THE World Cup has delivered – and so have Wales. That’s the twin verdict on one of the biggest sporting events on the planet as the host country went into overdrive to celebrate its triumph.
A riot of celebration broke out at Eden Park on Sunday night and the carnival atmosphere carried on into the city streets of Auckland yesterday when the All Blacks paraded the cup watched by over 200,000 adoring fans.
It was a public holiday and how the fans responded to greet their all-conquering heroes.
Whatever the ancient rivalry may be between hosts New Zealand and Wales no-one could deny the All Blacks their triumph. The final against France may have been a close run thing and even the national media here graciously conceded that the best team lost, but it really was destiny calling.
For the All Blacks have for many years been the number one team between World Cups only to falter when it mattered most. Not so this time as they finally got their hands on the Webb Ellis Trophy, skipper Richie McCaw standing tall and coach Graham Henry tearful.
And don’t forget they did it without Dan Carter, arguably the finest player on the planet.
Sure, France did push them all the way in a gripping final, perhaps short on quality but not for its intensity or drama with Stephen Donald dragged from obscurity to kick the winning points. Some fairytale that.
But it would have been a grave injustice had France won the tournament because for them it was a tournament rife with bickering, rifts between the players and the coach, they lost two group matches and they didn’t deserve to beat Wales in the semi-final.
It was typical of them that they should finally rouse themselves as only they can to rock the All Blacks in the final, but they left it far too late.
The second best team, or rather the side which played some of the best rugby in the World Cup, was Wales. In a country where it was easy to be overwhelmed by the kindness of the people it was Wales who impressed ordinary folk the most. Neutrals were drawn to them for the way they played, for their spirit and for the way young players were blooded and gave it a real go, upsetting the more favoured teams.
They gave world champions South Africa an almighty fright in their first game, they held off the stern, physical challenge of Samoa and they trounced Namibia and Fiji before staging the big upset when they comfortably got the better of an Irish team who had dumped Australia.
They had dreadful luck against France in their first semi-final appearance since 1987 when their captain Sam Warburton was harshly sent off having already lost key prop Adam Jones and they were without Rhys Priestland yet still scored the only try and lost by a point.
Australia in the semi-final was a match too far, without those three players and though the margin at the end was just three points it has to be said the better side won.
But even then Wales showed what they were about and gave real hope for the future when in the closing minutes they not only showed the supreme fitness for which they were noted right through the tournament, they put the ball through 30 phases before Leigh Halfpenny scored a cracking try.
That is the way forward for Wales now. They have proved they can match and even beat the best - at one stage they leapt to fourth place in the world rankings - and they did it by playing rugby, by moving the ball and by scoring tries.
They unearthed a whole host of talented young players in the process. Players like flankers Sam Warburton and Dan Lydiate were already on their way, but they enhanced their growing reputations while players like George North, Toby Faletau and Priestland were a revelation, Faletau becoming the first Welsh player to start seven World Cup games – at the age of 20.
And there is more where that came from with centre Scott Williams and scrum half Lloyd Williams two more players with bags of potential.
Some of the more experienced players rose to the occasion, Jamie Roberts and Mike Phillips for example as they played like the Lions they are. Luke Charteris laid a claim to be Welsh player of the tournament for his magnificent efforts in every respect and Warburton proved an inspiration, as did coach Warren Gatland with his selections, notably favouring Priestland over James Hook, one player who had a tournament to forget.
How a limited player like All Blacks scrum half Piri Weepu could make the shortlist for the IRB player-of-the-year award yet Roberts didn’t is quite ridiculous.
So Wales must push on from here. Australia pay a lightning visit to the Millennium Stadium on December 3 and then it’s the Six Nations.
Wales will go into that tournament as joint favourites with France at least, England in complete disarray, Ireland past their best and Scotland and Italy not at the races.
If there is one slight cloud on the horizon it’s a fear of player burn-out with all the demands made on the players while the regions are seeing increasingly less of the men whose wages they pay. It’s not a perfect world!
On a personal level it’s been a long seven weeks away, but it’s been the experience of a lifetime, we have made friends anew which is, in part, what it’s all about and the hospitality has been wonderful with New Zealand Tourism personnel everywhere perfect hosts.
Personal off-the-field highlights were the homecoming concert in Auckland by Dame Kiri Te Kanawa on the eve of the World Cup final, a real hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck occasion, a trip to the Coromandel Peninsula and the magnificent World Cup parade in Auckland.
And on the pitch Wales exceeded expectations and they drew that fantastic crowd of 61,543 to the Millennium Stadium to watch their semi-final on the big screen. It must be onwards and upwards.