A tournament of highs, lows and everything in between, Japan 2019 has been fascinating. In the end, an exceptional Springbok side proved much too much in every area of the field for England, resulting in a one-sided final few really saw coming. The South African side, man-for-man simply one of the top teams in the world, came to the final with an unparalleled hunger to win. Led by the inspirational Siya Kolisi and masterminded by the remarkable Rassie Erasmus, the Boks planned their run to the Webb Ellis Cup to perfection. To watch this remarkable team lift the trophy, to hear their stories and to understand what it means for South Africa really was the perfect end to what has been an extraordinary tournament.
Superlatives don’t really work for a competition spanning 43 days, 48 matches, 12 venues, 20 countries, thousands of minutes and millions of fans. However, here’s an attempt to pick out the best, the worst and the most notable from an incredible Rugby World Cup™.
Right off the bat, it’s impossible to separate so many phenomenal performers. There’s Pieter-Steph du Toit – player of the year, one of the world’s top talents, and apparently omnipresent (seriously, the guy is everywhere – just ask George Ford). Then there’s the iconic Alun Wyn Jones, who put in towering performances for Wales in each and every round, and Josh Adams – a Welsh rugby outcast a few years ago who ended this tournament as the top try scorer. There’s England’s Tom Curry, who cemented his status as a true rising star, and the excellent Maro Itoje and Kyle Sinckler. For Japan, Michael Leitch was typically exemplary, while the likes of Kotaro Matsushima and Shota Horie made real names for themselves.
So, I’m going to cheat straight away and have joint winners. There’s Siya Kolisi – not even the best player in his team but the absolute embodiment of all that’s good about rugby and sport. A towering figure and a role model for the ages. And then there’s Fiji’s Semi Radradra – an electrifying talent that would truly walk into most sides and who, frankly, was robbed of a nomination for World Rugby Player of the Year.
Jordan Petaia looks like the future of Australian Rugby. Romain Ntamack has taken the potential poisoned chalice of the French 10 jersey and performed miracles. Wales’s Aaron Wainwright has enjoyed a meteoric rise to being a real stalwart of his side.
England’s young side offer countless potential nominees for this award, including the excellent Sam Underhill who performed miracles at the breakdown and tackled like a man possessed. But you can’t really look past Tom Curry, who’s just 21 and looks to have the world at his feet and a place in England’s XV for potentially the next decade.
It’s been well documented what an astounding job Rassie Erasmus has done with this South African team, reversing its fortunes from the pits of losing 57-0 to the All Blacks just two years ago to lifting the ultimate trophy in Japan. Of course, there’s Eddie Jones, who masterminded a tremendous victory over the All Blacks and got his team all the way to the final. But really, who could deny Jamie Joseph the accolade of Coach of the Tournament? His Brave Blossoms put in several of the best performances across the World Cup and lit up each and every pitch they graced.
It’s never nice to dwell on the negatives, but isn’t crushing, just absolutely agonising disappointment what we love most about sport? Thankfully, there weren’t too many downsides to the tournament, though England’s performance on the biggest stage in the final wasn’t exactly a classic, particularly after all the build-up and some magnificent performances prior. Then there’s Ireland – continuing their unimpeachable record of losing in the World Cup quarter-final. The men in green were inarguably the best team in the world last year, but never got going and crashed out in woeful style. But the real honour has to be bestowed on France’s Sébastien Vahaamahina, who rocked up to the biggest game of his life and lost his head. His brutal elbow on Aaron Wainwright cost him his place in the quarter-final, arguably cost his team victory, and ended up costing him his career – he retired the next day.
It wouldn’t be the World Cup without an upset, and thankfully we did get some crackers. There was Uruguay’s emotional victory over Fiji, capped off by one of the all-time great interviews by captain Juan Manuel Gaminara. Then there was England’s breathtaking dismantling of the All Blacks in the semi-finals, showing the power of the breakdown and highlighting the importance of Curry and Underhill. South Africa’s 20-point margin of victory in the final wasn’t exactly the obvious prediction, either. But Japan’s pulsating victory in their pool stage match against Ireland was just a remarkable spectacle; it blew the pool open, revitalised the tournament and brought the Brave Blossoms a generation of fans from around the world.
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