New Zealand received the fairy tale ending for some of their truly legendary stars of the game, as they became the first country to defend their World Cup title in 28 years of the competition’s history and the most successful team in the tournament’s history. However, the victory on Saturday marked the end of an era as the World Cup welcomed some of the most promising talent, who, come 2019, could have blossomed into global stars, ready to mount a stern assault on the All Black’s crown.
The All Blacks will wave goodbye to the best part of 600 test caps as Dan Carter, Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu move to France, while Kevin Mealamu retires and Richie McCaw, whatever his plans, is very unlikely to stretch his career to a fifth World Cup. Although New Zealand have an outstanding production line of talent prepared to take the mantle from the old guard, New Zealand will be losing not just world class players but some of the best players to have ever touched a rugby ball. Dan Carter averaged nearly 15 points a game, scoring more points than any other player, while Richie McCaw has been crowned the World player of the year three times and nominated for it another five. However, there are already men waiting in the wings,.Beauden Barrett, Aaron Cruden and Lima Sopoaga have all donned the number 10 jersey in the absence of Carter, and if it were not for a serious knee injury many would have bet on Cruden starting over Carter at this World Cup. Likewise, Sam Cane has already captained the All Blacks at this World Cup as well as amassing 30 caps by the age of 23 and is already being outlined as McCaw’s successor.
New Zealand have always been a world class outfit and players will slot in around the incumbents. Indeed the future looks promising too, the Ioane brothers, Rieko and Akira, have already played for Maori All Blacks, the second string New Zealand side, who have been unbeaten against any Test nation, including Enlgand, Ireland and the British and Irish Lions since 2003. Rieko, a winger, has already played for the New Zealand Sevens side and Akira, a powerful back rower, has won the Junior World Championship last year, their combined age is the same as Victor Matfield. Though they are just two examples, it is clear that New Zealand have a team that will always boast the most exciting talent alongside established players.
However these promising players have to fill the boots of some of the greatest ever players, while this World Cup has seen the birth of some new stars. Argentina have an excellent team with one of the youngest squads in the tournament. The outstanding hooker Julian Montoya, ranging lock Tomas Lavanini and the frenetic flanker Pablo Matera are all under 23. Santiago Cordero, possibly the most exciting back of the World Cup is 21, while the likes of Nicolas Sanchez pulling the strings at fly half so consummately will be present come 2019. Argentina will field a side in the newly expanded Super Rugby tournament and new selection rules mean that only players playing in Argentina can don the blue and white jersey. This policy means that the Super Rugby franchise will ultimately be Argentina’s Test side. The benefits of playing every single week for an entire season will be phenomenal, they will have the opportunity to gel like no other international side.
South Africa also fielded a young and exciting backline, Handre Pollard, Jesse Kriel and Damian De Allende, the fly and centre axis for the latter stages of the tournament, are all 23 or younger. Runners up Australia are possibly the favourites to challenge New Zealand in the run up to the next World Cup with a blend of youth and experience, that will stretch through to the next tournament. If they can keep David Pocock walking (he has already had two knee reconstructions) alongside Michael Hooper who will only be 28 in 2019, they will be near best in the world.
In Europe it is not all doom and gloom either: England and Wales had the youngest squads at the World Cup, both averaging an age of 26. For Wales much of their squad could be experiencing their third World Cup, assuming they will never be so unlucky again with injury, although the crisis will have really developed their strength in depth. Most startlingly George North will only be 27! As for England nothing can be predicted seeing as no one has any idea who will be in charge.What is certain is if someone can come in and manage the talent of the likes of George Ford, Joe Launchbury and Anthony Watson, and provide a consistent game plan then they have a chance of being competitive – well, at least they cannot do any worse than this year! While on another day Scotland could have been in a World Cup semi-final with a squad littered with youth and one of the most astute rugby brains in charge, in the form of Vern Cotter. Similarly, for Ireland Joe Schmidt’s quality guarantees they will always be competitive. As for France no one has a clue…
Although worthy winners New Zealand have come to the end of an era and while the small rugby mad nation can promise to produce new glowing stars of the game they will have to replace some of the greatest; while the rest of the world is nurturing its own challenge on their crown. Whisper it but it would take a brave man to suggest rugby’s future is All Black.
PHOTO 2/Dave Linott