ireland, Ireland was the most disappointing team of the tournament, by far. They massively underperformed. They were badly prepared, they were bad tactically (no Plan B), selection was wrong, the use of the squad was very poor and, whatever is said, the morale must have been down, if only because so many in the squad did not  get a look-in.

The strategy now must be to seek new players, whatever the cost to Ireland in the Six Nations. Ireland needs to look at options at outhalf, as a back-up to Ronan O'Gara. They fell on a new scrum-half almost by accident, Eoin Reddan. Luke FitzGerald must come in on the wing as must Brian Carney. And of course Ireland has to scour the world in search of players eligible to play for it in a whole host of positions, notably at prop.

But it has been a desperately disappointing tournament for a team that had more talent than any other Irish team of recent generations at least. To have performed so badly in all four matches in the World Cup was so disheartening.

Rugby World Cup XV - the best players in each position 

Name: Andrew Sheridan    
Country: England
Position: Prop

Name: John Smit
Country: South Africa    
Position: Hooker

Name: Carl Hayman
Country: New Zealand
Position: Prop

Name: Simon Shaw
Country: England
Position: Second Row

Name: Victor Matfield
Country: South Africa
Position: Second Row

Name: Thierry Dusautoir
Country: France
Position: Blindside Flanker

Name: Nili Latu
Country: Tonga
Position: Openside flanker

Name: Gonzalo Longo
Country: Argentina
Position: Number eight

Name: Fourie de Preez
Country: South Africa
Position: Scrum–half

Name: Juan Martin Hernandez
Country: Argentina
Position: Fly¬–half

Name: Bryan Habana
Country: South Africa
Position: Wing

Name Felipe Cotemponi
Country: Argentina
Position: Inside Centre

Name: Epi Taione
Country: Tonga

Position: Outside centre

Name: Vilimoni Delasau
Country: Fiji
Position: Wing

Name: Ignacio Corletto
Country: Argentina
Position: Full back

Top tries of the tournament

Takudza Nowenga Usa v SA

Vilimoni Delasau Fiji v Wales

Sireli Boba Fiji v Wales

Aramburu: Argentina v france playoff

Bryna Habana SA v Argentina

Juzion France v All Blacks