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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Robert Kitson in Paris

How World Cup quarter-final drama turned the key to rugby heaven

From left: England's Ollie Lawrence with Fiji's Waisea Nayacalevu; Ireland's Johnny Sexton; and South Africa's Cheslin Kolbe charging down a conversion attempt from France's Thomas Ramos.
From left: England's Ollie Lawrence with Fiji's Waisea Nayacalevu; Ireland's Johnny Sexton; and South Africa's Cheslin Kolbe charging down a conversion attempt from France's Thomas Ramos. Composite: Guardian Picture Desk

The biggest misconception in sport is that winning is all that matters. It’s like saying that all relationships are purely about sex or that family meals are entirely about their calorific value. It completely ignores the range of contrasting emotions that, as was the case last weekend, can deliver something truly memorable and life-affirming.

Congratulations should, of course, go to New Zealand, South Africa, England and Argentina, the defiant quartet still standing in this men’s Rugby World Cup. And yet, in multiple ways, it was France, Ireland, Wales and Fiji who really made it a memorable couple of days. All of them finished second but that bleak bottom line does not reflect their wider contribution.

How much the event would have been diminished without the tens of thousands of noisy Irish fans, the returning bravery and brilliance of Antoine Dupont, the blasting athleticism of Fiji or the bodies-on-the-line commitment of Wales? Did you see Johnny Sexton’s son consoling his father – “You’re still the best dad” – on Saturday night? None of it, in the end, helped in terms of semi-final qualification but those insisting it all now counts for nothing are missing the point.

Because tournaments – and this one in particular – are shaped as much by the devastated losers as the beaming winners. How could anyone not feel for the host nation and the world’s former No 1-ranked team as both were abruptly ejected? How close they were to enjoying a different outcome and how narrow the margins are becoming.

Take Cheslin Kolbe’s charge down of Thomas Ramos’s attempted conversion. Was he a millisecond too quick out of the blocks? Was the last pass for the All Blacks’ first try a touch forward? Might a couple of crucial refereeing calls have gone the other way? The story from Marseille was similar. What if Fiji’s goalkicking had also been slightly better? Or if Nicolás Sánchez had not intercepted Sam Costelow’s pop pass three minutes from time? Showering the All Blacks, the Springboks, the English and the Pumas with praise for being in front when the music stopped ignores the fact that, on another day, none might have made it.

It made for the most compelling non-final weekend in men’s World Cup history. Up to now there have been three prime contenders, none particularly recent. The semi-finals in 1999 – France shocking New Zealand, Australia squeezing past South Africa – were something else, as were the gripping 1991 quarter-finals in Dublin and Paris. So, too, was that unforgettable day in 2007 when France beat the All Blacks in Cardiff a few hours after England’s upset win over the Wallabies in a sunny Marseille.

Cheslin Kolbe charging down Thomas Ramos’s attempted conversion
Cheslin Kolbe charging down Thomas Ramos’s attempted conversion: one turning point in a tightly fought quarter-final. Photograph: Christophe Ena/AP

For sheer sustained quality, however, the two weekend games in Paris eclipsed all of the above. Sometimes a distinction had to be made between a close game, an exciting spectacle and a seriously top-class contest. Completing all three steps, as the Ireland-New Zealand and France-South Africa fixtures did, is the key to rugby heaven.

Might there also be a subliminal message in there somewhere, with three Rugby Championship sides now in the last four and only one from the Six Nations? If the boot were on the other foot for once there would clearly be a temptation to rush to a certain conclusion. In truth, that now feels slightly simplistic. Take the three southern hemisphere wins; all were underpinned by smart coaching and detailed input from well-travelled rugby brains with experience from both hemispheres in Joe Schmidt, Rassie Erasmus and Michael Cheika.

There was another recurring theme. Everyone in Ireland wanted to see Sexton carried out on his shield. There is similar veneration in France for Dupont while Dan Biggar and Liam Williams were on their final World Cup laps for Wales. Cometh the hour and what happened? The 38-year-old Sexton looked leg-weary in the final quarter but Ireland seemed not to have the heart to take him off. Ditto Dupont, still feeling his way back after facial surgery. Nor could a battered Biggar and Williams sustain a promising start. Ruthlessness, squad depth and desire eventually trumped individual hopes, prayers and dreams.

So much, then, for sporting romance. France now possess the thin-lipped smile of hosts wishing they could sneak away for a fortnight rather than sit and listen to their partying guests roaring into the night. Thousands of green Irish berets, shirts and wigs have also been tossed into the back of wardrobes. Ditto a lot of well-worn Welsh bucket hats.

The show, as ever, must go on without them. If a New Zealand-South Africa final now feels the likeliest outcome, not everything has panned out entirely as expected. England, barely able to put one foot in front of the other in August, are suddenly the solitary unbeaten team left in the World Cup. Argentina, so bad in their opening game it was painful to watch, are also now just 80 minutes from an improbable final appearance.

Here’s hoping the last two weekends prove as gripping as the one just gone. World Rugby will certainly hope France’s tearful exit does not cause the entire tournament soufflé to fall flat, always a possibility once the draw ensured two of the world’s top four sides could not advance beyond the last eight. At least a fully stacked quarter-final weekend triumphantly delivered. And, in doing so, reminded everyone that winning is only one part of the sporting equation.

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