By Mitch Phillips
Newly-crowned world champions New Zealand have already been installed as evens favourites to win a third successive title in Japan in four years and the northern hemisphere nations will wake up on Sunday knowing the gap is a big as ever.
Saturday’s 34-17 victory over Australia in a memorable final secured back-to-back titles for the sport’s superpower, who have now won 14 successive World Cup matches since their shock 2007 quarter-final defeat by France.
“The greatest team ever? Possibly. For the moment let’s just all agree that this is the best team in World Cup history,” former All Blacks captain Sean Fitzpatrick wrote in the Sunday Times.
“This is the most meticulous, best-prepared team in rugby. This is not just about skills but game management, which told in the last 15 minutes when they snuffed out any chances of what would have been a remarkable Aussie fightback.
“The world, particularly the northern hemisphere, will now be wondering how they can close the gap — I wouldn’t be getting your hopes up.”
The paper’s rugby correspondent Stephen Jones added: “The World Cup was retained and then you had to ask if there was ever a period of 10 minutes in the whole tournament when the issue seriously looked in doubt.”
Although a core group of six players boasting over 700 caps between them are retiring — or in captain Richie McCaw’s case — expected to be retiring, New Zealand’s strength in depth means they are unlikely to suffer any sort of major dip.
Sonny Bill Williams would walk into any team in the world but has had to be content to spend most of his career on the bench behind stellar centres Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith, who are both now leaving the stage.
Beauden Barrett also looks well equipped, if, as is expected, to take up the flyhalf duties from Dan Carter, who signed off his 112-cap career with a man of the match performance on Saturday.
The country’s remarkable production line of hard-running, high-paced wingers doesn’t show any signs of drying up soon and Saturday’s victory can only spur the dreams of the next generation.
Former England coach Clive Woodward described the All Blacks as a “very special team” but was also impressed by Australia.
“As a fan I salute both teams and frankly we have got so much to learn from them,” he wrote in the Mail on Sunday.
“Ignoring just for a minute their superior handling skills, which England and others in the northern hemisphere must look to match, the over-riding lesson from this tournament is that we must learn to play with pace.
“We need much more pace in our game and that comes from improving our fitness and conditioning and we must improve our speed of thought. We have the players out there who can do this but we must start picking and believing in them.”