With eight epic weeks behind us, the 2015 Rugby World Cup is over and New Zealand have rightly been crowned champions of the world. Making his debut on Expert Witness this week is 2003 winner and former England captain, Lawrence Dallaglio.
New Zealand – Simply the Best
With New Zealand becoming the first ever team to retain the trophy, the key questions are just how good are they and what are they doing to perpetuate their own momentum? Dallaglio believes there's a case to argue that they're not only the best rugby side in history, but that they are up there with the best sides of all time in any sport:
"Since New Zealand won the 2011 tournament, Steve Hansen has been superb in taking Graham Henry's philosophy and polishing it further, improving it and building upon its success," he explained.
"When new coaches come on board there can often be a case of ‘not invented here' in their thinking; by that I mean they are loathe to take any form of legacy forward and can be too intent on stamping their own mark and their own thinking when perhaps building on what has gone before is more beneficial to continuity and success.
"Steve has built upon Graham Henry's legacy, and like Steve Waugh did for Australian Cricket, he has set his team their own internal goals to drive them to even greater levels of excellence.
"Whilst comparing sporting eras can be odious at times, I'm absolutely comfortable with saying this group of players lay a strong claim to being not only the best rugby side of all time but one of the greatest teams in any sport," enthused Dallaglio.
"Crucially, he's stuck with a group of players and honed their games, refined their skills and continually he's compared and measured those men alongside the very best individuals in the game.
"As an example, Ma'a Nonu made his debut during the 2003 tournament, one I played in. At that point he was a limited but talented player. The All Blacks culture has allowed Nonu to develop into a world-class performer, one of the greats, by continual improvement, clear goal-setting and managing his skillset within their own game strategy.
"As we found out in 2003, the only way to become the best is to compare yourself against the best and then project beyond them, rather than the futile task of trying simply to match them.
"You need to be pioneers of the game, not followers of the rest, and it is all about how you well play not how well other teams play. Every day you wake up, you must recalibrate your performance against the very best. You have to keep doing that otherwise you will stand still and others will overtake you.
"Consistent selection policies, strong basic skill sets, a policy of continual improvement and above all, a culture of honesty in the All Black jersey have combined to produce a team of exceptional quality, and the fact they've won 50 out of 55 games since the 2011 final says everything you need to know," noted the former England skipper.
"In short, I believe they are without parallel in the sport."
What of the beaten finalists, Australia? In all the effusive praise of the All Blacks, one could be forgiven for forgetting the Wallaby contribution to both the final and tournament, but Dallaglio is quick to point out their improvement is continuing and their team is growing in both stature and belief:
"We've sung Michael Cheika's praises before in this column," said Dallaglio.
"But you cannot underestimate what he has achieved in a period of 12 months. He's played simple, smart and inventive rugby; he identified that the game is all about speed at the breakdown right now and he picked players to compete there, and then made sure he had the correct access to other players who knew how to capitalize on that breakdown speed.
"I would also highlight Cheika has wisely recruited others around him to cover his own potential limitations; Mario Ledesma, Stephen Larkham and others have made an immense contribution, but importantly, Cheika had the vision to recruit specialists who could assist his overarching strategy, the hallmark of a great manager.
"On Saturday, and also throughout the tournament, the standard has been breathtaking. It's without question that the two best sides in the world competed for the cup and that's wonderful for the game. My only observation is I don't know how New Zealand can improve further, but I am convinced that Australia will continue to challenge and grow under Cheika.
"The bar has been raised by both the tournament and the final, and rugby is in rude health for that," observed Dallaglio.
Both Michael Cheika and Steve Hansen have shown themselves to be men of rare humour and dry wit during the competition, which has contributed to a change in the perception of the teams in the host nation.
"I think that there's a level of respect the All Blacks, and all of the other Southern Hemisphere sides, have demanded through performances.
"The All Blacks have been far more relaxed in their demeanor during the tournament and part of that is the fact they came into the competition knowing that they could win whereas before, perhaps there was still lingering self doubts.
"RWC2015 had, amongst its many objectives, the aim that every team would enjoy their experience here. We really wanted to make the stay memorable for every side competing in it, and speaking to players of many nations, I reckon we've succeeded in our delivery, so I'd like to think part of that likeability and relaxed attitude from all the teams is rooted in the environment we provided," explained Dallaglio.
In Awe of McCaw
A couple of years ago, Dallaglio said that he'd love to come back in another life and enjoy his career as a player once again, but this time as Richie McCaw! What has the flanker given to the game and where is his place in history?
"His career has been iconic. To play 149 tests as a flanker is amazing it itself; I managed 88 Tests in all and that was hard enough," he laughed.
"But McCaw's humility and grace in every aspect, win or lose (although he's not had much experience of the latter!), his consistency, where a world-class performance is his default minimum, means he is the beacon we all aspire to be.
"He has redefined the role of an openside flanker and the way we measure it, the longevity of his quality is astonishing and he is, without question, the greatest leader we've seen in rugby, and arguably in any team sport," admired Dallaglio.
"I am absolutely comfortable in saying Richie is the greatest of all time in our game and it's been a privilege to play against him and also to commentate on him in later years."
How do you measure the success of a tournament?
Is it the quality of rugby, the financial gains, the performance of the emerging nations, the all-important legacy or the hospitality of the host nation? Dallaglio, an Official Ambassador for RWC2015, believes that this competition ticks all of those boxes:
"England 2015 have succeeded in so many ways. As New Zealand delivered the 2011 tournament in a Kiwi way, so we delivered it in a uniquely English way," said Dallaglio.
"No-one can but agree that the two best sides in the tournament fought out the final, nor that the best four sides were competing in the semi-finals.
"The size and scale of 2015 was a big commercial challenge for all involved; the need to sell 2.4 million tickets and deliver the promised revenue to World Rugby was sizable to say the least; however we, as a delivery team, have reached out to all areas of sport in the UK.
"It was immensely bold and brave to take rugby into traditional footballing strongholds and present those grounds as rugby venues; we needed to attract what the marketing people call ‘the big eventers', the spectators that want the best sporting or entertainment experience and we needed to get them on our side. Every single spectator and fan I have spoke to has embraced every game.
"Equally, we needed to take what is currently an international sport into a global viewing audience, and certain initiatives such as free to air viewing in China, USA and even Germany has allowed rugby to display its wares in the shop window of global sporting events.
"If you wanted a real litmus test of the outreach, Canada versus Romania, a midweek match in Leicester, attracted 29,500! It's easy to sell out finals but when pool stage matches get that sort of attendance, you know the sport is heading in the right direction," enthused Dallaglio.
"Above all, I have to commend all at the RFU and England 2015, who, despite bitter personal disappointment in their own sides' performance, remained both dignified and committed hosts to their guests, remembering that the tournament was bigger than our own performances. Jason Leonard, in his role as RFU President, has utterly personified this and no-one is more passionate about England winning that Jason!
"Lastly, whilst you make your own luck through good planning and execution, I have to say the man who delivered the weather did a bloody amazing job! It was the one variable that we couldn't control, but I think fortune smiles on those that are committed and someone ‘up there' took a shine to what we were trying to achieve," quipped Dallaglio.
A lot is made on the need to keep the momentum going. With a predicted surplus of £40million and with initiatives already emerging, the former England loose forward is upbeat about the future:
"We need to drive participation both globally, but also at home, where our house is far from in order.
"We are already starting programmes to increase participation from all areas of the community. Personally, I am already involved in a project called ‘Balls to Stereotypes' where our aim is to make rugby a sport for all ages, classes and demographics, something in my view that is long overdue.
"You only have to go back to the aforementioned Mr. Leonard to follow his journey from a Barking carpenter to President of the RFU to believe it's possible and I want to find the next Jason's and the next generation of player from all parts of the country, whatever the demographic," said an inspired Dallaglio.
"What does concern me is that whilst the gap between the Tier One and Tier Two nations could be closing, the gap between the Northern and Southern Hemisphere seems to be widening.
"We need to think carefully about how we grow the game. It can be done and Argentina are testimony to that and acting by attracting and driving participation is one way we will close the gap, and I am confident the legacy is already starting to gain momentum and I have absolute belief it will continue."
Lawrence Dallaglio OBE is one of England's most iconic players. A powerful back rower, Dallaglio played 85 tests for England, winning the World Cup in 2003, and was instrumental in the British and Irish Lions' series win in South Africa in 1997.
He then set up the Dallaglio Foundation, whose RugbyWorks project is currently in 33 Pupil Referral Units (PRUs) within London, Bristol, Newcastle and South Wales. Here they work with young people who have been excluded from mainstream education and are at increased risk of long-term unemployment, criminality and imprisonment. The RugbyWorks programme aims to make them more employable by developing skills and giving them experience in the workplace. Lawrence helps fund this through an epic event called Dallaglio Cycle Slam, which sees him cycling thousands of miles through Europe over three weeks. Now, this is a man not built for cycling so please find out more by watching this short film support him by donating here.
Lawrence Dallaglio spoke to James While.
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