Ahead of the Rugby World Cup quarter finals, Peter Florence offers a preview of what lies ahead for the remaining teams and continues his snapshot vignettes in response to the tournament’s big moments.
With analysts crunching tackle counts, box kicks ticked, penalties conceded and win-predictor probabilities in these closest of too-close-to-call quarter finals, let’s just think for a minute about the mythologies at play here. What’s the best and worst that can happen for each of the last eight?
For France, the worst that can happen is that at some point in the game Antoine Dupont’s reconstructed face connects with a South African boot, knee, shoulder, elbow, hand… any part belonging to a Bok, and that the world watches the greatest living player stretchered off the field. This would be worse, much, much worse than losing the game. And, for the avoidance of any doubt whatsoever: It would be catastrophic for the tournament, the management and players of every team, and ultimately the game itself. This is rugby’s worst nightmare. No parent will ever take their child to a club again. He’s going to play because without him playing, even at 80% capacity, the French might not win. So let’s just hope.. because the fairy-tale for France is, obviously, that their shining hero returns to marshall the indomitable Gaulish forces, at the end of which he removes his new scrum cap and smiles that smile.
The nightmare for South Africa is the same as the French nightmare, PLUS that they are forever tainted and condemned to crawl the earth in ignominy as the men who went after Dupont’s face. It’s a rough old game, huh? But they have other worst-case scenarios too. This is probably the most elegant, lethal backline South Africa has ever produced. It’s not just the wildcat grace of Manie Libbok and the unbridlable power of Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am, though that would almost be enough. Their back 3 barely touch the ground, except to change direction. But none of that matters if they don’t get monster ball from their monster pack of big Bok monsters. And after finally meeting their match in the Ireland tight 5, now they are facing the unthinkable, identity-scrambling horror of being out-monstered up front by monsters of a fresher, fiercer, Frencher force… If the Boks are out-Bokked, then who the hell are they? But the Springbok fairy-tale is potent too. Their 2019 Final was near perfect, and this team is faster, cleverer, freer, just – better.
New Zealand know that nightmare too. Tight 5 look, hmmm – not weak exactly, no, not that. But – shall we say, cautiously and with due respect – “not forbiddingly strong”? What if it’s over, busted, gone? The All Black Magic stripped away. Because no matter who is No.1, world champion, top dog, superstar… the All Blacks are the mystique measuring stick, the dream, the grail. The whole point of the All Blacks is invincibility. It is the certainty that they will pull the last black cat out of whatever bag is thrown at them. The series loss at home to Ireland shook the faith. They lose again on Saturday and shazam, that’s it. For good. Flipside: Damian McKenzie, or – as we must call him under Ian Foster’s management: “Damian McKenzie, if he plays”. In a world of Kings, wizards still have powers.
What powers can quell the purring, looping, fronted-up Ireland Total Rugby Experience? We don’t know. We might find out. We might find unicorns, or pots of gold. The fairy-tale is this: Jonny Sexton does his job of masterminding space and time and bounce; the Tadhgs do things that only Tadhgs can do; and Garry Ringrose does some things that no-one’s seen since Philippe Sella played the game, and then some other stuff conjured by James Joyce and Finn MacCool. The nightmare goes like this: Sexton strains his groin. No, even then, they’ll prove that Conan can play 10, or some such Farrelly fix. Perhaps that Aki, Gibson-Park and Lowe have citizenship revoked and have to switch sides back to Black? No. They’d cope. Rugby’s a strange game. Anything can happen. Unicorns. Yeah, right. What’s Gaelic for hubris?
What’s Welsh for “throw it to the middle”? There will be Argentinians who know. In 1865, setting sail from Liverpool, the Mimosa took Welsh settlers to pay homage to Patagonia. They took bibles, the Welsh language, and they took rugby too. For both these teams the fairy-tale and nightmare read like this: Fairy-tale: play well, like you want everyone to have the best afternoon imaginable. Kick your goals, give the ball to your wingers in space. Win. Or lose with verve and flair and grace. Hug everyone at the end. Smile. Make your country proud (You already did). Nightmare: lose your shape, your basic skills, your confidence. Get sent off. Sulk, complain. Blame the ref. Don’t get to beat England or Fiji in the bronze medal playoff. Wales have Gatland. As Ireland prove, you can’t have too many Kiwis in your corner.
England’s fans and friends dread Owen Farrell fucking up. Don’t get carded. Don’t hurt anyone. (Probably in that order.) Don’t invalidate all the tremendous good you’ve done for 10 long years; don’t ridicule that nice Steve Borthwick’s faith; Faz, please just don’t, you know… don’t do it. You are English Rugby, the captain 10, the missing link to Jonny. Be your best, Saracen self. With the player-base, the attitude, HQ, the coolest (we play cricket in the summer) strip, the, lets-not-beat-around-the-bush, the money – England should be perennially magnificent. And having played a blinder so far out in France (thank you and good night, George Ford), well, played and won, at least, their pool games, it might be that young Marcus Smith, young Henry Arundell and old Danny Care could add a dash of glamour and adventure to the yeoman stolidness of England’s game. That would be fun.
Not quite as much fun as when Fiji just let rip. See these Fijians fly. See men play ball. I say men, really they are gods of some kind, Botia, Nayacalevu, Radradra, Habosi — supreme athletes, bringers of joy. (Have you read The Half God of Rainfall by Inua Ellams? If you have – yeah, right? If you haven’t yet, take it from me sportsfans, one of the great hours of your life is right there in the library.) Their Fiji fairytale is playing their own game of daring, risk, reward and entertainment. Their nightmare has already struck in all-too-human form, the shocking truth that life goes on until it stops. How can you play through grief? What can we ask of Matavesi and Tuisova as rugby players, and as men, as sons and fathers? Perhaps only that in this extraordinary time of global rugby family, that we might send them our deepest sympathy and love in their bereavement.#
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