TOKYO, 2 Nov - When Kieran Read was asked before the Rugby World Cup semi-final against England whether not winning the 2019 title would be considered a failure for New Zealand, he did not shy away from the hard answer.
"Of course, people are going to say we've failed if we don't win," conceded this most lion-hearted of captains. "We accept that. That's the nature of the All Blacks and the scrutiny we have. The only expectation is to win."
On that basis then, there can be no debate. New Zealand's World Cup defence, adorned though it was by some glorious running rugby, must be deemed a disappointment, such are the stellar standards they have set themselves.
The champions, seeking that historic 'three-peat' of titles after their 2011 and 2015 victories, played five matches in which they were largely superb. They beat eventual finalists South Africa in their epic opener in Yokohama, put on the Ritz against outmatched Canada and Namibia, delivered what even coach Steve Hansen hailed as a "special" quarter-final triumph over Ireland and ended up by sparkling against Wales in the bronze final.
Yet, ultimately, their tournament will be defined by one match. After 18 successive World Cup victories stretching back to 2007, they went into the semi-final as warm favourites but ran into a quite inspired England team, who outplayed them in every department.
The shock of their dethronement in Yokohama was palpable. This was their most comprehensive defeat in World Cup annals. There were no excuses and they did not seek to offer any.
The players, shell-shocked to a man, regrouped and offered some remarkable demonstrations of honest emotions, pouring out their hearts in public before they passed what Hansen described as a "test of character" to outclass Wales six days later.
Overall, they attacked more dazzlingly than any other team, and before Saturday's final had scored more tries (36), averaged most points per game (41), completed more tackles (851) and boasted both the leading points scorer (Richie Mo’unga 54) and the man who made more metres than anyone (Beauden Barrett 460). The trouble was that 'third' is still nowhere to be found in the All Blacks' lexicon.
Nonetheless, Hansen’s team were a credit to their country throughout this tournament. Taking their cue from their great coach, they were humble in victory and gracious in defeat while wholly embracing their roles as ambassadors for the game at Japan's unique festival.
So, yes, it was the end of their World Cup era but there were still hints of a new one round the corner. Asked if the Hansen era of domination might ever be recreated in an even more competitive global rugby arena, the man himself shrugged: "I hope it’s going to be recreated - and I hope this team does that." Do not rule it out.
🗣 "One bad day, you lose a game and you miss out."@AllBlacks coach Steve Hansen discusses the win tonight which secured the Bronze in an emotional and heartfelt interview🥉#RWC2019 #NZLvWAL #RWCTokyo pic.twitter.com/2sBJZ7zo6k— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) November 1, 2019
Steve Hansen left his job with many acclaiming him as the greatest New Zealand coach of all. Yet his reinvention of the side in 2019, with his innovative employment of the dual playmakers Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo'unga and his introduction of young wing flyers George Bridge and Sevu Reece, hit a brick wall in England's suffocating defensive quality.
He conceded that his decision had backfired in picking second-row Scott Barrett at blindside flanker in the semi-final to give the pack more bulk and offer another lineout option. Yet he departed, having left us a few final indelible images of the fluid, inventive rugby that his sides have played over the last decade.
Player of the tournament
Beauden Barrett, as befits a two-time world player of the year, consistently worked his wonders when operating in space at full-back until he too was stifled and sucked up into England’s web. Even then, he broke for more than 100 metres that day.
However, New Zealand’s best performer overall was back-row dynamo Ardie Savea, before he too was eventually halted in his stupendous tracks by England's 'Kamikaze kids' Tom Curry and Sam Underhill and a knee injury. He was not just colossal in ball carrying and buzzsaw defence but also proved a World Cup trailblazer when he became the first player ever to wear protective goggles in the tournament.
Most memorable moment off the pitch
The world’s most celebrated team were feted wherever they went, connecting with their vast Japanese fan club around the country. Their players, who won hearts even more when they began the respectful routine of bowing to every corner of the ground at the end of the South Africa game, made huge efforts to be ambassadors off the pitch, including their coach Hansen.
His finest hour here came when, to honour his former job as a policeman in New Zealand, he was made chief of a police station in the hot springs resort of Beppu for a day, instructing tourists to abide by traffic rules and handing out booklets explaining Japanese regulations to foreigners.
Most memorable moment on the pitch
Two, actually. The first try they scored in the group stages against South Africa, a fabulous sweeping attack starting with a Mo'unga cross-kick and ending with a slick Bridge finish, with all manner of sorcery in between, looked to be hard to top. Yet they did just that with their last score in the pool - TJ Perenara’s flying touchdown in the corner after being freed by Brad Weber's scandalous behind-the-back pass. Sir John Kirwan, who knows a thing or two about great World Cup tries, hailed it as the best in the tournament.
When New Zealand last failed to win the World Cup after their loss to France in 2007, it prompted them to regroup and forge a dynasty of unrivalled success, featuring two title triumphs. Under a new coach yet to be chosen, the players are adamant that the 2019 hurt will fuel a new charge for glory.
Even given that a distinguished old guard, headed by Read, Sonny Bill Williams and Ben Smith will be departing their ranks, there is still a rich seam of talent for them to mine with younger squad players such as Atu Moli, Scott and Jordie Barrett, Anton Lienert-Brown, Bridge and Reece - all 25 or under - and Damian McKenzie ready to burst back to the fray after injury. As for Beauden Barrett, still the best rugby footballer in the world, and Mo'unga, a No.10 with all the gifts, their playmaking double act will surely only continue to evolve and delight.
Quotes of the tournament
"It'll be pretty good, I reckon. Beer in one hand, and access to another one in the other hand. No pressure. The team's like a family and you’ll always be connected to it and always want it to do well. One thing I promise, so you don’t come bothering me, I won’t be talking about what they should be doing and how they should be doing it. If you ring and ask me that, it won’t be a very good conversation." - Steve Hansen, on what it will be like watching the All Blacks now he has stepped down.
"I'm not getting rid of the mullet. There's actually scientific evidence that shows it makes me faster. It was done at Harvard, I think." - Centre Jack Goodhue on the throwback hairstyle that made his team-mates jeer but impressed New Zealand’s Prime Minister.
Beat South Africa 23-13 in Yokohama
Beat Canada 63-0 in Oita
Beat Namibia 71-9 in Tokyo
Beat Ireland 46-14 in Tokyo
Lost to England 19-7 in Yokohama
Beat Wales 40-17 in Tokyo
By the numbers
3 - The All Blacks had come in search of a third straight World Cup triumph; instead they go home with a third victory in the bronze final.
8 - Tries scored by the Barrett brothers - Beauden, Scott and Jordie. That was more than five countries on their own managed over the entire tournament.
12 - The number of years the All Blacks had gone unbeaten in the World Cup until their defeat by England.
71 - The points they piled up against Namibia, the most compiled by any team in any RWC 2019 match.