Boks-France clash was as inevitable as the Seine’s waters flowing under the Pont Neuf
The Springboks will have a tough task to defend their world title when they face hosts France in the last of next weekend’s Rugby World Cup 2023 quarterfinals in Paris.
It was almost guaranteed after the draw for Rugby World Cup (RWC) 2023 was made three years ago that the Springboks would have to beat hosts France at some stage to retain their title.
And so it has come to pass, as inevitably as the Seine’s waters flowing under the Pont Neuf. Next weekend, on Sunday night, the Boks will be the most unwelcome visitors in France.
They will seldom have felt as alone because Stade de France will be a seething mass of locals baying for Bok blood. Every tackle the defending world champions make will be met with catcalls and outrage — as if they are all illegal.
Pity the referee who has to stay calm in that cauldron. He will be under immense pressure because anyone in a hyper jade jersey (the Boks will be wearing their alternate strip) doing anything to stop French momentum will be called out.
The Boks are not unfamiliar with meeting the hosts at this stage — they toppled Japan in the quarterfinals four years ago — but this will be another level of pressure.
It’s pressure they have to absorb and embrace. They cannot escape coming face-to-face with part one of their three-step attack on destiny when they meet Les Bleus for only the second time in RWC history.
They will have to be almost perfect and give the referee as little cause to penalise them as possible. It’s only human nature for the man in the middle to be carrying the weight of a nation on his shoulders, so the pictures the Boks present will have to be pristine.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Rugby World Cup 2023
Only four contenders
South Africa were always going to qualify out of Pool B despite how much rhetoric was given over to the potential threat of Scotland. The Boks and Ireland were several levels above anyone else in their pool and almost anyone else in the tournament.
Only France and New Zealand can realistically be called the other title contenders now that the seemingly endless pool phase is over after a month of close calls and blow-outs, of heroic deeds and horrible mismatches.
The World Cup really starts this coming weekend. Stade de France, just a few kilometres north of the Champs-Élysées, will host two quarterfinals easily worthy of the final itself. Ireland and the All Blacks meet in the other one.
That is a function of the draw and there is no point moaning about it. Want to win the Webb Ellis Cup? Well, you have three games to do it.
Stade de Marseille in the gritty and colourful port city will host the other two quarterfinals. Wales take on Argentina and England meet Fiji. It really does feel like those two games are the curtain-raisers to the main event in Paris.
France’s World Cup is now distilled down to its two largest cities after being spread across the country from Lille in the north to Nice in the south and almost everywhere in between.
But in reality for the French, their attention is even narrower. At 9pm on 15 October, all of France will focus on Saint-Denis, the scene of one of France’s greatest sporting moments — victory at the 1998 Fifa World Cup on home soil.
It is also the scene of one of South Africa’s greatest sporting achievements. It’s where the Boks won RWC 2007. The stadium carries huge significance for both nations. One of them will earn the right to come back for the semifinal at the same venue. The other, well…
The slate is clean for all eight quarterfinalists. What went before served a purpose for the right to play on. But it’s what happens next week in Marseille and Paris that will define careers.
Culmination of the plan
The Springboks, with their 21 World Cup winners from 2019, knew this day would come. This is the time when Rassie Erasmus/Jacques Nienaber’s six-year plan is supposed to peak.
RasNaber has not shied away from the fact that winning RWC 2019 was a bonus, but the real plan was to win it in 2023. Nothing changed after that famous victory in Yokohama four years ago. Only the pressure ramped up to defend the title in France.
The years of planning, the tinkering, the victories and accolades, the losses in the name of building depth, the losses due to poor execution and the defeats because of bad luck, have all led to this week. And possibly the fortnight after that.
There is no more time for slip-ups and experimentation. It’s simply about winning — be it ugly or beautiful, it doesn’t matter. Only the scoreboard at the end of the game counts.
There are no extra points for panache, no thought of rectifying mistakes “next week”. Hopefully, winning and losing will only be decided by the deeds of the players on the field and not by the man with the whistle. A clean fight is all anyone can wish for.
There is only this game. It is the cliff edge which one team will hold on to and the other will fall over into a valley of regret and what-ifs. DM