Hail the Incredibles: Steve Hansen's team prove themselves best in history
LONDON, 31 Oct - What a glorious way to finish. The best Rugby World Cup, capped by the most exhilarating final and won by the best team of all-time, led by rugby’s finest player and piloted by the game’s fly-half supreme.
As coach Steve Hansen lauded Richie McCaw and Dan Carter as the two greatest All Blacks, he was content to let others debate whether his team, fresh from beating their trans-Tasman rivals Australia 34-17 in Saturday's final at Twickenham, should now be seen as the finest to grace the game.
Yet surely there can be little doubt. Down the years, the sport has learned to revere the greatest of New Zealand teams, bestowing them with monikers like the 1905 Originals, the 1924 Invincibles and the 1987 Inaugurals. In 2015, there is perhaps only one name fitting for Hansen’s outfit: all hail, the Incredibles.
There was just a fleeting moment when this most indomitable of Australia teams, who had been performing heroics for five consecutive weeks at Twickenham, looked as if they could ruin the farewell of the five retiring New Zealand giants as they cut an 18-point deficit to just four.
Yet this was when you discovered what greatness in sport is about. You could see McCaw rallying the troops to stop the slide and Carter relishing the idea that, after all his previous World Cup disappointments, this was the moment he was going to take control.
And how. The 40-metre drop goal and one of the longest pressure penalties he can ever have struck, from just inside the Australia half put the comeback back to bed. No player deserved his moment more than the perfect 10.
CELEBRATE GOOD TIMES... #NZL enjoy their first moments as #RWC2015 champions pic.twitter.com/3bkGivw52G— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) October 31, 2015
Yet it was not just Carter’s day. Ma’a Nonu scored the try of the tournament and probably his finest in the last game of his 103-cap career, while his centre partner-in-destruction Conrad Smith was instrumental in Nehe Milner-Skudder’s masterpiece in the right-hand corner.
Keven Mealamu came off the bench to do his bit to seal the deal in his 132nd and final test, while McCaw was… well, the real McCaw. He was influential in almost everything he did, from his breakdown spoiling, to offloads which any slick back would have been proud of, and the final sweetly-timed pass to send over Milner-Skudder.
Hansen was adamant that McCaw had once again led Jerome Kaino and Kieran Read to victory in the magnificent breakdown battleground with David Pocock, Michael Hooper and Scott Fardy. Not by a knockout, but a significant points win.
Hansen watched his two chief lieutenants, the driver McCaw and orchestrator Carter, in tandem for the last time and could only conclude: "I think Richie’s the greatest All Black we’ve ever had and Dan’s a close second."
The only thing that separated them, he reckoned, was that flanker McCaw had earned his spurs by "putting his body on the line in every game" of his 148 tests in the war zone that is the breakdown. Mind you, Carter - in the pocket - took some fearful punishment on Saturday and never once let it affect his control and accuracy as he deftly accumulated 19 points.
After becoming the first captain to lift the Webb Ellis Cup to the skies in successive tournaments, amid the Halloween fireworks, an achievement he felt was the proudest of his matchless career, McCaw - while not confirming this would be the last game - explained just what set this team apart.
"We’ve been in those situations before, when the pressure is on and it's about not panicking, about being confident and composed about what we’re doing. To do it when it counts, in a World Cup final, that shows the calibre of the men we’ve got."
They set out after Graham Henry's victory in 2011 never to take their foot off the pedal, he said, and they never did, raising their standards year by year to this remarkable new peak, which saw them score 39 tries in the tournament.
HEART OF GOLD: @SonnyBWilliams hands his #RWC2015 medal to a young fan pic.twitter.com/OluKWPv4fl— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) October 31, 2015
And it was not just the old heads who won the day. If McCaw and Carter are now history, you had to savour the performances of players who are going to grace the black shirt for years to come, from the electric 24-year-old Milner-Skudder on the wing to the final try scorer, Beauden Barrett, a livewire playmaker who will ensure Carter has a worthy successor.
Andrew Mehrtens, the former All Black fly-half, reckoned there was a "Zen-like feel, an air of confidence about them". It is the confidence which tells them they won’t lose, a confidence which has ensured that, in Hansen’s reign since the last World Cup final, their record reads: played 54, won 49, drawn two, lost three. It is a record which almost defies credulity in such a demanding professional era.
Yet it may not be the end of anything, just a staging post for further New Zealand domination. "The opportunity is there for someone else to come through and do better than Dan and Richie," shrugged Hansen. If they do, you would kill to be there to witness it because this was one of sport’s finest double acts taking a winning bow.
On a great day for rugby, in a World Cup final which saw five tries - more than ever before - we were reminded of the old rugby adage that if McCaw doesn’t get you, Carter will. Because this time, for the last time, they combined to kill off Australia’s dream.