Steve Hansen’s extraordinary reign as All Black coach has ended with an embarrassing whimper in Yokohama a la New Zealand’s most infamous World Cup collapses.
But first, the very good news.
England’s emphatic victory masterminded by the Aussie Eddie Jones, a World Cup specialist, was not only good for rugby but will rejuvenate the game in New Zealand. The drive to regain the World Cup stirs more passions than efforts to keep it, and it is from these very sorts of crashes that the All Blacks find new gears.
A New Zealand side clinging on for a three-peat would have been tiresome quite frankly, and probably not even healthy for the game here. There’s a new world order, a re-boot. Brilliant.
But this was a performance so disappointing that it may cost Hansen’s assistant Ian Foster the All Black coaching job.
And it at least raises other questions such as whether it was wise to sign veteran superstar lock Sam Whitelock for four more years.
Defeat against a terrific England forward pack was always a possibility, but how the heck could it go so badly?
There were so many things wrong with a pallid All Blacks semifinal effort that it’s hard to know where to start.
And one place you wouldn’t start is with Scott Barrett.
Hansen – when questioned – agreed that it was a mistake to put the converted lock on the blindside flank. If he didn’t throw him under a bus, Barrett was certainly rolled in the general direction.
And Hansen compounded this post-match gaffe when he shot down a television journalist who asked, in effect, the very simple question: Why didn’t the All Blacks turn up?
It was the very question worth asking, deserving of a considered answer instead of the “that’s disrespectful” nonsense.
Apart from the sad “dive” by England captain Owen Farrell to earn a penalty like one of those superstar football flakes, the semifinal victors were utterly superb in Yokohama.
England were off the charts, led by forwards such as Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes, Mako Vunipola and Sam Underhill who can become rugby legends who re-shape the international game. Itoje and Vunipola were astounding.
Jones’ men deserved to win by a lot more, and had a try rubbed out for the sort of maul infringement which goes unnoticed in hundreds of games every year. That decision by Nigel Owens and his team could have haunted the tournament if the All Blacks had won.
There were so many All Black fades in the face of England’s rampage that putting any extra attention on Scott Barrett is akin to mentioning the dairy owner when your ticket doesn’t win Lotto.
There were far more experienced players who let the All Blacks down, from the tired looking captain Kieran Read to the even more tired looking Whitelock.
Richie Mo’unga was out of his depth, the prop revamp didn’t work, and Codie Taylor is not the player of 2018.
Four years of precise planning by a rugby regime which has turned the game upside down in the pursuit of World Cup cream turned sour.
With a few exceptions – I’d give a tick to still-below-his-very-best Brodie Retallick – the All Blacks capitulated.
They didn’t physically confront England, and were tactically embarrassed. They kept giving the ball back to a team that was rolling over the top of them.
I believe it was a mistake to bench Sam Cane – the bruising number seven should have started, with Ardie Savea providing the second half energy burst.
But considering the extent of England’s dominance, it is pointless quibbling over the odd selection. And it is truly bizarre to see Scott Barrett’s selection as something more significant than anything else, Hansen doing so by accepting blame that should not have been laid so narrowly.
As for Hansen’s exchange with Newshub’s Andrew Gourdie, it felt as if the departing coach – in his hour of greatest disappointment – could not get his amusingly gruff media charm offensive over the finish line.
The question about attitude was directed at Kieran Read, but Hansen interjected saying “it’s quite a disrespectful question to suggest that the All Blacks turned up not being hungry.”
The fact is there appeared something very wrong with the mental preparation from the opening exchanges. It was a far more pertinent question than any about Barrett.
Hansen is, I would still contend, the greatest All Black coach. But the manner of the defeat has certainly dimmed that glow in a way almost unimaginable before the Yokohama Drama.
As for Farrell, rugby will be knackered if staying down to draw penalties becomes the norm. World Rugby needs to address an issue which has already hit league.
The more immediate danger, for England, is that a stunning win will knock the edge off their final effort. But Jones is looking like a man with an answer for everything.
All in all, a great and possibly historic rugby occasion if underperforming England can continue on this new path.