ANY GIVEN MONDAY
Nine parting thoughts from the ninth Rugby World Cup.
1. World Cups are hard to win
Expat Englanders living in the Greater Devonport area enjoy boring me senseless with their thrilling observations about the comparative global popularity of soccerfootball and rugby. Sit down if you haven't heard this one before: football is slightly more popular than rugby.
That doesn't alter the fact that Rugby World Cups are bloody hard to win (unless you're the Springboks, see #2).
New Zealand looked like the best team in the world when casting aside Ireland in the quarter-final. They in turn were swatted by England, who looked like the best team in the world during the semifinals.
England were then pants-downed by South Africa in the final, a team that suddenly looked like the best team in the world and were thus adjudged so.
Okay, so there is usually only one pool with more than two contending teams (Pool C on this occasion), but it is physically and mentally hard to back up three weeks in succession against powerful opponents.
2. South Africa are the exception to the above rule
Before the angry emails start rolling in from Browns Bay, let me go on record as saying South Africa deserved every bit of that 32-12 shellacking of England. They preyed on vulnerabilities few knew England had – the All Blacks certainly didn't find any a week previous.
The story of Siya Kolisi's rise to hoisting the Webb Ellis Cup is inspiring and has the potential to be truly transformative.
A doff of the cap to Rassie Erasmus and all. Well done.
But let's not ignore the fact that when it comes to World Cups, the Springboks get ridiculously lucky.
In 1995 they drew Western Samoa in the quarters, burgled a victory via a disallowed try in their semi against France, and faced an All Black team wracked by food poisoning in the final.
In 2007 you could argue they were the best team regardless of the draw but they still lucked out by drawing Fiji in the quarters, Argentina in the semi and faced a poor England side, who they had thrashed 36-0 in pool play, in the final.
In Japan, they lost to the All Blacks in pool play and it turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to them. While New Zealand were left to try to fight through European giants Ireland and England to get to the final, the Boks faced Japan and an injury ravaged Welsh team running on fumes.
Uncanny fortune, but as they say, "skryf dit in die boeke".
3. The breakdown and offside line continues to be problematic
World Rugby referees boss Alain Rolland will probably get a bonus because the tough stand his charges took against foul play left nobody in any doubt that SAFETY was their BIGGEST PRIORITY.
Aside from the difficulties in assessing the demerit value of one high tackle against another, you can't really knock World Rugby for putting player welfare at the top of their agenda.
At the same time it's difficult to make a case that they have the welfare of the sport at heart when they constantly allow teams to stray offside and attack the breakdown with illegal impunity.
The need for a virtual offside line has never been more pressing, the pros of which were argued boisterously here.
The breakdown remains an issue. The referees basically left it up to players to police it themselves (the rates for penalties and freekicks were massively down on the previous World Cup) and it resulted in a mess where quick ball was ridiculously difficult to win.
Look who thrived: the one team that enjoyed slow possession and had a halfback prepared to box-kick the ball within an inch of its life.
If rugby administrators want the game to be aesthetically pleasing and capable of winning new audiences, it must clean up the breakdown and the offside line. If World Rugby is happy with the grind, by all means carry on.
4. The gap between minnows and Tier One has increased
Using Japan as a counterpoint is nonsense. They were the host nation and have a fully-fledged professional domestic competition that attracts some of the best players in the world.
Look instead at the likes of the Pacific Island nations (gone backwards), of the USA and Russia (at best stagnant), of Canada (miles backwards) and Georgia (backwards).
There has been no closing of the gap, no emergence of a new team capable of challenging the established order.
It will always be this way until there becomes some mechanism of getting new teams into the Six Nations and Rugby Championship, or if a new global competition emerges to replace those.
That might happen in 2172.
5. Streaming worked just fine
Cannot pretend for a minute that my experience was universal, but apart from about 10-15 minutes of the All Blacks-South Africa clash, the stream worked perfectly.
Putting on my television critic's hat, the studio coverage lacked a little spice. There was way too much panel consensus on way too many things. The roll out of rugby's favourite tropes – "the French are so unpredictable", "Fiji play with so much flair" – soon became a reason not to tune in much before kickoff.
The match coverage was generally better, though the host broadcaster's obsession with spider cam was OTT. The commentary was excellent, but the lack of a strong sideline presence, a la Ian Smith, was noticeable in the knockouts in particular.
6. The tournament is too long
This is no revelation but the format makes this difficult to hold and retain engagement over the two months. The first month is marked by lots of footy but way too many mismatches and unattractive games; the second month is weighed down by inactivity.
You have three choices to rectify this, and none are without significant issues.
You can reduce the tournament to 16 teams, which means less pool games but what does that say about trying to grow the game.
You can reduce the time between matches, but that is going to put athlete's health in jeopardy and, probably, create a worse game.
The other thing they could do is run a bottom 16 tournament at smaller venues to break up those long midweeks at the end of the tournament when there is no rugby. Make the final placings meaningful in terms of qualifying for the next tournament.
The last suggestion would be pretty neat, but costs and logistics would probably make it the least attractive remedy for World Rugby.
7. Coaches talk too much
No sport does a worse job of promoting their athletes while at the same time going completely overboard on the cult of the coach.
It feels like the only people allowed to say anything remotely interesting are Fast Eddie, Shag, Gats, Cheiks and Schmidty. The only problem being that once you read through the bluster the words are hollow to the point of meaningless.
And we have weeks and weeks of this to wade through.
It doesn't help that players only tend to find their voice and personality once they've retired (people like TJ Perenara being notable exceptions), but the endless reams of coachspeak and imagined slights and digs becomes tedious by about week three.
8. Only 3.5 teams can win the next one
Trying to predict what will happen in a year is a fool's game, let alone four, but hand on heart there are a few contenders in Japan who appear to be in for long rebuilds, included among them a Warren Gatland-less Wales and Joe Schmidt-less Ireland.
This might have been their window.
It is dangerous to underestimate Australia, but it feels like their game needs to undergo a seismic shift to return to former glories and with so many key members of the 2019 squad either 30 and above or poised to hit their 30s.
That leaves the teams who finished first, second and third as the most realistic candidates to lift the trophy in Paris in 2023.
The point-five? It might be wishful thinking, but a French victory on home soil would be something to see.
9. Always know when to end a column
THE MONDAY LONG READ ...
A great story from Wired about a cyberattack that threatened the Winter Olympics.