OPINION: It’s just a privilege.
The words of Steve Hansen echo the feelings of so many New Zealanders, of so many rugby fans from all over the world. It has been a privilege to watch Kieran Read, Ben Smith, Sonny Bill Williams and Ryan Crotty play in the famous black shirt. They are men who have done the country proud on and off the pitch.
There was a moment early in the second half of the bronze medal match when the four horsemen of the black apocalypse came together to scorch Wales. Read, in his 52nd and final game as captain, jumped ahead of Wales’s Alun Wyn Jones, a man who is just as big a totem pole in his own country. And for the umpteenth time in his career, Read stole possession from an opponent lineout throw.
It wasn’t the best ball, but it was ball, and these All Blacks can do a lot with scraps. Aaron Smith flipped the ball back to Ben Smith who did what he has so often done. He grabbed the pig’s ear, sow’s ear, call it what you will, and he arced towards the space and then straightened. And when possession came back, as if by magic the ball had been turned into a silk purse.
Now it was quality possession. Read ran onto it and made a further hole in the Wales defences. One more phase and then Richie Mo’unga was throwing a little flat ball to Sonny Bill who was coming back on a slight angle.
SBW was hitting those soft inside shoulders which we had pleaded in vain for the All Blacks to target against England. The All Blacks’ three opening tries against Wales came from runners cutting back against the grain to make space. First it was Mo’unga, then it was Beauden Barrett, then it was Ben Smith. The All Blacks always learn their lesson. Only this time it was too late.
When Sonny hit the same hole in the second half Wales managed to drag him down, but SBW had his top-half free. Sometimes you think he is a centaur, all power and galloping hooves below the waist. All arms and soft hands in the upper body. And as we have seen Sonny Bill also do so many times before, he flipped the ball out of the tackle.
He knew who would be on his shoulder. We knew who would be on his shoulder. Ryan Crotty has made a career of being a right-hand man. Or maybe a left-hand man in this case. Crotty is the man who acts for the common good. And there he is, coming through, running the perfect line, and going over for the try.
Behind the pitch the sun fell behind Mount Fuji as the sky turned red. Soon the red would become black. Wales had been eclipsed. The All Blacks were rising again. The world will soon be back on its customary axis.
But there is no doubt we will miss these players. New Zealand has even missed some of them at the World Cup. Perhaps Crotty could not have made a difference against England, but Sonny Bill might just have done if he had been there from the start. Maybe too Ben Smith, although one understands the defensive concerns that had arisen due to his declining pace. He was caught out again for Wales’s try in the first half.
Maybe Hansen felt he could not trust Sonny Bill’s fitness, but I think more likely he had decided to try to rewrite modern rugby. The selectors had already left Ngani Laumape at home, surely a mistake. They now plotted to go through the knockout stages of the World Cup without a power runner in midfield.
It was smoke and mirrors because of a declining pack and the gamble did not work. New Zealand looked far more balanced yesterday with Shannon Frizell at six and with Sonny Bill at 12. Of course they were only playing a much-diminished Wales side, reduced by injury, three of them hamstrings – it makes you wonder if Wales overdid the pre tournament conditioning, as has happened in the past.
But there is no doubt Sonny Bill brought something that has been missing and he clearly relished playing off Mo’unga. It is a shame we have seen only a flickering of the partnership. Maybe Mo’unga and Laumape will now be allowed to prosper together.
England had Manu Tuilagi, Australia had Samu Kerevi and South Africa had Damien de Allende. Anton Lienert-Brown is a super rugby player, but he does not have the same physical impact on the gain line and that is something New Zealand have missed.
But let’s salute the departing quartet for a little longer. Up to Christmas and beyond if you like. Let’s celebrate the mighty Read, whose kids were joyfully biffing about on the pitch afterwards, and that was just his daughters.
We will miss Reado’s gentle hands as he slipped the ball onto Retallick for the first try. We will miss the lineout steals and the front-on defensive tackles and the little touches like the flip between the legs off a retreating scrum.
And we will miss Ben Smith leaping into the air, eyes never wavering, as he takes a high ball, never mind his own safety. We will miss the way he steps and straightens like no other fullback in the game. And we will miss that ferocious competitiveness which fuelled the jackhammer hand-off into the jaw of the Wales halfback as Smith cruised in for his second try. Who could not but smile when Bill Beaumont shook hands with Smith’s kids and presented them, all jumping joy, with his medal.
We will miss Sonny Bill’s power, and those offloads and the tackles like the one that wiped out a Wales overlap in the second half. The All Blacks have had plenty of magic in attack this World Cup, but not enough magical defensive moments like that one. And we will miss the smiling Sonny Bill, the athlete who manages to be both his own man and give so much to his team-mates. He has been a mentor for so many of the younger Maori and Pasifika players.
And we will miss the way Crotty runs like a man twice his size as he did when Sonny Bill gave him a little pop pass in the opening minutes. We will miss his intelligence on the pitch and his support line and his passing ability like the one he gave from the halfback position to facilitate George Bridge’s sensational try against South Africa.
I do have one worry, and we should not let it pass. These four brave men have each suffered far too many knocks to the head. I hope they do not suffer for it in their middle age. I hope they can lead untroubled lives and contribute so much more to the game.
But for now all rugby fans thank the Fab Four. It’s been a privilege.
This content was originally published here.