It was just a couple of months before the very first men’s Rugby World Cup that the organising committee realised no one had a trophy to give the winner. The old Wallaby prop Nicholas Shehadie got a call one morning from his co‑chair, John Kendall-Carpenter. “Son,” Shehadie remembered Kendall-Carpenter saying over the phone, “we’ve got a problem.” Kendall-Carpenter found one in the vault at Garrard at Regent Street. It was 15 inches tall, had a nymph on one side, a satyr on the other and, for reasons that made more sense when it was made back in 1906, a pineapple on top. It was silver, plated in gold, and cost £6,000. “Get it,” Shehadie said.
At the Stade de France on Saturday night the trophy was there in a locked box on the sidelines in front of the players’ tunnel. There was a scramble to move it on to a plinth in the seconds before the teams came on to the pitch. A man was barking instructions to two women, who both had to put on clean white gloves just to lift it and shift it a metre. It was funny to watch the thing be treated with such reverence, as if it were a holy artefact. Last time I saw the trophy, Faf de Klerk was drinking lager out of it wearing nothing but a baseball cap and a pair of underpants.
The value of the trophy isn’t in the silver and gold it’s made out of, though that must have gone up in the years since, but what it represents to the men who play for it. Only a handful ever get to pick it up: David Kirk, Nick Farr-Jones, Francois Pienaar – their reputations grew with the tournament. As it got bigger, so did the achievement of winning it: John Eales, Martin Johnson, John Smit, and of course the peerless Richie McCaw, the man many reckoned was the best of them all. Well, from now on no one will ever be able to tell the story of the Rugby World Cup without also telling the one of Siya Kolisi, the township kid who grew up to be Springbok captain.
Kolisi is right alongside McCaw now, packing down on the other side of the back row. It almost feels like rugby heresy to say it, but what he and his team have done in the past five years stands comparison with what McCaw’s All Blacks did in 2011 when McCaw, playing on one broken foot, steered his team through the knockout rounds, and 2015, when they played untouchable rugby. Hell, maybe it even outstrips it. South Africa’s back‑to‑back victories were both away from home and in this one, the second of them, they had to get past three of the finest sides who have played the game, including the hosts who had 80,000 fans behind them.
There were a lot of good teams and great players who were dreaming of being where Kolisi is now. Antoine Dupont’s France, Johnny Sexton’s Ireland, Sam Cane’s New Zealand, even Owen Farrell’s England, who found, once they were here in France, that the prospect of winning it brought out their fiercest, and long forgotten, competitive instincts. Given that South Africa also beat Jamie Ritchie’s Scotland in the pool stage, they played all the other five of the world’s six top-ranked teams, and, even though they lost against Ireland by five, ultimately won over the lot of them.
There’s never been a Rugby World Cup run quite like it. And there never will be, either, given that World Rugby has already promised to rearrange the timings of the draw to ensure the tournament never ends up being quite so lopsided again.
In the knockout rounds, they beat France by a single point, England by a single point and New Zealand by a single point. The margins were as narrow as they get, but the gulf they represented was as wide as the Seine. It was the distance between a team who had what it takes to win under the heaviest pressure and three who found, in those same moments, that they didn’t. Once was fortunate, twice was freakish, the third, perversely, felt like conclusive proof. It wasn’t luck that separated these teams, but resolve. In the hardest moments, the South Africans were always able to find a way.
Whether it was Eben Etzebeth bulling through three French tacklers to the tryline, Handré Pollard nailing that 77th‑minute penalty shot at goal or De Klerk making that tap-tackle on Dalton Papali’i as he raced down the wing into the wide open acres of the Springboks’ 22. France had their chances, so did England and so did New Zealand, but not the nerve, or accuracy, they needed to take advantage of them. And that’s not a question of skill so much as it is of belief. When the teams are that good, the contest that tight, the fight that hard, it’s never a question of how you play, any old way will do, it’s a question of why you do, of what it is inside that’s going to drive you that last extra inch, into the places your opponent isn’t willing or able to go.
And because they were led by Kolisi, who understands and expresses the ties between team, people and country, better than almost any player ever has, South Africa always had the best answer to that one question. Why.