Argentina were the stars of the best-ever World Cup
PA Sport's Andrew Baldock
October 21, 2007

"It is difficult to disagree with outgoing International Rugby Board chairman Dr Syd Millar that France 2007 was 'the best ever' World Cup." PA's Andrew Baldock reports

What started with team of the tournament Argentina stunning the hosts in an unforgettable opening game, ended when South Africa maintained a 20-year tradition of unbeaten teams being crowned world champions.

Few could argue the organised, ultra-efficient Springboks did not deserve their triumph.

The staggering fact was though, it came against world title holders England, who South Africa smashed 36-0 in a pool clash just 36 days earlier.

But England, 80-1 no-hopers after that shambolic defeat and seemingly destined for Heathrow Airport rather than a World Cup final, underlined the competition's unpredictability by reeling off four successive victories, which included knocking out Australia and France.

They came desperately close to creating rugby history and retaining the Webb Ellis Trophy before South Africa at least guaranteed a degree of normality by going into a big game as favourites - and actually winning it.

While South Africa and England fought out the final, New Zealand were nowhere to be seen.

The popular theory was that Graham Henry's All Blacks only had to turn up - and it didn't matter whether he fielded a first or second team - for them to end a 20-year wait without winning rugby union's golden prize.

France though, spectacularly blew that theory out of the water, winning a titanic quarter-final tussle at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium while millions watched across the Channel.

New Zealand, their pride - and egos - shot to bits, flew home for prolonged reflection on the worst World Cup campaign in their history.

They could well have met up with the Australian squad at Charles de Gaulle Airport, given the Wallabies had been dumped out just hours earlier.

Incredibly, going into the semi-finals, two thirds of the Tri-Nations sides had been eliminated, while half the Six Nations representatives - Ireland, Wales and Italy - did not emerge from their qualifying pools.

The Irish story was a dismal one of crippling under-achievement.

Drawn in the so-called 'pool of death' alongside eventual winners Argentina and runners-up France, they suffered comprehensive defeats to both opponents and struggled to beat ever-improving Georgia.

Wales, beaten by Australia in Cardiff, were guilty of crass tactical errors in trying to play sevens-style rugby against Fiji - world masters of the game's abbreviated code - and they paid an enormous price.

So too, did coach Gareth Jenkins, who lost his job within 24 hours of that defeat following a summit meeting involving senior Welsh Rugby Union figures at the team hotel in Nantes.

Italy, grouped alongside the All Blacks and Scotland, never got going, and the loss of injured skipper Marco Bortolami increased their degree of difficulty against the Scots as they lost a winner-takes-all encounter in Saint-Etienne.

Of the so-called minnows - it is a word rapidly disappearing from rugby's dictionary after this tournament - Georgia were magnificent, Tonga threatened both South Africa and England after beating Samoa, while debutants Portugal also had their moments.

Without question though, Agustin Pichot and his magnificent Argentina side deserve as many plaudits as South Africa, if not more.

The Pumas, scandalously snubbed by generations of world rugby rulers, seized their moment.

After rocking France on day one, they went on to finish top of their group by three points, defeated Scotland in the quarter-finals and then - incredibly - beat Les Bleus again as they took the tournament's bronze medal.

Pichot, fly-half Juan Martin Hernandez, centre Felipe Contepomi, full-back Ignacio Corleto and hooker Mario Ledesma all proved contenders for a place in anyone's team of the tournament.

And in terms of the best coach, then Pumas boss Marcelo Loffreda - who now heads to a new job with Guinness Premiership champions Leicester - would undoubtedly run Springboks chief Jake White close.

The only crying for Argentina were tears of joy that a rugby nation so humble at their achievements and so dignified at every turn finally took their place at the sport's top table.

South Africa might have had the brilliant wing Bryan Habana, the prodigious boot of full-back Percy Montgomery and the king of rugby's lineout jungle in Victor Matfield, but Argentina were the real heroes of World Cup 2007.

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