Even before its final match, England 2015 was hailed as the best Rugby World Cup ever. Is it a deserved title, but what are the indicators of a great tournament?
It was a fitting finale to an engaging six-week festival of rugby union and the careers of some of it’s superstar performers. The two best teams battled it out in front of a capacity crowd at the sport’s spiritual home.
51 points, five tries, four conversions, five penalties and one mighty drop goal in a winner takes all game where so much was at stake. Both nations looking to win their third Rugby World Cup and the All Blacks shaking off the defending champion’s hoodoo on an emotional day of goodbyes. You can see why they’re called finals.
Tournament showpiece’s can be nervy, low scoring anti-climaxes, but not this one. Perhaps not as nail-biting as the three finals that had gone before, Australia trailed by just four points with 10 minutes remaining and seemed to have the momentum, before conceding a heart-breaking length-of-the-field try late on. Their 17 points was more than any other finalist had achieved in 80 minutes this century. We’d only seen two tries and 36 points during the last two finals put together.
This year’s final also bore an uncanny resemblance to the 47 games that had gone before, where matches averaged 50.81 points, 5.65 tries, 4.04 conversions and 4.67 penalties. Nothing more than a ‘spooky’ coincidence perhaps, on a day when Halloween was also being observed.
With the exception of New Zealand 2011, England 2015 actually saw the fewest points, tries and conversions since the competition’s expansion to 20 teams in 1999. It also witnessed a notable decrease in successful drop goals, albeit offset against an increase in the number of penalties.
Law changes and an increased use of technology may help explain more instances of teams being penalised and try-scoring situations cut-off in their prime, but fewer points surely means less entertainment. Not necessarily, I believe these statistics offer evidence of increased competitiveness in the international arena.
Japan’s magnificent win against South Africa was one of the highlights of this or any other World Cup (in any sport), but was that just a freak result or the beacon for an emerging trend? Look at the influence that Argentina’s inclusion in the Rugby Championship has had. Progression for the next tier of international sides may be slower, but statistics suggest its happening with help from the established nations.
The negative points difference of the 10 nations not competing in either the 6 Nations or Rugby Championships has reduced at each of last four World Cups. From almost 1,100 at Australia 2003, the negative points difference for the “lesser nations” at England 2015 was down to around 750. Correspondingly, the biggest winning margin was down from 142 points to just 64 points this year.
But Rugby Union isn’t a sport where statistics are particularly important. Nor is winning everything or the only thing. Passion, commitment, athleticism, the players leave it all out on the field and for fans, the proof of the pudding is definitely in the eating. To me, Rugby World Cup 2015 had all the flavours of a tasty treat with the often missing ingredient of competitiveness and the rare satisfying after-taste provided by a showpiece final.
Yes tickets were too expensive, yes the home nations (and some of the officials) were found wanting and no, Sonny Bill shouldn’t have given a glorified pitch invader a medal, however fresh-faced he was. But with aggregate attendances nearing 2.5 million and stadiums averaging 95% capacity, with comeback wins, upsets and more closely fought matches, England 2015 was a World Cup that will live long in the memory.
So the baton has been handed to Japan, who’ll hopefully live up to their nickname and continue to “Blossom” on and off the field. With any luck and home advantage, Japan can take their place at rugby union’s top (eight) table. Any nation that can already boast a win over South Africa and 25 million television viewers for a single match, would certainly appear to be in rude rugby health. That can only be good for the prospects of another great Rugby World Cup in 2019.
Richard Coleman, Pundit Arena