In the end, just the points that Dan Carter scored off his boot would have sufficed for New Zealand to beat Australia in the final of the Rugby World Cup. The final scoreline was 34-17 and Carter got 19 of those.
One of the truly great standoffs world rugby has seen, Carter only missed one kick on the night; he converted four penalties, kicked a drop-goal and converted two of the three tries that the All Blacks scored. It was a truly mature performance, with the No 10 kicking astutely, defending with great courage and never panicking when it looked like Australia were getting close to levelling the scores. (He has played better games; for instance, in the second Test against the British and Irish Lions in 2005, he scored more than 30 points as New Zealand won 48-18.)
The period when Australia came close lasted eight minutes; from 21-3, Australia pulled back to 21-17, scoring two tries while All Blacks fullback Ben Smith was in the bin for upending Australian winger Drew Mitchell. But Carter kicked a drop-goal in the 70th minute to push the lead out to a converted try. Two minutes later he followed it up with a penalty, to make the margin 10 points.
At that point, New Zealand knew they were safe. Scoring once in the last eight minutes is not rare. But twice, against a team of the All Blacks’ calibre – well, that is something else again.
Some things became apparent during the final and the tournament overall:
Top pros can let the nerves take over
Ben Smith, normally a man with great presence of mind, had two moments in the final he would like to forget. One was early in the first half when, with his team ahead 3-0, he fumbled a ball just outside his own 22 and knocked on. Australia got a penalty from the resultant scrum and levelled the scores.
Then, early in the second half, Smith had a brain-fade when Drew Mitchell hove dangerously close to the line and lifted the winger’s legs well above the horizontal while making a tackle. The effect of the tackle was mitigated to some extent because the two were not alone; there were a couple of players who made the impact less.
New Zealand coach Steve Hansen then decided to move Smith to the wing and brought in Beauden Barrett to man the last line of defence. Smith played much better after he returned from the sin-bin, and created New Zealand’s last try, collecting the ball when Mitchell knocked on close to the All Blacks line and punting it ahead for Barrett to chase and touch down.
Nigel Owens is not the best referee in the world
Ahead of the final, there was a story in the media that New Zealand tended to be victorious against Australia in Tests when Owens was officiating. The Welshman may have had this at the back of his mind for there were several decisions against Australia which were very soft. Australian prop Sekope Kepu made a late tackle on Carter without bothering to use his arms; it was just a shoulder charge. Owens awarded only a penalty. Kepu then got Carter in a high tackle, and with this being a second offence, should have been sent off the field. But Owens again awarded a penalty. Kepu indulged himself with two more high tackles against other players, but neither Owens nor the television match official were paying attention. Owens also missed a high tackle made by Jerome Kaino on David Pocock.
Wayne Barnes does not know how to tell a forward pass
In the 2007 tournament, the Englishman awarded France a try against New Zealand from a blatant forward pass, not even bothering to check with the linesman. New Zealand lost that game by two points. This time, Barnes was mercifully not the referee, he was one of the linesmen. But when he was called upon by Owens to judge whether a pass from All Blacks winger Nehe Milner-Skudder to Kaino on the wing was forward — even a blind man would have noticed that it was indeed miles forward — he said that the pass was fine. Moments after Kaino collected the ball and got involved in a ruck, New Zealand were awarded a penalty that Carter put through to increase their lead to 9-6.
Fully fit players must play in big games
Israel Folau was a pale shadow of his normal self at fullback. It was obvious that he was functioning at less than 50 per cent due to an ankle problem. Yet Australia’s replacements are not of the best quality, so he had to play. Unlike New Zealand, the subs in Australia’s squad are not as good as the first 15.
New Zealand’s depth of talent is truly remarkable
Which other country can bring people like Sonny Bill Williams and Barrett off the bench? Williams makes the most incredible offloads and Barrett, though a new addition to the team, has talent to burn. The country has just a tad over four million people but the rugby assembly line does not look like it will dry up anytime soon. That was evident during the last World Cup when Carter was ruled out due to injury; his spot was taken by Aaron Cruden. When Cruden twisted his ankle, on came Colin Slade. And when he went down injured, Stephen Donald was called up – and kicked the winning penalty during the final.
Australia does not even have one decent rugby commentator
Some guy named Gordon Bray — very apt surname, that — has been the commentator for donkey’s years. He is truly awful. The ex-players who join him at the mike are even worse. New Zealand’s Grant Nisbett, in sharp contrast, is a class act.