World Rugby Cup Final: South Africa 12, New Zealand 11…

Once again, the pundits are ascribing huge significance to the Springboks world cup victory when it could just as easily be described as a random event occasioned by small margins. The Boks won three matches by one point (and lost to Ireland by four) and had the rub of the green last night.

The All Blacks were denied a brilliant try by an almost imperceptible knock on (itself occasioned by an illegal playing of their man in the air) and also had a penalty wrongly awarded against Savea when it should have been the other way around. They had a man sent off early on for shoulder on head, but the ref missed a clear elbow to the head of Cane by Etzebeth.

This is not to complain about the officiating – the ref generally had a good game. The point is, rather, that so much happens on a rugby pitch the officials can’t see everything and sometimes you get away with, and sometimes you don’t.

The bigger issue is that tries no longer decide the really crunch matches between the top sides – penalties, and by extension, referees do, and that is not a good look for the game. SA have now won four world cup finals, three of them without scoring a try. SA had one penalty go over off a post while NZ missed two goal kicks by small margins.

Rugby has thus become a game where kicking from hand and tee rather than great running and slick passing wins you the big prizes. I don’t know if that will grow the game much worldwide, particularly when it’s nearly always the same two countries which win, and when the game in Australia and England – the other two past winners – is in sad decline.

All of which begs the question whether Ireland could ever win. Gordon D’Arcy has argued (subscriber only) that we simply do not have the strength in depth required, and that our key players were goosed by the end game against NZ. Our top players had played more minutes than any of the semi-finalists.

I had argued, in a post written before the Tonga match, that we should rotate our team, without believing for a moment that Farrell would do so. Our mantra is always to “win one game at a time” while other countries take a more strategic approach, working backwards from what they must do to win the world cup. SA have now won two world cups after losing a pool match, and NZ lost to France as well. The point is they won when it really mattered, whereas we only won the prologue.

As Gordon D’Arcy notes, “None of the New Zealand players started every match. None of the South Africa players started every match. None of the England players started every match. By contrast, 10 Ireland players started every match”. He argues, (as many have done), that we need to broaden our player pathways beyond the traditional schools and into the club scene to improve our strength in depth.

We will never know whether a rotated Ireland team would have beaten Tonga or Scotland and qualified for the quarter final, but if that is the height of your ambition, that may be all you will achieve. SA took risks, selecting four scrum halves and only one specialist hooker. They had only one back on the bench against us and in the final. Mbonambi getting injured could have cost them more lineouts and the match. Losing a couple of backs would have been disastrous.

SA took the risks and got the ultimate reward, even when random events could have derailed their challenge. We focused on minimising risk all the way and ended up with little reward. We will never win a world cup until we can risk putting out a second team against the likes of Tonga or Scotland and qualifying anyway, as a loss by less than 8 points to Scotland would have done. Certainly, playing our first XV against Romania was a crazy decision, necessitated only because we had played one too few warmup matches beforehand and or first XV needed more game time together.

Would we have won a world cup had we done so? We will never know. Certainly, either England or Argentina were very beatable in the semis. And as for the final, it comes down to the random bounce of the ball or some debatable refereeing decisions. SA got both, and good luck to them. The point is they took the risks necessary to get them there. He who dares doesn’t always win, but those who don’t rarely do.

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