TOKYO, 1 Nov - As farewell performances go, this could not have been scripted more perfectly by the All Blacks. It was a show fit for an Emperor.
Watched from the stands of Tokyo Stadium by Emperor Emeritus Akihito and Empress Emerita Michiko, among an enthralled crowd of 48,842, New Zealand’s departing heroes said their goodbyes to test rugby in the grand manner. They played starring roles in the 40-17 victory over Wales in what proved a wholly entertaining and compelling bronze final.
Inspired by Ben Smith, reminding us in his final test why he has been one of the great backs in world rugby, and led superbly one last time by Kieran Read, New Zealand took out their hurt from last weekend’s semi-final defeat by England with a six-try barrage.
It was a night for high emotions as both teams’ great Kiwi coaches, New Zealand’s Steve Hansen and Wales’s Warren Gatland, bowed out while their two sets of players all enjoyed the post-match celebrations on the pitch with their kids.
It was an enjoyable, open game between two sides ready to dare. It left Hansen, after his 93rd triumph in 107 tests, to declare: “The game is bigger than all of us. If you come to play as Wales did, we can capture more and more people and get them excited.”
That is what his All Blacks did one last time under his attractive watch. It was an evening for them to restore their old sheen after the pain of six days earlier as Ben Smith, with his dazzling double, Joe Moody, Beauden Barrett, Ryan Crotty and Richie Mo’unga all went over.
Mo'unga's 15-point haul took him to the top of the scoring charts at RWC 2019 on 54, with only Handre Pollard (47) and Owen Farrell (46) close enough to catch him in Saturday's final.
Those playing in their last tests in black really shone, none more so than Ben Smith, who in his 84th test made a few wonder whether he perhaps should have had more opportunities to demonstrate his enduring talent during the tournament. His first score, scything through four defenders, was up there with any of his 39 career test tries.
He scored his second, pictured, shortly before the interval and was unlucky to have a hat-trick try ruled out early in the second half for a marginal forward pass in the build-up.
Congratulations to Brodie Retallick who won the @Mastercard Player of the Match in #NZLvWAL— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) November 1, 2019
35 metres made (#1 forward from either team)
10 carries (#1 NZ forward)
18 tackles (joint 2nd in match)
1 try assist#StartSomethingPriceless #POTM #RWC2019 pic.twitter.com/WdC1kL1raU
Crotty then flew over to mark his swansong - and who found him with a glorious pass in contact? It had to be fellow centre Sonny Bill Williams, who graced the shirt one last time before his next great sporting adventure by playing the sort of game that only he can, with his outrageous one-handed catches and preposterous offloads.
Above all, there was captain Kieran Read, whose outpouring of public emotion earlier in the week about the All Blacks’ defeat had touched his compatriots and informed his side's striking return to form.
Read was as excellent as ever in his 127th test, from the moment he set the whole show rolling in the opening minutes by setting up Player of the Match Brodie Retallick and prop Joe Moody to combine for the most delicious and unlikely rampaging score for the loosehead.
“This jersey, it does mean a lot,” he said after his three children joined him in waving to the crowd. “For me, it dictates that you try to leave it in a better place than you found it and that's been my aim my entire career. Hopefully I've done that.”
Of course, he had, as had his opposite number, Alun Wyn Jones, who on the night when he played his 143rd test to become the second most-capped player in the game, extracted one last monumental effort from his battered troops.
Whether Jones himself will continue to keep fighting those battles is still open to question after he was asked about his future in the Wales shirt and responded: “I'll go back, let the dust settle, see the family and go from there."
His side were outgunned from the start, their fragile defence taking their tournament total of conceded tries to 19, but it said everything about their spirit that they were prepared to throw the ball around with abandon from the start and never stopped coming forward in a free-flowing contest that featured 34 offloads and 299 runs.
Ultimately, admitted Gatland, it was “a game too far” for his men, who, typical of the sort of luck that has dogged them throughout the last two months, lost yet another key player, Rhys Patchell, during the match with a shoulder injury.
Hallam Amos’s first-half score and Josh Adams’s tournament-leading seventh try after the break were their worthy rewards for their effort and brought one final tribute from Gatland.
“We’ve put respect back into Wales as an international team,” said the man who is going back to New Zealand to coach the Chiefs after his triumphant 12-year stewardship.
“After what we’ve achieved, it would break my heart if Wales went back to the doldrums. I just want to see those boys continue to be as successful as they possibly can.”
As for Hansen, he was asked to reflect on whether this golden era of All Blacks domination could ever be repeated in modern rugby.
“I hope it’s going to be recreated. I hope this team recreates it,” he responded.