As if we ever needed reminding, Saturday’s World Cup final highlighted that so much of modern-day sport is played out in the head.
Every team prepares assiduously and formulates their plans and approach. After that, it all comes down to execution on any given day. With very little separating the top teams in the knockout phase, it’s all about which side turns up in the best frame of mind. How did New Zealand oscillate between looking unbeatable against Ireland in the quarter-final and being on the receiving end of an equally brilliant performance from England seven days later.
How could England go from delivering a masterclass in terms of planning and execution against New Zealand to being incapable of stringing two passes together in the same time frame. Getting their mental application right was the biggest challenge facing Eddie Jones’ men coming into this final and they failed to manage it.
One team showed the mental fortitude to deliver when the pressure was greatest. South Africa had their setback on the opening weekend of the tournament when losing to holders New Zealand. However, they played well enough that night to suggest they would still be around when the medals were being distributed.
The winners take the spoils. The rest are only left with regrets. Rassie Erasmus had every reason to feel good about himself when he woke up today. He emerged from a group of top quality, proven international coaches in Steve Hansen, Warren Gatland and Jones to mastermind a plan sufficient to deal with opposition of varying strengths and quality in Japan, Wales and England in the knockout phase.
After the outstanding display that blew New Zealand away, England looked primed to emulate the deeds of that great side under Martin Johnson in 2003. They had the power to match South Africa up front and appeared to possess more artistry behind the scrum to deliver the points.
In the end, the final came down to the very basics - the set-piece, and in particular the scrum.
At their time of greatest need, England’s scrum fell apart. Once a Springbok pack senses weakness in that key area they, more than any other opponent, will exploit it to the full. Fifteen of South Africa’s opening 18 points can be traced directly to the scrum. By the time England took corrective action, it was too late. Losing their outstanding tight-head prop Kyle Sinckler so early was a massive blow but England’s collapse ran much deeper than that.
Right across the field, all their big players failed to deliver. For South Africa, the opposite was the case with loosehead prop Tendai Mtawarira reproducing the game-defining form that crushed the Lions scrum in the opening test of the South African tour in Durban a decade ago. Bustling No 8 Duane Vermeulen completely outplaying his opposite number Billy Vunipola in a man-of-the-match performance.
With a sizeable advantage up front, South Africa also chose to remind people that they too can play some rugby when all the key elements are in place, putting far more width on the game and offloading more than England might have expected. To close out this final with two spectacular tries from their outstanding wingers Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe was proof positive of that.
Not unlike Ireland - and notwithstanding the fact that they had an infinitely more successful campaign - England too return home with regrets. From that perspective, you wonder what was running through Andy Farrell’s mind as he watched Saturday’s final unfold from the stand.
Can there be any prouder moment for a parent than to see their son or daughter lift a World Cup? Farrell Snr would appreciate what is required to do that more than most. A star in his own right in both rugby league and union, he is now tasked with mapping out Ireland’s journey to the next installment of rugby’s international showcase in France in four years time.
As the post-mortem on Ireland’s deeply disappointing World Cup campaign gets underway in IRFU headquarters, Farrell could do worse starting his campaign by grilling his son over Christmas dinner next month to get a forensic insight into how Eddie Jones transformed England from finishing second from bottom in the 2018 Six Nations, with just two wins from five outings, to beating New Zealand in the semi-final en route to a World Cup final appearance.
As it turned out, England’s defeat of Ireland in Twickenham in that catastrophic World Cup warm-up match last August proved a very accurate barometer of what lay down the line. In a desperate search for a valid explanation as to what happened Ireland that day, we all got sucked into making excuses.
I was fed the line that the nine days spent in warm-weather training in Portugal was the most brutal many in the Irish squad had ever experienced. The management know what they are doing. This was an investment for down the line.
The big worry from the Twickenham debacle, in conjunction with England’s defeat of Ireland in Dublin on the opening weekend of the Six Nations last February, was the psychological damage inflicted. Surely that would pose a problem if Ireland were to meet them, as the draw suggested, at the semi- final stage in Japan.
As we now know, Ireland never came anywhere near making that date. The fact that we were incapable of dealing with the challenging playing conditions that had been well flagged in advance was one thing. But also the failure to deal with the well-advertised threat Japan were capable of asking if everything went their way. The writing was on the wall for Ireland from the minute the final whistle blew in Shizuoka on that fateful day when the hosts recorded a famous victory.
It didn’t help that Ireland brought a number of players out with them in Jack Conan, Cian Healy, Keith Earls and Joey Carbery, who were all carrying injuries. When Robbie Henshaw tweaked his hamstring in the warm-up of the very first training session on Japanese soil and Rob Kearney also suffered a setback, it appeared fate would continue to impact on Ireland at a World Cup.
That said, everyone carries injures into a tournament of this nature. England persisted with Mako Vunipola who had played little or no rugby since last February before putting in a massive 68-minute shift against Australia in the quarter-final. New Zealand carried Brodie Retallick for most of the pool stage and he proved too big a handful for Ireland in our quarter-final.
Parking England’s achievement in finishing in the silver medal position, Wales under Gatland got the most out of the talent pool available to them. It was clear that, once again, the head coach squeezed the last drop out of his squad despite the loss of key personnel heading into their semi-final against the eventual winners. Remember, they only lost to South Africa by three points.
He now departs the scene for the Waikato Chiefs in Super Rugby, before returning to these shores to lead the Lions one last time when they head to South Africa in two years' time. The fact that the Springboks will be the world champions heading into that series will make it even more special.
It’s a measure of the job Erasmus has done that, only two years ago, it looked as if South African rugby was in such a state it was no longer strong enough to host a Lions tour. Now we are set up for another cracking series. But that’s for another day.
After seven weeks in this fascinating country, my abiding memory when the rugby fades will be of the people. We like to paint ourselves as a welcoming and hospitable country, which we are, but the Japanese are a class apart. The fallout from the horrific events of World War Two has left a lasting scar on their people.
As for the rugby and the staging of the event here, it took time to take off but the deeds of the national team helped in capturing the full attention of the nation. The downside is that there is unlikely to be any major legacy for rugby in this country as children are channelled into just one sport in school, with the majority playing baseball.
That has to change for the national team to flourish. More access to playing Tier 1 nations would help. Bumping into rugby fans from all over the world as we traversed the country, made me even more envious of the fact that Ireland failed in the bid to host the 2023 event.
Having been part of all nine events, in one capacity or another, since the inaugural tournament was hosted in New Zealand and Australia in 1987, I am more convinced than ever that we would have delivered a magnificent showcase for our great country across the entire island.
Unfortunately, the IRFU got it badly wrong when going about landing that tournament. Had we concentrated on getting Scotland and Wales, with six votes each, on board, as opposed to chasing countries with one vote, we might have fared better.
As for the our on-field goal of making a first ever semi-final, sadly that too fell short of the mark.
From an Irish perspective, it has proved a pretty deflating experience. As one Irish supporter said to me, having been out here from the very start, “49 nights singing the Fields of Athenry has left me a broken man”.
The Irish return home, broken in more ways than one.