Forgive me if this reads more like a eulogy than a match report, but this World Cup semi-final was all about one man, Richie McCaw. The most remarkable aspect of the game was that he was not man of the match. That accolade fell to Cory Jane, who reigned supreme in the airways. McCaw was absolutely everywhere: winning turnovers, slowing ball down, carrying powerfully and, crucially, leading this outstanding All Black team to the World Cup final.
During the week we heard much about David Pocock’s great performance against South Africa in the quarter-final, and he did not disappoint this morning. Pocock won turnovers, supported runners excellently, and made some great carries. The problem for Australia was twofold: McCaw did these things better, and McCaw was not acting in isolation. The contest between the sevens was epitomised in the 61st minute when Pocock won a brilliant turnover. Genia picked up the ball and was immediately snaffled by McCaw who then appeared somehow with the ball himself, as he so often does.
There has been great discussion about the opensides in this tournament, with some making the frankly blasphemous claim – and, before you ask, there is no black blood running through my veins – that McCaw might be the fourth best openside in the world. Warburton and Brussow are very good players; Pocock and McCaw are in a different class. The comparison between the two is fascinating: Pocock is a fine physical specimen, with his bulging biceps and immense upper-body power – both over the ball and with ball in hand. McCaw is not as impressive an athlete to watch – there is something so aesthetically pleasing about Pocock’s position over the ball, as he rips it from the tackled player with one arm and braces himself with the other – but what he lacks in physique he compensates for in nous, bravery and determination. Craig Joubert penalised Pocock twice early in the match for being off his feet, and McCaw once for failing to release. Neither gave away another penalty, but that did not stop McCaw slowing the ball down with highly dubious methods. He has the great skill of appearing to be stuck at the bottom of a ruck, normally facing away from the ball, and yet somehow managing to keep his hands on the ball for just the right amount of time to slow the opposition down but not make the referee suspicious.
I suppose I ought to write about other aspects of the match, but none was as compelling as this contest. There was a fitting ring composition to the game: the mercurial Quade Cooper sent the kick-off straight into touch, and ended the match in touch with four All Blacks on top of him. When the game opened up, we witnessed brief glimpses of his fast footwork and remarkable ball skills, but this game highlighted his lack of composure. This was emphasised by the calm and controlled performance of Aaron Cruden at ten. The skater from Manawatu showed his running abilities with some fine dummies, and his poise with a beautifully struck drop-goal in the 22nd minute (he has almost as many as Carter now).
Israel Dagg lit up the field near the beginning of the match with a stunning outside break: he dispatched Rocky Elsom with a powerful hand-off and scooted around O’Connor before delivering a sensational one-handed offload to Nonu, who ran in the only try of the match. Dagg was outstanding throughout. With his drinking patner Cory Jane seemingly catching every kick the Wallabies hoisted in the air, the New Zealand back three was brilliant in defence – Dagg’s towering clearances stood out in particular. They were dangerous with the ball in their hands, and Richard Kahui certainly made his presence felt with a massive hit on Cooper after a perfectly timed kick chase.
But this match was not won by New Zealand’s back three. It was won by their forward pack, which was supreme. The scrum was solid, the lineout highly efficient, and Australia – with the exception of Pocock – could not live with their ferocity at the breakdown. As great as McCaw was, I must admit that he had the advantage of tireless support from his back row colleagues and the rampaging Brad Thorn. Keven Mealamu, as we have come to expect, made lots of metres with niggling charges and was very good in defence, assisting his back row on the floor. The only negative for New Zealand was the 73rd minute sin-binning of Sonny Bill Williams for a stupid shoulder charge.
Australia did incredibly well to appear to keep themselves in the game for so long, but in reality they had no chance with New Zealand in this form. Their defence too was outstanding, but they did not have the same intensity as the All Blacks – perhaps a result of their astonishing 147 tackles in the quarter-final last week – nor was their set-piece secure enough. Ioane looked dangerous when he received the ball and, on one occasion in the first half, got very close to the try line with a bulldozing run. But he was not given any space by the all-encompassing All Black defence.
Australia ought to be genuinely proud of their efforts – unlike Wales, who should have been testing themselves in the final next weekend, but lacked the composure to defeat an inferior team. Australia were blown away by a sensational performance from a much better side. No one was going to beat the All Blacks today, even though Piri Weepu was not at his best and looked like he very much needed a rest when he came off in the 57th minute.
This was one of the best defensive displays I’ve ever seen, with great performances from one to eight. But, as you may have gathered, one man stood out. The man on one leg. The fourth best openside in the world.