The best yet to come? The World Cup is down to the last four nations, but though the hosts bowed out at the pool stage for the first time, England has put on a memorable tournament, garnished by some standout interventions from players, referees and supporters...
It was the moment the 2015 World Cup came alive on the opening Saturday and it came in the unlikely, un-rugby surroundings of Brighton. Having rattled the South Africans’ cage throughout their opening pool game, Japan’s Brave Blossoms lived up to their nickname, going for a scrum against the mighty Springbok pack after winning a penalty in their 22 and deciding not to settle for a draw as the clock ticked towards full-time. Their reward duly came when Karne Hesketh dove over in the corner and everyone bar the Boks celebrated a momentous rugby occasion.
Japan’s victory had a lasting effect on the tournament, other lower-tier nations refusing to lie down against the big guns. None came pluckier than the Namibians, faced with a daunting opener against the defending champions. The All Blacks ran in nine tries but it was the one they conceded that had the Olympic Stadium buzzing. It was the try of the game, too, as lively scrum-half Eugene Jantjies sent a long pass to Theuns Kotze. The fly-half quickly moved it on to Johan Deysel and the centre powered his way through three All Blacks to score and spark wonderful celebrations.
Happier times for the Ireland squad as, fresh from their opening-day hammering of Canada, they took a break from preparing for Romania at the English FA’s impressive St George’s Park training centre in Staffordshire to enjoy some down time. Some players chose to play golf at The Belfry, and Paul O’Connell had joked that “the backs are going shopping in Birmingham” but the captain obviously pulled rank and led them to nearby Alton Towers. O’Connell had long put the fear of various gods into opponents but it took the Ripsaw ride to turn the tables on the veteran lock.
A World Cup record crowd of 89,267 at Wembley witnessed a piece of Irish rugby brilliance as Keith Earls spun out of tackle and found Richardt Strauss on halfway, the hooker taking the high and pass out of contact well and shovelling it on to the left wing where Simon Zebo accelerated towards the try line, escaping defenders with an excellent kick ahead that he gathered 10 metres on before racing into the corner. Only for the TMO to spot a stray toe in touch by a fraction as Zebo collected his kick. The greatest World Cup try Ireland never scored.
In an epic encounter that will go down as one of Welsh rugby’s finest hours, the try that helped seal pool of death victory over England at a deafening Twickenham was pure invention born of necessity. Trailing 25-18, 10 minutes from defeat, with backs Hallam Amos, Scott Williams and Liam Williams adding to a calamitous injury list, scrum-half Lloyd Williams was deployed on the wing by Warren Gatland. He did his coach proud, bursting down the left and kicking an inspired crossfield grubber into the path of starting nine Gareth Davies to dive over, Dan Biggar converting and then adding a penalty from halfway to go 28-25 up.
There was still life in England but they did their best to get Wales over the line and with three minutes left, Sam Warburton was penalised as the hosts attacked, leaving Owen Farrell with a penalty to draw the game and stay alive ahead of facing Australia. Yet captain Chris Robshaw went for glory, sub fly-half George Ford kicking to the corner to set up a lineout drive for the line. The plan fell apart when the Welsh counter-drove the English maul into touch to secure victory and send England’s World Cup hopes reeling.
Still chastened by their defeat to Japan, South Africa were busy rebuilding pride with a much-needed 46-6 win over Samoa at Villa Park when, in the final minute, one of their supporters ran onto the field and actually attempted to join a ruck as the Samoans recycled possession. The pitch invader got more than he bargained for when he was pushed in the back by Springboks No.8 Duane Vermeulen and then dragged out of it and onto the ground by a Samoan sub as a startled referee Wayne Barnes stopped play before the transgressor was led away by stewards.
Shaped more like a tighthead prop these days than the footballing genius whose left foot led Argentina to football World Cup glory in 1986, Diego Maradona lent weight to his country’s rugby efforts when he turned up at Leicester City Stadium to watch the Pumas play Tonga. Flag in one hand, drink in the other, the tracksuited Maradona cheered wildly as Argentina trounced the Pacific Islanders 46-16 before leading the post-match celebrations in a joyous dressing room sing-song.
As if England’s woes weren’t bad enough after losing to Wales, Stuart Lancaster’s men went and crumbled in their do-or-die pool game with Australia back at Twickenham a week later. And it was Wallabies coach Michael Cheika who engineered the 33-13 mauling as the English became the first tournament hosts to exit at the pool stage. His much-maligned pack, inspired by a breakdown masterclass from twin-pronged opensides David Pocock and Michael Hooper and a two-try tour de force from fly-half Bernard Foley blew a lacklustre England away as Australia laid down their marker as potential champions.
On a night when France’s frailties were exposed by Canada before Les Bleus eked out a 24-12 win in Milton Keynes, the last thing they needed was a spy in the camp. Luckily the not-so secret agent was no 007 but Canadian skipper Jamie Cudmore, who cheekily wandered into a French huddle as they planned a lineout on the opposition’s 5m line. The Clermont veteran’s red-jerseyed entrance into a crowd of blue was quickly spotted by hooker Guilhem Guirado and Cudmore was sent packing armed only with a smile.
When Bryan Habana grabbed a hat-trick of five-pointers against the United States in the final weekend of pool action, the South African wing matched New Zealand legend Jonah Lomu’s record of 15 World Cup tries. Another Lomu milestone, set in 1999 and equalled by Habana in 2007, was matched last weekend when current All Blacks wing Julian Savea scored a scintillating hat-trick in the quarter-final demolition of France to reach their milestone of eight tries at a single World Cup. Savea and Habana clash today at Twickenham with with both records poised to be broken.
Namibia bowed out of the tournament at the pool stage against Argentina at Leicester. They went with heads held high after their creditable performance against New Zealand and the narrowest of defeats to Georgia, but not before substitute prop Johnny Redelinghuys took a conversion in the 64-19 loss. Redelinghuys had announced his intention to retire from international rugby after the game and his leaving gift was a chance to aim for the posts. It’s unusual for a prop to kick for points and his woeful effort showed why, but it was a great gesture.
If their victory over England had showcased their prowess with the ball and marked them out as genuine World Cup contenders, the Wallabies’ defensive effort against Wales underlined their commitment and heart when their backs are against the wall. Reduced to 13 men by yellow cards at Twickenham for seven exhausting minutes, the Australians kept 15-man Wales at bay as the men in red laid siege to the Wallabies line. It was an heroic defensive stand that proved the platform for the grittiest of 15-6 wins to top the toughest of pools.
The first of a quartet of moments from that epic and costly 24-9 Ireland victory over Pool D rivals France. It starts at the very beginning and serves to highlight the fantastic support Ireland received in each of their five games at England 2015. Ireland’s final pool game was in Cardiff, under the closed roof of the Millennium Stadium and it made for an unforgettable level of noise as Ireland’s Call was belted out in rousing fashion, setting the tone for huge levels of support throughout the game.
Maybe that emotional singing of Ireland’s Call sent the Irish flanker’s emotions through that closed roof but whatever the reason, the back rower’s actions less than a minute into the game landed O’Brien and his team in trouble that would come back to bite them a week later. A perfectly delivered thump to Pascal Papé’s midriff earned the back-rower a citing which led to a one-match ban, preventing O’Brien from contributing to injury-hit Ireland’s quarter-final clash against Argentina. And we know what happened there.
Like a fallen warrior carried from the battle on his shield, Paul O’Connell ended his 108-cap Ireland career on stretcher. Johnny Sexton had hobbled off after 25 minutes and Peter O’Mahony would follow after the break but it as the loss of the talismanic O’Connell just before half-time, his hamstring torn from the bone, that landed the biggest blow. He would finish the week back at the Millennium Stadium, watching helplessly from the stands alongside Sexton, O’Mahony and O’Brien having undergone surgery less than 48 hours earlier, as Argentina hammered the players he was unable to lead.
The effects of the injuries sustained against France had a big knock-on effect heading into the quarters but there was no immediate impact as those who replaced the stricken trio each made telling contributions to the victory over the French. Iain Henderson and Chris Henry made barnstorming entries while Ian Madigan proved a worthy replacement at fly-half for Sexton, nailing a difficult long-range penalty soon after entering the fray. The tears at full-time having guided his team to victory said it all and earned him a new nickname from the squad over breakfast the following morning – Gazza.
New Zealand may have lost their aura of invincibility this season but fly-half Dan Carter gave a reminder last Saturday that the All Blacks are still on top of the world and he remains the game’s greatest play-maker as he plays his final matches for the defending champions.
In the demolition of France in the quarter-finals, Carter’s excellence was highlighted in one exhilirating sequence of first-half play as he received the ball in his own half, handed off Pascal Papé, broke over halfway and then delivered a magnificent offload out the backdoor to set up the first of Julian Savea’s three tries. Pure rugby magic.
History in the form of a first semi-final appearance beckoned for Ireland as they faced Argentina but instead they produced a horror show. Scuppered by a slow start ruthlessly exploited by Argentina, Ireland were 17-0 down after 12 minutes. Then, having fought their way back into the game, trailing just 23-20 with 28 minutes still to play, Ireland blew it all over again. Madigan missed a far from easy penalty to level the scores and the Pumas pounced again, two late tries giving them a 42-20 win that did not flatter them.
You have to sympathise with Scotland, who carried the last remaining hope for the Northern Hemisphere into last Sunday’s final quarter-final and were denied victory over Australia only by an incorrect call from referee Craig Joubert. The Scots led by a point with two minutes to go when Jon Welsh was ruled offside for playing the ball after a knock-on by a team-mate. Joubert gave the penalty, which Bernard Foley kicked to win the game, 35-34, but it should have been a Wallabies scrum because their scrum-half Nick Phipps had touched the ball before Welsh. The error was acknowledged by World Rugby but it was too late for Scotland.
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