The stadium of four million should be proud

Fans pour towards Otago Stadium ahead of the Rugby World Cup clash between England and Georgia in...
Fans pour towards Otago Stadium ahead of the Rugby World Cup clash between England and Georgia in Dunedin. Photo by Stephen Jaquiery.
Otago Daily Times rugby writer Steve Hepburn has been on the Rugby World Cup trail since the opening game. He looks back on the tournament.

It may have been the smallest country to have participated at this World Cup in terms of population, but Tonga was the side that set the tournament on the path to unqualified success.

When the side from the only kingdom in the South Pacific arrived about a week before the tournament was due to start, Tongans came out of the woodwork and got out the flags, streamers and wide smiles to welcome their team.

By doing so, they set the theme for a tournament that was about enjoyment and becoming a friend.

The greatest fear among officials was that the stadium of four million would only turn up when the All Blacks played.

But those worries were quickly laid to rest as New Zealanders went to games and got in behind teams which they could probably not find on a map.

Tickets quickly went out the door in the days leading up to games. Ticket sales to the game between Georgia and Scotland in Invercargill doubled in two days. Same with the match four days later between Georgia and England in Dunedin.

As for on the field, the games were always going to be a bit of a mixed bag.

Most were entertaining, a few were dire - I'm looking at you Georgia and Scotland - and all the knockout games were enthralling, if not great at times.

For some teams it was all about winning. They did not care how, or if it was divisible by three - it was just about getting a victory.

But there was some justice in the four most enterprising teams getting through to the semifinals.

Having the ball, and holding on to it, became the most vital weapon in games. Many teams in the past were more dangerous when they did not have the ball. But under the new rules, possession was everything. Defence did not win out like it did in the last tournament in France.

The minor sides have also obviously improved. Tonga's win over France, Georgia keeping Scotland and England honest, the Russians scoring tries against the Irish and Australians, were all examples of that.

It is never going to be like the football World Cup where things are a lot more even - rugby is just not that sort of game - but every one of the 20 sides at least looked as though they had an idea, unlike many in previous tournaments.

The biggest disappointment was Fiji, and, in fact, the three Pacific Island sides were a let-down.

All the flair and enterprise seems to have been coached out of the players by European pay masters, and they seemed hamstrung in what style to play.

England was also woeful, both on and off the field.

No one player really stamped his mark on the whole tournament.

After a great game against France, Dan Carter looked as though he could be the man but his groin then gave in.

Israel Dagg was exciting at the back for the All Blacks but missed a couple of games through injury.

Welsh midfield back Jamie Roberts is a talent, as is halfback colleague Mike Phillips. French No 8 Imanol Harinordoquy was immense at times, as was Australian David Pocock.

And of course there were others - Georgian loose forward Giorgi Chkhaidze, Tongan halfback Taniela Moa and Namibian loose forward Jacques Burger.

The Welsh made great strides and by rights should have reached the final. Who knows what would have happened if captain Sam Warburton had stayed on the field in the semifinal, but there is plenty of truth in the thought that the French went into their shell as they faced 14 players.

As for the All Blacks, under massive pressure to win the World Cup at home and end a 24-year drought, they were worthy hosts.

Carter's injury, McCaw's foot, late-night boozing - they were all just sub-plots of a campaign that led to a third appearance in the final.

New Zealand's stadium of four million can reflect on the seventh Rugby World Cup and be proud of the role it played.


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