Late October, 2023.
Paris. La ville de l’amour.
And, if one appreciates rugby union, as so many of us do, how appropriate that the city of love plays host to a dream World Cup final. A first ever championship showdown beckons, on neutral ground between the two top ranked countries.
The matchup promises to be the ultimate test, both a momentous occasion and a defining measure in the sport. History to be made either way, the rosters of New Zealand and South Africa stacked with great players and coaches. Legends of the game, many of whose test careers will come to an end at the final whistle. The victorious team to claim a record fourth Webb Ellis trophy.
The All Blacks kick off. Steady rain throughout the day makes for a sodden ground and a slippery ball. Still, what follows, even allowing for mistakes and missed opportunities by the two sides, makes for heart pounding drama. The stresses and strains are relentless, the collisions absolutely bone crushing in their ferocity. The action compelling, thunderous, downright gladiatorial.
There is a little bit of everything. The ball bounces cruelly, passes are spilled. The much-anticipated scrum battle ends up a stalemate. In contrast, key lineouts are pinched by the opposition or flat out bungled. Last ditch defence thwarts three golden try scoring chances.
Add in some ill discipline, which results in three yellow cards and a red card. Multiple interjections by the television match official prove annoying, interrupting the flow of the game. At times, the referee looks rattled. He faces an impossible task, pressure coming from all directions, his performance requiring only perfection at the start, then steady improvement!
Springbok flanker Steph du Toit strides about the field like a modern day colossus. South Africa converts four penalty kicks to lead 12-3, only to see New Zealand claw back three points before halftime.
In the end, a super heavyweight encounter comes down to the finest of margins. The All Blacks register an unconverted try wide out on the left, cutting the score line to 12-11. The game enters the final quarter, the Stade de France crowd at fever pitch. The action and tension unrelenting, players from both teams literally out on their feet.
Somehow, some way, thanks in part to the weather, but more to suffocating defence allied to some desperate scrambling, the Springboks endure. A last, long distance New Zealand penalty kick slips agonizingly wide of the posts. For the brave All Blacks, written off by many pundits prior to the competition, there will be no fairy tale finish.
As the final whistle blows, I take time to reflect on Rugby World Cup 2023 as a whole. As eight stirring weeks of action come to close, multiple thoughts and reflections bounce around my mind.
Certainly, like so many others, I long for more of flamboyant Fiji. At their free flowing best, the Pacific Islanders make a mockery of their supposed “Tier 2” status with a series of thrilling, never say die performances.
In the same vein, I salute the unheralded but valiant Portuguese, whose skill, audacity, enterprise and spirit are a revelation. Not for them the drudgery of endless kicking, safety first and playing the percentages, the dull approach which features far too much in many of the subsequent knockout games.
Unfortunately, once pool play confirms the playoff round qualifiers, the ludicrously lopsided nature of the tournament draw is ruthlessly exposed. Still, this does ensure a mouth watering quarterfinal round of games. The two contests in Paris, New Zealand vs Ireland and South Africa vs France, feature the world’s top four teams. Happily, they produce rugby from another planet, the breathtaking, vintage contests considered among the sport’s greatest battles ever. Ever.
The other two quarterfinals, held in Marseilles, pit England vs Fiji and Wales vs Argentina. Though not at the same exalted standard as the games in Paris, each goes down to the wire and so contributes to the thrilling weekend in its own way.
At the other end of the scale, the biggest flop of the tournament is undoubtedly Australia. For the first time, the Wallabies, former two-time World Cup champions, fail to escape their pool. Injuries, questionable selection, poor form, and the ongoing circus surrounding head coach Eddie Jones combine to submarine their campaign.
Other pictures take hold. I marvel at the outrageous skill of South African fly half Marnie Libbok. In a key pool game, his 40 metre, no look, cross field kick absolutely bamboozles the Scotland defenders. The ball falls perfectly into the arms of a teammate who romps in to score untouched.
Even better is a tally by uber talented Amato Fakatava. Midway through the first half vs Argentina, the hulking Japanese lock forward gathers the ball. Approaching midfield, close to the sideline, ball in one oversized paw, he turns on the jets, chip kicks over converging defenders. After a kind bounce, he steps a last would-be tackler. Then strolls over the try line. Simply amazing.
Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, Joe Marler unexpectedly contributes to a team try vs Japan when a wild pass misses its target by some margin before hitting the England prop firmly in the head. The ball rockets forward while players from both teams seem to freeze. Finally, a teammate almost sheepishly picks up the loose ball and, benefitting from this most unusual assist, dots down under the posts. The chain of events perhaps not surprising, given that England, though somehow winning six of seven games, barely ever put together any constructive phase play in doing so.
And there is so much more to unpack. Refereeing inconsistencies, inferences of perceived officiating bias, and allegations of a racial slur counterbalance gracious, humble post game interviews and press conferences. While loyal fans, particularly from Ireland, but from all across the globe, provide colour and pageantry.
Still, for me at least, by far the most memorable images inevitably come at the immediate end of games. Especially those gripping, ultra competitive knockout contests in which the final whistle confirms victory or defeat.
It is then that emotions understandably pour out. For every player lifted high in a teammate’s embrace, an opponent lies crumpled on the turf. For every beaming smile, for every fist pump, there are corresponding tears and despair.
Winners and losers. Triumph and sorrow. Joy and heartache. Jubilation and utter desolation. The consoling and the consoled.
It is the duality of elite level sport.
And why we love it so.