Contrasting backdrops to the changing of the guard

There was something highly significant in #Ma’aNonu and #NeheMilner-Skudder and #BeaudenBarrett being #NewZealand’s try scorers in the World Cup final. The baton was being seamlessly, almost subliminally, transferred. Thus, the tournament reached what was the perceived inevitable outcome. But in this story, the middle was perhaps as telling as the end.

I’ve admitted here before that a prolonged period was needed to warm to rugby. Since getting the bug, however, it has been fully appreciated as a game of admiral physical intensity, intricate skill, high intellect, extreme tactical nous (which possibly appeals most) and laudable conduct.

Yet, as the current chase for (or should that be procession towards?) the Webb Ellis Trophy concluded the thought struck that, pertaining to myself, it must swiftly be said, it was only as the greatest team of this – or perhaps any – era was marauding towards what for many of those thereon will be a glorious conclusion to their careers that the magnitude of their magnificence was properly appreciated.

Don’t get me wrong, for as long as any grasp of rugby has been held at all, it’s been clear the All Blacks were the bees knees. Sean Fitzpatrick was the first non Irish player that can be recalled appearing on the radar. Partly as belief was he was Irish as well! Himself and Zinzan Brooke were the names which resonated greatest. That was, of course, before Jonah Lomu began to illuminate the rugby world.

Now, professing a fondness for Dan Carter might seem akin to saying the Almighty is a decent man, but, initially at least, the biggest portion of admiration revolved around the fly half’s place kicking. Which in itself stemmed from admiration for dead ball experts in other sports. Such as wonderfully efficient GAA exponents of the art such as Brian Stafford, Charlie Redmond and the likes of Bryan Sheehan and Michael Murphy in more recent times. Not to mention high yielding masters of the spot in soccer like John Aldridge – and the unforgettable shuffle – or Alan Shearer.

As time has passed, however, the full extent of Carter’s array of talents has been more appreciable. Likewise, it must be admitted, many of his colleagues such as Nonu and Kieran Read and Keven Mealamu and Richie McCaw. Admittedly, the latter has become a particular favourite. Like many of the subjects of greatest admiration here, he’s what could be best described – perhaps generously – as a colourful character.

Yes, he plays on the edge, and strays over it regularly, but, you know what, that’s why he and his ilk are prolific winners. If other entities in other places were of similar mindset there might be a lot more glorious days to keep the often beleaguered spirits afloat, but that’s a topic for another day.

Anyway, strange as it might sound, in ways, an even bigger story relating to this World Cup has been the progress made by teams who, up to this point, perhaps hadn’t been garnering due credit or respect for the undoubted progress they have achieved. Reference was made previously to the progress Japan had made under Eddie Jones and Steve Borthwick, but, maybe more significantly, the exhibits put on display by Fiji, Samoa and to a lesser extent Georgia suggest that the days of one sided cake walks are over.

Which brings matters nicely, no uncomfortably, to Argentina. At this point, it must be stressed that – whether it’s palatable or not – the Pumas conquest of Ireland was nowhere near as seismic an upset as some of the other surprising results. Granted, there were mitigating factors to explain Ireland’s capitulation – to a point – namely, the loss of the core leadership of the team owing to an injury curse and Sean O’Brien’s indiscipline.

However, even all that wouldn’t account for their capitulation in the quarter final. And that’s exactly the point which prompted production of this piece – the contrasting backdrops to the changing of the guard between Ireland and New Zealand. Whereas with players of the calibre of Milner-Skudder, Barrett and Brodie Retallick in situ, the future for the All Blacks looks as ominous as it ever has for the rest, there’d have to be a little less certainty where Joe Schmidt’s squad goes from here.

Whether more players follow Paul O’Connell into retirement remains to be seen. As does – perhaps for the first time in his career – whether the coach can lift things from such a low ebb. That said, even if there were further defections, there would remain the nucleus of a good squad.

With England and France seemingly engulfed in varying degrees of turmoil, one train of thought would suggest that Schmidt’s side are best placed to prosper in the forthcoming Six Nations. That may well still hold true. Scotland, though, who would surely vie with Japan for most improved team throughout the tournament, might have something to say about it.

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