RWC 2023 ANALYSIS
Parisian World Cup quarterfinals delivered contests that will be seen in future as the games that saved rugby
While South Africans and New Zealanders rightly and understandably celebrated the advance of the Springboks and the All Blacks to the semifinals of Rugby World Cup (RWC) 2023, the real winner was the sport itself.
On the way to Stade de France on Saturday evening from La Fourche, the back carriage of Metro 13, direction Saint-Denis Université, was packed with Irish fans.
The entire train was; all 10 carriages, as was the one before that and the one after it. Crammed up against the door, I stood next to two Kiwi supporters on their way to the game.
The Irish, as they are, good naturedly bantered with the New Zealanders. I couldn’t make out all the exchanges, but at one point a Kiwi said: “You’ll be crying on the train back.” As far as banter goes, it wasn’t world class, but the Kiwi said it without an obvious intonation of hope and desperation. She said it as if it was an irrefutable fact. As it turned out, she was right.
That led to some nervous, raucous laughter from the Irish lads, buoyed by beer and understandable bravado. Really, given the state of both teams, given the facts and data going into the match, Ireland were clear favourites. But, you know, the All Blacks and all that…
And how right those Kiwis were, although simply placing the contest in boxes marked “winning” and “losing” doesn’t do the occasion, or the teams, justice. Yes, one team lost and one team won, but rugby emerged the better for it.
As shell-shocked Irish fans mulled around the Stade de France concourse well after midnight following Ireland’s 28-24 defeat, still trying to make sense of what happened, you couldn’t help but feel some sympathy.
The best Irish team ever, 17 consecutive Test wins and 29 out of 31 Test victories going into the quarterfinal, were supposed to break through their glass ceiling of RWC quarterfinal despair. Instead, they cracked it, but never smashed the glass.
There should be no recriminations. There were no howlers, no fall guy for the loss. There were some small errors – from both sides – but overall, both teams were magnificent.
The All Blacks just found a little something extra, played some key moments in the game a little better and were a smidgen more ruthless.
The consensus among the media, fans and respected former players was that it was one of the greatest Tests ever, and certainly the greatest RWC quarterfinal. No one could argue.
As it turned out, it wasn’t even the greatest quarterfinal at Stade de France over the weekend.
How do you even begin to explain what transpired 24 hours later? On the same Metro, from the same station, the carriage was full again, although the cast was different.
There were Bok supporters, a couple of bleary-eyed Irish fans, who had tickets for both games, purchased when there was no clarity which night their side would play a quarterfinal.
But mostly it was filled with confident and happy French. Songs were sung, the name of “Antoine Dupont” rang out among the happy voices including from a group in the jerseys of Toulouse Rugby Club – Dupont’s club team.
The South Africans stood quietly, slightly bemused by early celebrations. France were in celebratory mode. This was their golden generation of players, competing on home soil and destined to win the World Cup.
Only, standing in their way was a formidable team that had been built to peak at this time. The Boks gave little away in the week leading up to the game.
They picked a starting team designed to score tries, although no one genuinely believed that a quarterfinal between two excellent sides, especially defensively, would yield seven tries.
The expectation was that the boots of Thomas Ramos, Manie Libbok and later Handré Pollard would be crucial. And they were, sort of.
From the kick-off, the game exploded like the opening night fireworks over Stade de France and barely let up. By the 31st minute there had been six tries – three apiece – and more drama than seven seasons of Breaking Bad.
By halftime, the consensus was this might be the greatest rugby game ever. It was certainly the greatest quarterfinal of all time. The All Blacks and Ireland had been dethroned of that unofficial title in 24 hours and 40 minutes.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Rugby World Cup 2023 News Hub
There was so much happening, at such pace and with such accuracy and intensity that it was impossible to keep count of the little battles that in retrospect would define the match.
A turnover here, a slowing of the ball there, a brilliant tackle, a charged down conversion, a scrum from a mark, a failure to secure a cross-field kick, a rampant rolling maul, a clash of heads, a yellow card, a missed conversion, a long-arm intercepted try-scoring final pass and dozens more moments went by in a blur.
It was rugby played at 2x speed. It surely couldn’t continue at that pace. It didn’t. Instead, it continued as a battle of wills.
The Boks simply, immovably would not be beaten. France took away scrums and lineouts; they played tactically smart to mitigate against the Boks’ best weapons.
They had a plan, and they executed it brilliantly in the biggest game of their young lives. The one intangible though was that they couldn’t factor the mentality of world champions – 0f the desire the Boks displayed to cling to that Webb Ellis Cup, won so gloriously in Yokohama, for a few more days.
Eben Etzebeth – whose performance was so monumental, they should build a statue to him at Stade de France – scored the fourth try that pulled the Boks back into the game. He dragged three Les Bleus over the line with him.
There has never been a greater No 4 Springbok lock – with all respect to Bakkies Botha and Frik du Preez – than Etzebeth. He was the embodiment of the Boks’ willpower.
Of course it was a team effort, but you need a totem and Etzebeth’s early cover tackle to save a try and then his long-arm knocking a French pass back to stop a certain try was a genuinely stunning piece of skill.
His fingers did just enough to propel the ball marginally back in the direction of the Springbok line, which meant it was legal, despite the remonstrations of the French crowd. If fine margins were drawn, in this game they would be illustrated with a 0.5mm nib.
When Faf de Klerk ripped the ball free into injury time and Kurt-Lee Arendse hoofed it to touch to end the game, it took some time for 79,600-odd people to process what had just transpired.
It was a match that went by in a flash but also seemed to last forever in those final, desperate minutes as the Boks tried to close it out and France attempted to launch one more desperate attack.
It was crushing for France – just as it had been for the Irish 24 hours earlier. Both matches were worthy of a final.
Two teams won; two teams lost. Thousands went home happy, and thousands melted into the night in tears and confusion.
Sport is cruel. But it’s also beautiful. And no sport plays out like life over 80 minutes more than rugby of this calibre. It’s about so much pain and suffering, about doing small, mundane things well, over and over again, to earn the right to have fleeting moments of joy.
France and Ireland, as teams and individuals, might never fully recover from what happened, but I hope they will.
Because contests of that ethereal standard and drama demanded greatness from everyone involved. They showed that the sport can be played brutally but without malice and intent to harm.
Ireland and France especially, but even the All Blacks and Springboks, won’t feel it now, but they played a huge role reminding us all how great this game can be.
In a way, they saved rugby. DM