South Africa, our world champions, had quite the rotate since England 2015. Turn the clock back four years and, despite reaching a very respectable semi-final finish to their campaign, they’d suffered a shock loss to Japan in the process, looking a shadow of the team they had the potential to portray.
Since then, there have been wholesale changes, Heyneke Meyer was removed as head coach, along with a complete backroom team overhaul. Rassie Erasmus, his replacement (after the brief efforts of Allister Coetzee) brought changes of his own which now have to be seen as masterstrokes.
Firstly, appointing forward Siya Kolisi as the Boks new captain brought a fresh look to a team in need of new ideas. The recalling of Faf de Klerk as scrum-half brought improvements to the backline immediately, the halfback, having moved to Sale Sharks in England in order to rejuvenate a stuttering career, is now argued as one of the top scrum half’s in the world and rightly so.
These changes, among many others, brought a South Africa outfit that executed their world cup campaign to perfection. Having started with a disappointing loss to New Zealand in their first pool game, they grew into the tournament with an impressive set of results against Namibia, Italy and Canada, leading them to qualify to the knockout stages as runners up of Pool B.
Any rugby fan that suggests that this defensive approach to the game is ‘boring’ doesn’t truly appreciate the extent it takes to maintain such a resilient backline in order to do this
You can sum the Springboks knockout stage in one word. Defence. South Africa were simply indestructible when without the ball, with their blistering pace men of Cheslin Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi meaning they could break quickly once they had re-gathered ball. Any rugby fan that suggests that this defensive approach to the game is ‘boring’ doesn’t truly appreciate the extent it takes to maintain such a resilient backline in order to do this. As much as glimpse and glamour of the running rugby is a true spectacle to the eye, defence is what wins you games. Congratulations South Africa, a well deserved second world cup.
The All Blacks will ultimately look at this world cup as a failure. Despite playing blistering rugby in the run-up to their semi-final, including beating South Africa in their opening game and succumbing Ireland to a quarter-final drubbing, they were simply outplayed on the day against England, sending them home trophy-less for the first time since 2007.
New Zealand will come back fighting from this and would still be a sound bet to win the Rugby Championship next year. Though, this is a time of transition for the three-time world champions. Coach Steve Hansen leaves his role as head coach, with his replacement remaining unclear.
Captain, and member of rugby folklore in New Zealand now, Kieran Read, retires from the international game also, along with regular All-Black Sonny Bill Williams who returns to Rugby League with the Toronto Wolfpack. The changing of the guard within New Zealand will lead many to speculate whether New Zealand will be the same team that they have been for the last decade, only time will tell.
Australians will feel a mix of disappointment and anxiety after their countries campaign. They were well and truly humbled by a ruthless England, leaving them finishing in their joint-worst position of quarter-finalists.
Anxiety creeps in when reflecting on the way in which the Wallabies lost, they were outfought and outthought, being the masters of their own downfall, which reflected on parallels of Scotland, trust me I should know all about this. Kurtley Beale at full-back was eerily mistake prone, and he wasn’t alone in this either. The back row dominators consisting of Hooper, Pocock et al didn’t maintain their usual rigour at the breakdown.
The Australians, similarly to their New Zealand neighbours, will also go through a serious transition over the next year. Coach Michael Cheika resigned after five years of service along with scrum-half Will Genia who retires internationally after amassing over 100 caps for Australia. One would assume that the pair could be joined by other older members of the squad, the likes of Ashley-Cooper, Lealiifano and Kepu amassing over 250 caps between them, all pointing towards the door of retirement, or international retirement at least.
The big task for the Wallabies, therefore, is to create a new core to their national team in the rotate to France 2023, something which nobody can assume will happen overnight, but their new coach will hope to instill over the next four years.