Siya Kolisi is singing the national anthem. But of course, anybody who has ever seen Kolisi belt out the South African national anthem will know that this is a pitiably meagre way of describing it. The head rocks back, the chin jags out, and as his mouth opens you can see every tooth in it, the tongue and the tonsils and the remains of the energy gel he polished off during the warm-up. For South Africa’s captain, this can never simply be a perfunctory discharge of pre-match formalities. It’s an opportunity, a decisive moment, a chance to gain an edge. And when you play rugby for South Africa, you quickly learn that there is no edge too small to be worth the effort.
What does this look like in practice? Perhaps you see it in the 76th minute of a bruising and scarified World Cup final, when Jordie Barrett is racing through clean air with two runners outside him, and you, Pieter‑Steph du Toit, you know that if you don’t wrap him up in the next couple of seconds – and properly wrap him up, arms and wriggling hips and all – then New Zealand will probably eat up half the field. Yes, the lungs are screaming. Yes, this is your 26th tackle of the night. But it needs to happen, and it needs to be you, and it needs to be now, and it needs to be perfect.
Or in the 78th minute, when Dalton Papali’i is accelerating up the touchline, a blur of black disappearing into the distance, and you, Faf du Klerk, have only just enough time to dive in and lay one hand on him before he’s gone. What are you going to do with that one hand? Which part of the ankle is going to get you the most leverage? Aim too high on the calf and the leg will probably hold firm. Aim too low on the boot and you risk grasping at fresh air. The clock is ticking. It needs to be you, and it needs to be now, and it needs to be perfect.
These are just a few of the thousands of little victories that earned South Africa the greatest victory of all. Victory over France by a point. Victory over England by a point. And now victory over New Zealand by a point. Three devastated opponents who all reckoned they had it won. Call it fortune, call it caprice, call it the tyranny of fine margins. But for some reason this South Africa team seems to find itself on the happy side of those margins more than anybody else.
There are times when South Africa’s rugby team can feel – illusorily, but persuasively – like the only thing really holding together this divided country, with its 12 official languages and infinite planes of ethnicity and history and privilege, with its endemic instability and its useless politicians. In reality it is a kind of utopian cosplay, a rolling 80-minute fantasy of what South Africa might be like if it truly were content and united. But it is an origin story as powerful as any the sport has to offer, and so perhaps when you are this convinced of the sanctity of your mission, you will stop at nothing in its pursuit. Whether it’s a crucial tap-tackle or a little shimmy to try to fool the referee that you were accidentally offside. Whether it’s a clutch kick or claiming with an entirely straight face that bringing off your crippled hooker is actually a tactical substitution.
Outside, on the stadium concourse, jubilant fans are tearing down the stairs and collapsing into each other’s arms. A New Zealand television crew films its post-match package with all the dolour and gravity of a state funeral. Inside, the pitch has begun to feel the strain of six gruelling matches in the space of 14 days, and is bare and worn, like the carpet in a minicab office.
This is a tournament that began in a summer heatwave and ended in freezing rain, that has aged and wearied us all, that feels in retrospect not like one tournament but an entire saga of them.
And through it all, the hot weather and the wet weather and the bedbugs and the pressure and the boredom and the fatigue and the bungled refereeing, rugby union’s most enduring team ultimately endured. South Africa lived by refusing to die. By shifting shapes, by adapting and learning, by taking every edge and giving every last drop of water in their bodies. By never forgetting who they were or why they were here.
This was in many ways a deeply confusing final, a palimpsest of subplots and subjective judgments that somehow encapsulated perfectly the riddle of modern rugby. Because these days there are actually two games going on out there: the time-honoured game of runs and passes and kicks and tackles, and a shadow game of deception and projection, of dark arts and subtle persuasion, one that takes place not just on the field but in the TMO room and the analysis room and the press conference dais and the referee’s ear.
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South Africa have many worthy rivals when it comes to the first game, but when it comes to the second they are without equal. It may not have been the most romantic or straightforward outcome. But in a weird way, the sport of rugby union has the champion it richly deserves.