Rugby World Cup 2011 recap

AUCKLAND, N.Z. — Over the past month and a half, there has been a World Cup going on that some of you may have been completely unaware of.

OK, let’s face it — I’d be surprised if any of you have been following the 2011 Rugby World Cup, which has been taking place in New Zealand. The final was held in the early hours Sunday morning against host New Zealand — better known as the All Blacks — and surprise finalist France.

Before giving you the result, I’ll give you a brief synopsis of the action throughout the tournament, which began Sept. 9 with the All Blacks earning a 41-10 victory against Tonga.

Although there are 16 countries that took part in the Rugby World Cup — including both the USA and Canada — there are really only a handful of nations that ever stood a chance of making a serious run at the title. The group stage of the tournament took up almost the first month of competition, but it really was little more than a formality.

There are nine national teams that stand head and shoulders above all other rugby-playing nations. There are the Six Nations teams in Europe (England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, France and Italy) and the Tri Nations teams in the southern hemisphere (New Zealand, Australia and South Africa).

Of the eight teams to make it through the group stages, seven of them were either from the Six Nations or the Tri Nations. The lone surprise team was Argentina, who upset Scotland in Pool B.

Since the pool stages usually are a breeze for the top nations, the real competition doesn’t start until the quarterfinals. With the All Blacks heavy favorites to win the entire tournament playing in front of the home crowd, they really only had to win three pressure-packed games to win their first World Cup since the inaugural tournament was played in 1987.

In the first quarterfinal, Wales overcame rival Ireland by a 22-10 score to earn a place in the semifinals. The result was a small upset since Ireland had won all four of their pool-play matches, including against Australia.

In the second quarterfinal, France beat England 19-12 in another mini-upset. As the founding nation of the sport, the English always get upset when they lose in the World Cup (the same goes in the soccer World Cup) — especially to a team such as the French, with whom they share centuries of animosity.

Defending champion South Africa (the Springboks) faced off against Australia (the Wallabies) in a blockbuster affair in the third quarterfinal. It was an intensely close game, but in the end the Wallabies upset the Springboks to move on to the semifinals.

In the final quarterfinal, the All Blacks brushed aside Argentina 33-10 to set up a semifinal against arch-rival Australia.

In the 24-year history of the World Cup, only five teams — New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, England and France — have ever made it to the final. Wales was hoping to become the sixth team to do so when it faced off against France in the first semifinal.

Although favored in the game, the Welsh fell victims to an early red card and were beaten 9-8 by the French, sending Les Bleus to their third final. France lost in the final to New Zealand in 1987 and to Australia in 1999, so was bound to get a shot at revenge against whoever won the other semifinal between the All Blacks and the Wallabies.

The semifinal against Australia was the first big test of the tournament for New Zealand, but the All Blacks played a phenomenal match to earn a 20-6 victory and set up a rematch of the 1987 final against France.

The All Blacks had already beaten France in the group stage, but had the weight of four-million fans on their shoulders to win their first World Cup since 1987. Since the Rugby World Cup is pretty much the only thing a vast majority of the population of New Zealand is truly passionate about in the world, 24 years is a pretty long drought.

Before the final, however, Australia matched up with Wales in the third-place game, where the Wallabies solidified their place as the No. 2 ranked team in the world with a 21-18 victory.

I stayed up until 5 a.m. on Sunday following the final online, then spent Sunday afternoon watching the delayed broadcast on NBC.

It was hardly the game that anyone expected, with the heavily-favored All Blacks struggling against a gritty French defense.

New Zealand scored a try in the first half (worth five points), but missed the conversion (worth two points) and also missed two penalty goals (worth three points each) to take only a 5-0 lead into halftime.

The All Blacks changed their kicker in the second half and finally converted a penalty goal to take an 8-0 lead early in the second half, but France responded minute later with a try and a successful conversion to narrow the lead to 8-7.

The rest of the game was a series of tackles, scrums, rucks and mauls, with New Zealand hanging on for an emotional 8-7 victory, setting off a nationwide celebration that is still probably going on strong as you read this column (even if you’re reading this column as late as the year 2014, the party is probably still going on!).

If this account of the Rugby World Cup piqued your interest, stay tuned for the 2015 World Cup, which will be in England, and the 2019 World Cup, which will be in Japan.

I know that I will be going to at least one of them in person — I regret very much not being able to go down to New Zealand this year to watch this year’s rendition.