With the 2019 Rugby World Cup done and dusted, and South Africa reigning supreme, Patrick McKendry and Liam Napier tackle all of the big questions in an in-depth look at the All Blacks' performances, the tournament as a whole, and what can be learned for the future from the 2019 Cup in Japan.
Who was the standout All Black at the World Cup?
Beauden Barrett; the best fullback in the world and possibly the best No 10 too, a player with pace, anticipation and vision, a player the All Blacks hoped would lead them to another World Cup triumph via his attacking ability from the back but in the end was starved of ball and opportunities and stuck in the garage like a supercar with an empty fuel tank.
Still, he was brilliant every time he played, a one-man highlights reel.
Liam Napier: Ardie Savea did not feature in the playoff for third due to his knee injury that will take two months to heal. But even as he hobbled on one leg with the semifinal result long gone, he refused to give up. Right to the final whistle Savea charged forward and bumped off defenders. It's this attitude that epitomises his relentless workrate that's seen him take his place among rugby's elite. When you stop and consider he continues to play with blurry vision in one eye, only then do you truly appreciate just how good he has been throughout this tournament.
What about the best player overall?
Japan captain Michael Leitch. The Kiwi-born loose forward had a weight of a nation on his shoulders and yet carried himself with a lightness that was inspiring to all, and not just the Brave Blossoms. His commitment to Japan's cause was absolute but quite apart from his obvious physical toughness is a special skillset of pass-and-catch and a knack of being in the right place at the right time. A joy to watch.
LN: South African flanker Pieter Steph du Toit was a colossus against England in the final but in a game of giants, Cheslin Kolbe's magical feet captivate more than most. Richie Mo'unga's desperate covering tackle on Kolbe went a long way to sealing the All Blacks' opening victory. Since then, the Toulouse finisher terrorised opposition defences.
Kolbe is the Nehe Milner-Skudder of this tournament in the way he needs so little space to stun defenders with his whipping step. Mix in his courage and deceptive strength, and it's impossible to not admire Kolbe's talent.
What was your favourite moment of the tournament?
Phil Gifford: Hear that, England? It's Maggie Thatcher spinning in her grave
Patrick McKendry: Three hard truths from Springboks' historic win
Simon Wilson: The mystery and magic of the Rugby World Cup
It should be watching Siya Kolisi lift the trophy for South Africa, but I'll be completely honest and allow that it was watching All Blacks wing Ben Smith roll back the years with his two-try performance against Wales in the bronze playoff match at Tokyo Stadium a night earlier.
Smith said he just wanted to finish on a high note for his family and teammates, to make his young children Walter and Annabelle, who were watching from the stand, proud of him. It was a special effort.
LN: Japan's rousing upsets. First Ireland, then Scotland, the host nation set their tournament alight with those results. They captured hearts and minds along the way, too, with their unique brand of flamboyant running, offloading rugby. Japan's victory over Ireland defied all odds but their second triumph seemed inevitable. That night Yokohama Stadium rode their team home, the atmosphere like nothing else. Reaching their maiden quarter-finals was a magnificent achievement for Jamie Joseph, Michael Leitch and Japan, one that again put rugby on the map in Asia. The hope now is their success is not wasted and they are embraced into rugby's long established elite. Don't hold your breath, though.
If you could change one thing it would be…
Make defensive lines stay onside. Come on World Rugby, it was ridiculous at times, and none more so than during England's semifinal win over the All Blacks when the brilliant midfielder Manu Tuilagi might as well have been in Jack Goodhue's pocket. Attacking teams need more space, and officials need to follow the law more closely. It's really not that hard.
LN: The three cancelled pool fixtures. Who knows what may have happened if France played England. Namibia were also robbed of their chance for a first World Cup victory against Canada. Everything is important when considered in that context. Typhoon Hagibis caused widespread destruction but for future tournaments, better contingency plans must be in place to preserve the integrity of this pinnacle event.
Most amusing moment?
Scotland's threat to sue World Rugby and the World Cup organisers should their final pool game against Japan be cancelled due to Typhoon Hagibis and then watching as the Brave Blossoms convincingly beat them to send them home in disgrace. The next might well be Scotland's official Twitter account somewhat controversially coming out in support of England before the final against the Boks. It was another decision that backfired amid ignominy. Crying laugh emoji.
LN: We'll all miss Steve Hansen's one-liners, his sense of humour and ability to lighten almost any mood. After the All Blacks defeated Wales to claim their unwanted bronze, Hansen was at it again.
"We'll deal with what we have to deal with over the next couple of days, find a quiet place at home and sit and have a few laughs with my wife Tash, and a few drinks. Probably get drunk and…"
Knowing his coach all too well, All Blacks captain Kieran Read interjected to say something along the lines of "you better stop there, Steve".
"See Kieran is still only 30-odd," Hansen added. "I'm 60, so, what he's thinking about doesn't happen that often these days. Not as much as I'd like, anyway."
Rate the All Blacks World Cup out of 10 and give a reason why
7. They were very good against the Boks and okay against Canada and Namibia. They were simply awesome against Ireland and played with an intensity and skill level we probably haven't seen from the All Blacks since that quarter-final demolition of France in Cardiff four years ago. Unfortunately for them they were simply awful against England a week later, but England played a big part in that too, of course.
LN: 6 One disastrous evening in Yokohama taints a tournament that, otherwise, seemed to be tracking in exactly the right direction. The fact this is the pinnacle event dictates judgments must be harsher than for any other tournament or test series. The World Cup is the ultimate aim, after all. Failure to claim the trophy or reach the final will haunt souls for many years.
Context comes from the All Blacks victory over the eventual champions, and their ruthless seven-try demolition of Ireland, the vaunted nemesis of recent times, in the quarter-final. They were, however, well off the pace in the semifinal – dominated physically to the point of no return and again rattled by defensive linespeed. Four wins, one loss. One haunting regret.
What does this tournament say about where rugby is going?
That the margins between top teams are very small. That defence wins matches, and that ambition can too and that the execution of a gameplan is becoming more important as each four-year cycle passes. That the officials must take a firmer hand on how the game is being played rather than merely being interested observers. That the gap between the top teams and the lower tier teams is growing – something which should be attended to as soon as possible. That rugby in Japan has a bright future if it is carefully fostered.
LN: That forward power and defensive linespeed remain king. From a pure entertainment perspective, hope springs eternal that attacking verve and endeavour will eventually prevail but rugby is a simple game in that whoever lays the best platform, generally wins. Clearly, on the basis of their semifinal performance, the All Blacks have work to do in this area. Physicality needs to be a single-minded focus and the set piece, particularly the lineout which derailed at the backend of the tournament, needs attention too.
Did the best team win?
Probably not; the All Blacks were probably the best team here. But the Boks deserved to win, no doubt about that. They were smart and fully committed and completely outplayed England. And rather than lurching into a festival of boring box kicks, the final was an enthralling and at times thrilling game of footy. It was a privilege to attend it, as was the tournament as a whole.
LN: It's cruel to take anything away from the Springboks. They are worthy champions, but losing their opening game to the All Blacks pushed them onto the easier side of the draw where they faced Japan and Wales en route to the final. Mentally the All Blacks played their final against Ireland. England played theirs against the All Blacks the following week. The Springboks won the real final. In the end, that's all that matters. On any given day, though, little separates those three teams.