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Gareth Thomas's World Cup awards: Revelations, villains and life-affirming moments

Gareth Thomas's World Cup awards: Revelations, villains and life-affirming moments
By Eurosport

02/11/2015 at 14:45Updated 02/11/2015 at 14:52

Our expert analyst Gareth Thomas takes a look back at a World Cup in which free try-scoring and stunning performances from underdog nations made the tournament roar with life from start to finish.

Moment of this, or any, World Cup

Japan beating South Africa. The manner in which they did it was what made everyone fall in love with them: going for the corner and pressing for a try when even a draw would have been a huge victory for them. But they didn't take that easy three points, and in doing so showed such an incredible spirit of the game that it lit up the World Cup from the start, and got everybody talking. It's one of those moments: you'll always remember where you were when Japan beat South Africa.

Quite simply, it was the greatest moment of any Rugby World Cup, and potentially it always will be. What's happened in this World Cup is that the second tier teams have shown for the first time that while they'll still go in as underdogs, they can now be a threat to anybody. We'll never see such a big upset again, because the big sides will take all the smaller sides far more seriously from now on. Japan, without any doubt, were the hard-luck story of the tournament. Nobody's every failed to go through at the World Cup pool stage having won three games, so to beat South Africa and follow it up with two more wins but still go home is a horrible blow. As much as they've shown that they have progressed as a rugby nation, they'll feel rightly aggrieved that they weren't in the quarter-finals.

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Player of the tournament: David Pocock

There are a lot of good candidates for this, but you'd have to go a long way to see past Australia number eight David Pocock. Given the pool they had, and the route they had to the final, they didn't really have an easy game - and he performed amazingly well every single game. He set the benchmark and then maintained it, and given the number of tough matches they had you'd have to make him the player of the tournament despite some great performances by others.

David Pocock was sporting bumps and bruises to his face after Sunday's semi-final

David Pocock was sporting bumps and bruises to his face after Sunday's semi-finalPA Sport

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Classy farewell of the tournament

Playing in a team such as the All Blacks, which is sprinkled with such talent, it's actually very difficult to stand out. And it's fair to say that fly-half Dan Carter hasn't done that in this World Cup. But while his contribution didn't provide amazing moments of individual brilliance, he has kept a team of great individuals together.

Captain Richie McCaw has been hugely influential, obviously, but you have a number 10 in Carter who calls the shots and guides the team. That calls for a great player, and while he hasn't scored 90-metre tries he's shown rugby brilliance the depth of which shouldn't be underestimated. And when he's needed to step up, he has: take the drop goal in the final as the ultimate example of his ability to change the momentum and grab control of a game.

New Zealand's fly half Dan Carter celebrates after winning the final match

New Zealand's fly half Dan Carter celebrates after winning the final matchAFP

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Disappointment of the tournament

There's been such a high standard of rugby in this tournament that it's hard to pick out a disappointment - but one match in particular sticks out, and that was Ireland's quarter-final against Argentina. The Argentina performance was so brilliant it eclipsed the poor performance of the Irish side; collectively, that day, Ireland were a big let-down. There was such an amazing atmosphere at the ground that day, such an expectancy. But the bubble totally burst.

Argentina's full-back Joaquin Tuculet (R) and Ireland's full-back Rob Kearney grab their jerseys

Argentina's full-back Joaquin Tuculet (R) and Ireland's full-back Rob Kearney grab their jerseysAFP

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Sucker-punch of the tournament

Without a doubt Scotland's last-gasp defeat by Australia was the bitterest blow, simply because it was a decision that was out of their hands. As a player you always think that, win or lose, you can deal with what has happened; but to have a match taken away from you with an erroneously-awarded penalty? You'll always feel aggrieved about that.

Scotland lock Richie Gray in the thick of the action against World Cup quarter-final opponents Australia

Scotland lock Richie Gray in the thick of the action against World Cup quarter-final opponents AustraliaPA Sport

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Tries of the tournament

Granted, it was against Uruguay, but Matt Toomua's try for Australia against the South American minnows in the pool stage was incredible, going through a ridiculous number of hands. Quade Cooper made the key contribution, but it was the ultimate team try.

Then there was Vereniki Goneva's try for Fiji against Wales - that was also pretty special.

Then there was Gareth Davies's try for Wales against England. For what it meant, given the context of the match, and the odds against them, that was amazing.

The fact that such tries have come up fairly regularly has been a great part of the tournament. Rugby went through a long phase where a lot of the points were just scored by kicking, but there has been a lot more open play in this World Cup and we've seen some great tries.

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Brick Wall award for defensive action of the tournament

No doubt about this one: Australia's 10-minute spell with 13 men against Wales was utterly extraordinary. Wales absolutely bombarded them, but the Wallabies just kept on throwing men in to stop them. On another day there's no way they'd have kept Wales out, but on that day the Welsh could have had another 15 players on the field and still not have scored. I really believe that spell gave Australia the character that took them to the final - regardless of the victory, they will have drawn so much from that 10 minutes that it will have given them extraordinary belief.

australia v wales

australia v walesEurosport

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Coach of the tournament

Vern Cotter has done a great job with Scotland, Michael Cheika has been immense for Australia and Eddie Jones has done a superb job with Japan. But there's no doubt in my mind that All Blacks coach Steve Hansen is the best out there.

You may think that if you have the best players in the world that gives you an easy job of coaching. But it actually makes it a lot harder. You have so much talent to work with, building a game plan means dropping some unbelievable players - and creating a structure in which the players who are left will shine, keeping their feet on the ground, keeping focused, driven and motivated? It's much easier being an underdog than a coach who is expected to win the World Cup.

Steve Hansen's contract expires after the visit of the British and Irish Lions and Rugby Championship in 2017

Steve Hansen's contract expires after the visit of the British and Irish Lions and Rugby Championship in 2017PA Sport

And there he was at the end of it, standing in the background and letting the players enjoy the moment. That's a measure of the man, and I know him well and he's still a good friend. I watched him as they gave out the trophy on Saturday and thought that's typical Steve, letting the players soak it up and quietly enjoying his moment in the background. I wouldn't say he's a strict coach but he lays down rules and expects you to follow them, whether you're Richie McCaw or a new face with no caps yet. Everyone is treated the same. That's the sign of a very, very good coach.

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Revelation of the tournament

All the second tier nations showed great spirit, but I'd pick out Scotland for this one. They came into it after a terrible run of Six Nations results. Vern Cotter's influence was clearly starting to be felt, but it always seemed like this World Cup would have come too soon for him. Yet the way they got to the quarter-finals, then the manner in which they were robbed of victory in that quarter-final, means that of all teams in the World Cup Scotland will come away feeling aggrieved that they didn't get further.

I wasn't expecting to be sitting in my chair thinking, "Oh my God, Scotland are about to make the semi-finals," - but I was. Cotter's work in this tournament will give them a huge sense of belief, and Scotland will feel that they can really kick on from here.

Scotland's Greig Laidlaw had an outstanding World Cup

Scotland's Greig Laidlaw had an outstanding World CupPA Sport

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Best atmosphere of the tournament

It's tough to pick out the best atmosphere - some stadiums held 80,000 people, other 11,000 or 14,000. I went to Exeter, for example, and that was great, while Twickenham and Cardiff were as good as you'd expect. But one match stands out for me: Argentina v Georgia, which was just so different to what I'm used to. It was in Gloucester, which is a rugby heartland, and the fans just didn't stop, particularly the Argentines. Even when players were kicking at goal the fans kept on singing - it was more like a football match than a rugby game, though it kept its friendliness. They have a completely different way of supporting rugby to what we're used to, and it's very special. The atmosphere they created at Kingsholm was amazing.

Argentina's Santiago Cordero breaks clear to score their fifth try in the 54-9 World Cup victory over Georgia

Argentina's Santiago Cordero breaks clear to score their fifth try in the 54-9 World Cup victory over GeorgiaPA Sport

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Unfairly-smeared team of the tournament

England have been painted as the flops of the tournament, but I'm a realist. There were three of the best five teams in the world in their pool, and although they have the ignominy of being the first hosts not to qualify it's unfair to be too hard on them. Ultimately it was an unbelievable, once-in-a-lifetime group, and whoever didn't make it through was always going to raise questions. Unfortunately for England it was them, but they shouldn't be written off because of it.

England coach Stuart Lancaster looks dejected after his side crashed out of the Rugby World Cup

England coach Stuart Lancaster looks dejected after his side crashed out of the Rugby World CupReuters

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Villain of the tournament

It's got to be Craig Joubert, the referee who wrongly gave the penalty which saw Australia knock out Scotland with almost the last kick of the quarter-finals. Not so much for getting the decision wrong - that can happen - but for the way he ran off the field. He'll be vilified over that for a long, long time; if he never referees again that'll be an admission of guilt.

Referee Craig Joubert warns Australia and Scotland players

Referee Craig Joubert warns Australia and Scotland playersReuters

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Life-affirming highlight of the tournament

I'll never forget a game I went to watch in Exeter: Namibia v Georgia. It was the last kick of the game with Namibia having scored a try, and they gave prop Johnny Redelinghuys the honour of taking the conversion in what he knew was his last ever appearance for his country. It was a terrible effort, really terrible, but amid all this professionalism it showed that rugby players still like to have fun, and have a laugh. To see a prop have a kick at goal in an international match at a World Cup really shows the spirit of what it is to be a rugby player.

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