Wales 16 – 34 All Blacks
Ireland 26 -23 Australia
England 28 – 9 Samoa
Scotland 37 – 12 Tonga
Italy 6 – 22 South Africa
France 13 – 18 Argentina
Romania 18 – 9 Canada
Fiji 20 -14 USA
At 67 minutes the Welsh eyes were bright with hope.
Five minutes later, they were dimmed by despair.
In those five brief minutes this monstrously good All Blacks side had ripped the test out of the Welshmen’s grasp, and when Wayne Barnes blew no-side another eight minutes later they looked simply bewildered. How could they have competed so well for so long, and still be on the end of such a score line?
And they did play well. Their rushing defence shut down the ABs attack and forced errors. Forced them, mind you, not gifts. Even though their set-piece was wobbly, they shared possession and territory, and they attacked with purpose. Jamie Roberts in particular, I thought, was wonderful.
In a sense, the winner of the match was not on the ground at all. He was sitting in the stands. With the game poised Shag went to his bench. He hooked Piutau, who had run strongly and made no mistakes, and sent Slade to first-five, pushing Ben Smith to the wing and Beauden Barrett to fullback.Embed from Getty Images
That’s a remarkable positional rearrangement that no other international coach has available, and it won the match. A tiring Welsh side was suddenly faced with a different attack running different lines, and they could not adjust. Shag’s genius was, first, in having those skill sets available and, secondly, knowing the exact right moment to make the switch.
This has been a year of growing depth across the park. Bar two positions – halfback and Number 8 – Shag now has at least two, and up to four, players that he can go to without serious damage. And he has Richie McCaw, the greatest captain of the game ever, who has silenced all the doubters about whether his battered body could survive.
In 14 tests this year the ABs have scored 433 points and conceded 233: 53 tries to 18 for the opposition. Of course that includes the romp against the USA, but remember how canny the coach played that to blood the wider squad.
That’s a staggering gift with which to be heading into a World Cup year. Because there will be injuries, and perhaps some drop off in form by individuals, but the squad will remain strong.
Whereas the other contenders for next year are showing that even their best teams wobble. England should have, but didn’t, clinically dispatch Samoa. Australia did well to come from 0-17 down, but still lost to a limited but passionate Irish team.
And while it’s great to see Scotland running again in their five try win against Tonga, it’s Tonga, Hamish. Playing in a Scottish winter. Not a palm tree in sight.
The Springboks were unconvincing against Italy, who clearly are not progressing. The French were given some raw justice by Argentina’s four (yes, four) drop kicks.
Amongst the minnows, none are achieving the consistency that would allow them to dream of playing out of the pools and into a quarter-final.
We need to celebrate this as a golden age of All Black rugby. It will not last, and the tremor is that we don’t know when it will end. Maybe, if the gods are truly jealous of mortals having such gifts, next year.
But right now this is the Golden Age that in our dotage we will look back on with warm nostalgia.
Enjoy it while you can.