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

South Africa deserve World Cup but teams’ approach needs to change

It was Andy Farrell who best summed up the 2023 Rugby World Cup. “Sport can be cruel sometimes – I guess that’s why we love it,” Ireland’s head coach said after his team’s heartbreaking defeat by New Zealand in the quarter-finals. Which is precisely how every All Black squad member felt on Saturday evening as dazzling laser beams, coloured lights and fireworks turned the Stade de France into the planet’s dampest nightclub and South Africa’s ecstatic players danced their way into Springbok folklore.

The extraordinary Siya Kolisi was still singing out loud to himself when he entered the post-game press conference clutching the Webb Ellis Cup, in sharp contrast to his downcast All Black counterpart Sam Cane who had just left. Few Test captains have ever looked as pained as Cane after his team’s record 35-7 defeat by the Boks at Twickenham in August. Here he resembled a man whose entire world had collapsed. The wafer-thin margins between sporting success and failure have seldom been more starkly illustrated.

Even in their moment of triumph, a grateful South Africa appreciated it more than most. To have won all three of their knockout games, against France, England and New Zealand, by a single point is a feat of tightrope balancing that may never be replicated. If Cane’s 27th-minute red card was a defining moment, so too was the collective refusal not to give in when the 14-man All Blacks came knocking with savage intent. Games of rugby can be won with exhilarating tries and ambition but there are other days when mental and physical fortitude override all else.

Which brings us to the other major theme of the past eight weeks. Every single knockout game was won, statistically, by teams who spent less time with ball in hand than their opponents. South Africa, give or take their lineout issues in the final, made fewer errors when it mattered and, lo and behold, ended up with the trophy. England barely mustered any coherent back play and finished third, losing only to a late Bok penalty. Name the tournament’s most valuable player? It has to be Handré Pollard, who landed every kick he attempted in the tournament having belatedly been drafted in. In modern sport 100% certainty is the holy grail.

France’s scrum-half Antoine Dupont (right) kicks the ball against South Africa
France’s scrum-half Antoine Dupont (right) kicks the ball but South Africa won their quarter-final by a point. Photograph: François-Xavier Marit/AFP/Getty Images

It is something that rugby union again needs to ponder long and hard. As the mesmerising quarter-finals proved, tries do not make great games of rugby per se but “get-rid” kicking, suffocating blitz defence and huge breakdown collisions cannot be allowed to become the only logical blueprint for the world’s best sides. If the wet weather in Paris over the last two weekends was a sizeable factor, there has to be greater incentive for teams to vary their tactics rather than solely play the percentages.

Saturday night was also a reminder, regardless of your nationality, of the game’s other big issue. Cane’s stand-up tackle on Jesse Kriel was a split-second misjudgment with life-changing repercussions. But there is no point appointing an outstanding, empathic referee such as Wayne Barnes if he is denied the casting vote on the most crucial of decisions. As the now unemployed Eddie Jones noted last month, some of the retrospective red cards at this World Cup – not least Tom Curry’s sending off against Argentina – have had both an adverse effect on the momentum of games and are generating frustration both online and in the stands.

New Zealand’s departing Ian Foster is not a fan, either – “The game has got a few issues it’s got to sort out” – and Argentina’s Michael Cheika also felt this World Cup was unnecessarily stop-start. “I love rugby more than anything and sometimes I love it and sometimes I hate it because of what I see,” Cheika said, in the wake of the Pumas’ bronze-final defeat. “I think the game is stopped far too much, it needs to flow more. There have been teams here who play great footy. The crowd want to see more of that.”

None of this, clearly, should obscure the remarkable rugby that was played. Pieter-Steph du Toit, for example, made an astonishing 28 tackles in the final and his coach Jacques Nienaber, now heading for Leinster, was suitably impressed. “I always joke that if there’s a white plastic bag blowing over the field he would probably chase that down as well.”

Will Jordan, with his record‑equalling men’s tournament haul of eight tries, was another shining light, along with his compatriots Aaron Smith and Richie Mo’unga and Ireland’s Bundee Aki and Tadhg Beirne, even if both those teams fell agonisingly short. A sense of what might have been will also linger in France. Who did not feel a stab of dismay when Antoine Dupont suffered the facial fracture that ultimately cost his country so dearly?

Fair play, though, to South Africa for hanging tough week after week. Do not underestimate the levels of stamina required to win a World Cup. In an era of shrinking attention spans this tournament made War and Peace feel like a digested read. Even writing about it was logistically tougher than almost every previous tournament, a constant blur of TGVs and late‑night dashes for the last metro. Although, in fairness, none of us had Eben Etzebeth charging at us day and night.

On the whole France were welcoming hosts but not every aspect of the tournament was an organisational triumph. Some patrons found the late night kick-offs and transport hassles so awkward they gave up their tickets. For others, as at Twickenham, the in‑game flow of people heading to and from the bar and toilets had a negative impact on their experience.

Then again, you would have to be the world’s biggest grinch to ignore all the charms of la belle France. England fans heading out for the relocated Six Nations game against France next year will love Lyon’s old town and the floating river bars; time spent in Marseille, Nice and Bordeaux is never wasted. A quick word, too, for Tours, so popular with the travelling Irish press corps that Dublin is going to have to up its game.

But in the end the on-field action is what really counts. Portugal were great for the soul; better, certainly, than the prospect of a new Nations League competition that, status‑wise, will keep every emerging nation firmly in their place until 2032 at the earliest. Few sports can outdo rugby union at giving with one hand and taking with the other.

Fiji, too, should take a bow for making the quarter-finals. And who did not want to stand shoulder to shoulder with the travelling Irish green army roaring out Zombie and Dirty Old Town following their epic – even more so in hindsight – pool win against South Africa? Fast forward five weeks, though, and the songs in our heads are Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika and Shosholoza. Again.

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