Liam Napier lists five takeaways from the All Blacks' 40-17 bronze medal victory over Wales.
Fab five's farewell
The result itself, in the context of the Rugby World Cup, is rather meaningless but it's fitting that five loyal servants of New Zealand rugby – Ben Smith, Ryan Crotty, Sonny Bill Williams, Kieran Read and Matt Todd – depart with the semblance of a smile. Todd played the final quarter after replacing Shannon Frizell but the other quartet all provided inspiration for the dominant victory over Wales. Not letting this crew, along with Steve Hansen and Mike Cron, fade into the sunset without recognition clearly formed an emotive driver.
"All week they spoke about not making it about themselves and that's what sort of characters they are - they're very selfless and they didn't want to be sentimental," Jordie Barrett said. "But the young guys and middle-tier boys in the group knew how much they've contributed to the All Blacks so we wanted to send them off on a good note."
In this regard alone, the All Blacks may be the first team to put a positive spin on the playoff for third. For those departing these were genuinely priceless moments.
The Ben Smith-Sam Cane conundrum
Two standouts against Wales, so much so that many questioned why they didn't start last week's semifinal defeat to England. The reality is Smith had fallen behind Beauden Barrett, Sevu Reece and George Bridge in the back three pecking order – those three were exceptional in the dominant quarter-final victory over Ireland the previous week. Smith was, therefore, contesting a bench role with Jordie Barrett that would have seen him play 25 minutes against England. And by that point, the damage had largely been done up front. We can and must, though, appreciate the beauty of Smith finishing with such a classy performance that included two superb tries. How about the Bender Fender in the mush of the Welsh halfback? That's a frame for the pool room if ever there was one.
Cane is the more compelling argument. This was a statement performance in that he reminded everyone, including Hansen, exactly what he could have done against England from the outset. Cane nabbed one clean turnover and is one of the hardest hitters in world rugby. It's that precise quality the All Blacks lacked against England. Cane, alone, would not have changed the result, but in hindsight there is little doubt he should have started over Scott Barrett.
All is fair in love and war
There is no love lost between Steve Hansen and Warren Gatland. While Gatland used his final press conference as Welsh coach to bizarrely challenge his Kiwi successor Wayne Pivac to match the efforts of his 12-year tenure, Hansen swiftly landed two flush blows to his opposite. First Hansen reminded the Welsh media that his record against Gatland is 8-1-1 in the All Blacks favour. "It's been competitive, yeah," Hansen quipped. He then questioned New Zealand Rugby's decision to let Gatland sacrifice one season his four-year Chiefs contract to lead the British and Irish Lions in 2021. Don't let pictures of these two heavyweight Kiwi coaches sharing a post-match beer fool you, they do not get along.
Wales not as good as they thought
That may sound harsh but it's also true. Wales arrived at this World Cup as the leading European nation. They won this year's Six Nations. They were the best prepared they had ever been. They were ranked No 1 before the tournament began. But for a moment of French madness and a favourable strip decision, they would have gone home at the quarter-final stage, just as they did four years ago. In some ways Wales did well to push the Springboks in their semifinal but that was one of the most turgid games of rugby for some time, with neither side willing to use the ball. Gatland's next stop is Hamilton and if Wales' appetite for attacking endeavour is any gauge, Chiefs fans should be concerned.
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Gatland has done a great job of restoring pride to the Welsh jersey with the limited resources at his disposal and such was their decimated state after being beaten up by the Boks, they were always going to cop a hiding from the All Blacks. The reality is one or two injuries and Wales suffer a significant drop in class. They don't have the depth. This tournament, though, assessed against prior form, should be considered a disappointment. They were a distant fourth.
If there is hope to rise from the ashes of defeat at this World Cup it's that the next generation of All Blacks leaders will carry their hurt. Richie Mo'unga, Anton Lienert-Brown, Jack Goodhue, Sam Cane, Ardie Savea, Brodie Retallick and the three Barrett brothers – Beauden, Scott and Jordie – should all be ready to go around again four years from now. New talent will continue to emerge, particularly in the ever-competitive outside backs and front-row, but this core group will know the feeling of failure and that can only drive them to rectify this ultimately disappointing result.