Sunday, 1 November 2015

RWC 2015 - The Final Weekend: A Live Viewpoint

The 2015 Rugby World Cup has finished, and what a fantastic tournament it was. A lot of people covering the tournament have called it the best one yet and I would find it hard to disagree with that. The last two games of the tournament were the Bronze Medal match on Friday night between South Africa and Argentina and the main event – the World Cup Final between New Zealand and Australia. In previous posts I have covered a fair bit of what has happened in the games with some personal opinions thrown in there as well. This one will be a little bit different. I will still be covering what happened in the games, I will also discuss from my perspective of being at the two games. I had a ticket for the Bronze Medal match before the tournament began. However, I only got a ticket for the final on the Wednesday before the game.

I received an email from the tournament organisers talking about events that had occurred at the tournament and building up to the last two games. Towards the end of this email, there was a link to the ticketing website saying if any tickets had been put up for resale for the two games, they would be available online straight away so keep checking back. I did this, expecting to only see tickets left for the Bronze Medal match and to my surprise, there were tickets left for the final. The tickets that were available were in the two most expensive categories (£715 and £515 respectively) and as much as I couldn’t afford to spend £515 on a ticket, I was giving it some serious consideration. After all, how many chances at going to a World Cup Final are you going to get? Well, one every four years technically I guess. However, being realistic, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity for me. I pondered on this decision for several hours before deciding I just couldn’t afford to spend that much money on a ticket. I continued to refresh and on occasion, the website was showing availability for tickets in the next price category down (£315), but every time I opened up the window to buy, it was saying there were no tickets available. It then started to do this for the cheapest ticket category (£150) which was very annoying. I continued to try and as luck would have it, a £150 ticket appeared in my basket. In a bit of a frenzied panic, I rushed through the purchase options and secured a ticket. The confirmation email came through and I was a very happy man (a mild understatement actually but still).

However, before getting on to the final, there was a small matter of the Friday night game to get to. The 3rd/4th place playoff match is almost a dead rubber match but with the chance to get a medal at the end of the game. I was interested in going to this game as I’d get to see two of the semi-finalists play without having to pay semi-final prices. It was also a chance to head back to the stadium where a lot of memories were created during the London 2012 Olympics (I had only visited once previously the year after the Olympics for the anniversary games). As it transpired, it was also a good one for me because it gave me the chance to see South Africa play in person for the first time, meaning I would have seen all of the main southern hemisphere national teams play. Arriving in the general area of the stadium, there was a good atmosphere in the air. The surrounding areas were crammed with fans (although I was surprised the nearby Wetherspoons I went in before the game was not busy at all really). My first thought when arriving to my seat was how different the stadium looked now it had been modified to hide the athletics track. By the looks of things, the modifications were only temporary and it could be reverted back if needs be. It was a bit strange though. I briefly found myself wondering if they have had any issues with inebriated fans and those walk ways (an example of such can be seen in the photo just below this post). I'd have thought they might have put netting in there just in case someone were to accidentally fall over the barrier as that seemed to be a fair old drop without a pleasant landing spot.

The atmosphere was picking up as the kick-off got closer, but I thought it was a bit flat initially. It certainly picked up when JP Pietersen scored the opening try of the night. It was a very well taken try which Handre Pollard converted. Argentina however did not lie down after this early set back – they kept trying to attack all half but South Africa controlled the game and really should have put more points on them in the first half. Pollard was booed when he took penalty kicks at the posts rather than going for the corner. Usually I’m completely against booing a kicker as they line up to take a penalty kick or conversion however it did seem odd in this game, with very little at stake, to kick at sticks rather than go to the corner and potentially get more points. The main story from the first half is that Bryan Habana wasted 2 or 3 very good try scoring opportunities. Had he scored one of them, he would have become the highest try scorer in Rugby World Cup history. As it happens, he didn’t and remains tied with Jonah Lomu. The first half finished 16-0 to South Africa and despite their attacking intent, it did not look as though Argentina were going to get into this game. Perhaps an indication of Argentina's attacking intent throughout this game was the fact that South Africa made about 80 more tackles than Argentina. They also saw more of the ball and gained more territory during the game.

The second half started off better from an Argentinian perspective as Nicolas Sanchez scored a drop goal (and a damn fine drop goal it was as well). However, Argentina switched off for a bit it seems as the Springboks came straight back into it and Eben Etzebeth scored a try. To be honest, there isn’t much worth saying about the second half. It was fairly unremarkable. Argentina should have scored a try close to the hour but a free player on the wing was either not seen or ignored. The main thing worth discussing from the second half is that a number of substitutions occurred which allowed some players to get a standing ovation as they were finishing their final Rugby World Cup game of their careers (and in some cases, their international careers). For Argentina, it was Juan Fernandez Lobbe and Horacio Agulla who were making their final appearances. For South Africa, it was Bryan Habana, Victor Matfield and Schalk Burger who all got the chance to leave the field of play to a standing ovation. However, Burger got bought back on for a blood replacement when Francois Louw had to leave the field. When Louw returned to the field, Burger left with a theatrical bow, literally bowing out. Argentina, for all their attacking, got their just desserts at the very end of the game when prop Juan Pablo Orlandi went over for a try. The final score was 24-13. An epic game this was not, but it was an enjoyable one all the same.

So as mentioned earlier, on Wednesday last week I managed to buy a ticket for the final of the Rugby World Cup. Almost straight away, I started to worry about actually getting the ticket. After all, it had said that these tickets could be resale tickets. I was concerned that my ticket might not make it back in time for them to get to me. On reflection, of course it was foolish of me to be worried about this. I’m sure they would have had to stop selling tickets if they couldn’t honour the transactions. Hindsight is 20/20, in the moment however I said to myself I would be much happier when the ticket was in my hand. When initially arriving in London, Waterloo station is rarely quiet. It was heaving with rugby fans, all of whom were either heading to Twickenham for the game or to Trafalgar Square, where it was going to be broadcast on a massive screen(s). The moment I arrived in Twickenham, there was a genuine air of excitement I’ve never felt before when going to games there. I’ve been there to see England play a few times, as well as a few domestic games including Premiership finals and excitement levels have certainly been high, but this was something else. From my initial guess, there were more New Zealand fans around than Australian but it is hard to know for sure. What was cool to see is that even before the biggest game on the rugby calendar, Australia and New Zealand fans were walking to the game together and discussing how they thought the game would go.

My first port of call was the Twickenham box office and my earlier worries were set aside very quickly as I was handed my ticket for the game. I then strolled around the stadium and around Twickenham for a bit before actually heading into the stadium. As the game got closer, the atmosphere just seemed to grow, as did the excitement around. I did take my seat early as I just wanted to be in place and watch everything that was going to happen on the pitch. My seat was just behind the try line, in the south east corner – I was quite pleased with that. What happened next was completely unexpected. Someone came and sat next to me (that bit wasn’t unexpected) and asked me if I was at the game alone. I confirmed that I was. The person then said he had picked up a ticket to the game for his brother on the Thursday before the game and he was wondering if I’d mind swapping seats with him in order for them to sit next to each other. No issues as far as I was concerned. I swapped tickets, shook hands with the guys and made my way out the stand. I then looked at the ticket that I had just swapped for to find out that the guy had given me a category C ticket. So I had paid £150 and would be sitting in a £315 seat. Not bad at all that! I was now going to be sat in the west stand of Twickenham. My seat was now just in front of the 22 line and I was two rows behind the last row of the media block. Directly around me were mostly New Zealand fans, but over the aisle in the next block seemed to be all Australia. 20 minutes before kick-off and the atmosphere was already electric.

There was a bit of a pre-game show involving people waving flags of the teams that took part in the tournament which was cool. As the teams took to the field, there were flames, fireworks and the Red Arrows flew over the stadium. A very impressive way to start the game. Last time I saw New Zealand play at Twickenham, I was so close to the action I could hear the All Blacks singing their national anthem – although that is because no-one else was singing it. This time however, it was very different, with the fans belting out the anthem along with the team, as did the Australian fans. I like watching the haka on TV, but watching it in person is just great. Not for the first time on this day mind, but seeing the haka gave me goosebumps. The game started and within the first minute, Conrad Smith hit Michael Hooper with a massive tackle, one that was heard all around the stadium. The story of the first half seemingly was New Zealand attacking and Australia trying not to concede. New Zealand had edged ahead on the scoreboard 9-3 as the first half was coming to a close. Dan Carter was kicking perfectly from the tee and generally was playing very well, as were the rest of the All Blacks. It wasn’t that Australia were playing badly (they were looking very good at the breakdown again) but New Zealand were noticeably the better team. Australia were rocked with two first half injuries to Kane Douglas and Matt Giteau which probably didn’t help matters. Neither set of fans around me were overly happy with some of the calls made by referee Nigel Owens, and some of the Australian fans were practically livid when a New Zealand forward pass was missed by both Owens and Wayne Barnes, the nearby touch judge. I am amazed they did miss it as it looked forward from where I was and the pass was down the other end of the pitch. Anyway, New Zealand’s continued pressure eventually paid off. A lovely bit of play between Conrad and Aaron Smith and some quick hands from Richie McCaw allowed Nehe Milner-Skudder to go over in the corner. Dan Carter converted and the All Blacks fans around me were very happy at half time as their team went in front 16-3.

The half time chat I heard between Australia and New Zealand fans was about the forward pass being missed, but also how New Zealand were the better team. Looking at some of the statistics, it was hard to argue this point. However, one fact about the first half which will not have made for good reading for those in the Australia camp is that Australia did not make it into the New Zealand 22 with ball in hand. The second half started with a bit of a surprise change as Sonny Bill Williams was on for Conrad Smith. A ruthless change considering this was going to be Conrad Smith’s last game for the All Blacks, and he had just helped make the try and the end of the first half. However, Steve Hanson’s faith in SBW paid off pretty quickly as he made two very good offloads, one of which set Ma’a Nonu off, steaming towards the try line. He made it over and suddenly, New Zealand were 21-3 up. No team had won the World Cup having been behind at half time. Not only were Australia down at half time, but they had just conceded another try. The roar when Nonu got over the line was one of the loudest I have heard at Twickenham. Game over? I certainly thought so. 

Australia looked more alive after New Zealand’s second try, with a few line breaks really getting the block of Australian fans near me animated to say the least. Australia finally made it after about 50 minutes of play into the All Blacks 22 with ball in hand when a real game changing moment occurred. Ben Smith, when tackling Drew Mitchell, lifted his legs above the horizontal and put him down on his shoulder. The tackle was flagged as foul play immediately and the TMO was called into action. There was an All Black fan who started screaming at Wayne Barnes for raising his flag to indicate foul play for this, saying Barnes had robbed them in 2007 and he would not do it again. Having watched the game back on TV, I think Nigel Owens was prepared to give Australia a penalty and leave it at that, but the TMO recommended he take another look at the incident. When this happens, that is pretty much code for the TMO recommending a card is shown. I would say the incident was worthy of a yellow card and that is what Ben Smith received. The penalty from this incident was kicked to the corner, and the subsequent driving maul got Australia over the line with David Pocock scoring the try. Foley converted the try and suddenly, the score line looked a bit closer. It was at this point in the game we started to see the Australia we had seen throughout the tournament as they began to get their groove back so to speak. Right at the end of Ben Smith's sin binning, Tevita Kuridrani scored Australia's second try of the match which Bernard Foley converted to make it 21-17. Game on! New Zealand conceded a penalty in the Australia half and suddenly, the mood I’m sure all around the stadium but certainly around where I was sitting changed dramatically. The block of Australian fans to my right all burst into song, singing Waltzing Matilda. The New Zealand fans all around me were suddenly looking very nervous. This game was on edge, and it remained that way until the 69th minute when Dan Carter scored a magnificent drop goal to extend New Zealand’s lead back to seven points. I haven’t spoken much about the contribution individual players made to this game, but Dan Carter was just superb throughout the whole game. He then increased the lead further when Australia conceded a penalty just in front of the half way line. There were people around me spuggesting that this kick was not within Carter’s kicking range but he made it no problem. Again, the mood shifted. The All Blacks fans were starting to believe again. Dan Carter was announced as Man of the Match, which was hardly a surprise. The game was coming into its final minute when Ben Smith, making up for the earlier costly yellow card, chipped the ball forward and Beauden Barrett beat an exhausted David Pocock in a foot race for the ball. Barrett kicked the ball on, it bounced nicely for him and he gathered it up to score a try. The roar in the stadium was deafening. Dan Carter converted the try and New Zealand were up 34-17 with less than a minute to play. From this point on, it was all a formality. New Zealand got the ball back and, with the clock having gone red, they kicked the ball out to confirm themselves as champions of the world for the second time in as many tournaments. Fans all around me were cheering, dancing, crying and hugging. There were Australian fans leaving their seats to shake hands with the New Zealand fans, congratulating them on the win. It was a wonderful moment.

It took about 10-15 minutes for the stadium to be set up ready for the trophy presentation. As that was happening, there were several interviews taking place. Richie McCaw and Dan Carter’s interviews were pretty much drowned out with cheers, as was Steve Hanson’s. Michael Cheika and Stephen Moore’s interviews were met with somewhat muted cheers but a round of applause from everyone still in the stadium. The stage was set for the teams to receive their medals. I think most people had stayed post game to watch the trophy presentation and the Australian team again were given a long respectful applause as they were collecting their medals. The cheers started when Richie McCaw went to receive his medal first and the whole New Zealand team and squad were being cheered. After everyone received their medal, Richie McCaw was invited back centre stage to be handed the William Webb Ellis trophy. New Zealand were the better team on the day and the best team of the tournament and thoroughly deserved this moment. There were quite a few All Blacks who were definitely wearing the jersey for the last time including MOTM Dan Carter and try scorer Ma’a Nonu. Richie McCaw in his interview stopped short again of giving a definitive answer as to whether he is retiring or not. If so for him, and for all the players playing their last games for New Zealand, what a way to go out. Once again the roar in the crowd was very loud and as the cup was raised, fireworks shot off as well as flames and streamers. It was at this moment I made my leave. As I left the ground, the chat outside the stadium was pretty much everyone agreeing we had just witnessed one of, if not the best, Rugby World Cup Finals. The whole day was one I’ll never forget - and on reflection, would have been worth £515 (and then some), but I’m still glad I didn’t pay that!

And that is it for Rugby World Cup 2015. It truly has been a spectacular tournament. Of course there will be plenty more rugby between now and 2019, but I am very much looking forward to seeing what happens the next time it is Rugby World Cup time. Until Japan!