What are we talking about when we talk about rugby?

Peter Florence completes his Rugby World Cup Diary with a reflection on the tournament and what it tells us about rugby.

200 years after William Webb Ellis picked up the Rugby School football and RAN with it, the trophy that carries his name is awarded, ultimately, to the side most able to convert a 50-metre penalty kick in the final moments of a game. For the third time in their four tournament triumphs, the champions won their title without scoring a single try in the final. No-one has yet worked out how to win this tournament by playing champagne rugby. Messieurs Galthié and Robertson, as your bicentenary resolution – find a way. Please, find a way.

Or how about: a nation that has been historically defined by its fault lines and separations comes together joyfully, in celebration of its national sport that is the most visible manifestation of resilience, interdependence and pluralist unity of purpose. The Victory is led by a man of such humility and grace, of such extraordinary eloquence and empathy, and of such granite-hewn hard-bastardy, that his name will be spoken with respect and love in the world of sport forever. And he sings. Man, how he sings. He out-sings the Haka. Is he the world’s best player? No. Is he the best player in South Africa? No. Is he the best player in the South African back row? No. Would he be the first name on the team sheet for any coach anywhere on earth? Unequivocally yes. The game has been holding out for a hero for decades. There are many, many reasons not to love rugby. That the sport has given us Siya Kolisi might trump them all. He wears the 6 of Pienaar and Mandela.

Kolisi aside, why did South Africa win? Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber are the most adaptive and pragmatic coaches in the world. Nienaber is a physiotherapist. They understand better than anyone else that World Cups are won by season squads of 33 – or 35, not by first XVs or matchday 23s. They know that playing in the pack is more tiring and more likely to result in injury than playing in the backs. They know that the flow of the modern game is ruled by infringement and territory not possession, and that infringements yield penalties. That’s how it is. None of this should be surprising. South Africa won by designing a defensive system so aggressive that it shut down their opponents’ ability to attack them. That is confounding for everyone else. South Africa won by managing the emotional load of championship sport and having just 1 player with the ability to shut that down for periods of 90 seconds when he kicks. And that is mind-fuckery of the highest order. And South Africa won because at no point in any of their knockout matches did they admit the possibility that they might lose. And that is truly extraordinary. They always believed they would win.

But let me slip back a couple of sentences. The Blitzbok defence couldn’t contain the intricate, relentlessly probing phases of Irish ball-in-hand in the group stage. Ireland showed how a comprehensive attacking system might out-play the South African comprehensive defence system. That France didn’t follow through is maybe down to the vulnerability of Dupont’s face and Ntamack’s knee; that England couldn’t exploit it is just because you can’t fight fire with slightly lesser fire; that New Zealand didn’t prosecute their own gloriously fluent game plan, even when they had faced down every variant of the Springbok pack, can only be understood in terms of that absolute belief. No team that includes the wit of Telea and Savea should ever lose. The try that was disallowed was glorious; the try that should have been disallowed was glorious; Damian McKenzie’s 4 minutes of play were glorious. But they started playing opportunist All Black improv far too late, as if they hadn’t believed in their own destiny. Why does all this matter? Perhaps it’s because when we talk about rugby, we like it that it’s complex and diverse and inclusive; a game that recognises many different roles and sizes and shapes and skills of players; that blends force and guile, strength and skill; that can make you catch your breath in wonder as well as knock the stuffing out of you. And it seems as if somewhere in the rules and in the application of them that the balance has tipped away from elegance and lightness. And when the world has tipped away from both those things, I guess we grieve that games, the magical escape space, have tipped too. In a world cup final that pits flawless structure against instinctive flair we (surely – everyone) want the unpredictable to prevail.

I watched the games on ITV, whilst texting and zooming cousins across the time zones in Cape Town, Auckland and Dublin, and mates in Melbourne and Auchtermuchty – well, Galloway, but the spirit of Bill McLaren resonates down the years. My one Fijian friend now lives in Brecon. We all played long ago. We’ve touchline parented. We follow the game. And what we talk about more often than I dare admit is time. Time caught on film, in still photography, in stories. Moments and memories of delight. Brett has Campo breaking would-be tacklers ankles, John Eales knowing how to nudge a metric tonne of mauling forwards as easily as if he’d pushed a beer across a table. Mitch chuckles at the thought of Christian Cullen’s slipstream, smiles at some McCaw shit-housery. Orla will talk for hours of how BOD leaned this way and that, bewildering the poor slow souls who meant to hold him up, just for a second, on his way; the twinkle in his eye for her and her alone. For me: the sight of Benny, hooped in black and white, catching, feinting, dancing across the Arms Park turf, and then some. My ninth birthday outing. And Habana flying through the air, untroubled by gravity until the ball touches the Argentinian try-line. We have an English friend who was in Sydney for their golden moment twenty years ago. He bought a drink for Richard Hill that night. The hand that palmed that ball then palmed his own. And with each game we watch today, we capture back a sliver of those thrills from yesteryear, hoping to see again some flickering wonder that will burnish our internal highlights reels; some human moment of deft skill that defies impossibility. It’s not nostalgia. Not a reaching back to childhood. It’s not. Well, maybe just a little. But more it is enjoyment of those stories that we know make up each other’s history, and more than that, the history of our friendships. It conjugates: I was there. We were there. We are still here. And maybe our kids will say they too belong to a global rugby family that (also) gives thanks on highdays, holidays, Six Nations, Rugby Championships and cycles of World Cups.

Re-reading through that litany of treasured rugby nuggets, I am struck twice. Firstly, I cannot remember a single game in its entirety, nor even who it was that won. I ring around. Only the Wilko World Cup Final memory is about a match result. The rest is feelings – of astonishment, of joy, the moment that you toss your head back, roar with laughter and admiration that focus on a moment, a passage of play, perhaps an end-to-end extravagance. Until now. And those of us who watched France play the Springboks just three weeks ago. For forty minutes we sat down and wept – tears of delight at rugby from the gods. Every player shone, pulled off some flat-out, superhuman, unprecedented sleight of foot and hand. The second half reverted to the grim attrition of tension mastery. Yeah, well. We had those 40 minutes. That’s enough.

The second blow is that we talk more than we should about our own. Most places, rugby fans love grassroots clubs (including la Rochelle, Toulouse and Bath) and national sides. It’s hard to love a franchise, region, superclub. The quasi-Medieval tropes of Saracens, Crusaders, Chiefs and Stormers seem quite as empty as they are contrived. We need the national anthems and the dances: the Fiji Cibi, All Black Haka and Samoa’s Civa Tau. It’s not just that you can’t out-anthem Wales. Unless you’re French. (Tell it not in Neath, but whilst Flower of Scotland is a funeral dirge, there is nothing to touch the crowd at Murrayfield when they cross-stadium proclaim the chorus of their syncopated version of 500 Miles.) (Whilst we’re here, it cannot be beyond the wit of Sheers and Armitage to set new, better words to the tunes of ‘Chariot and Delilah. Any football crowd chants wittier than us.) But it’s an ironic kind of nationalism that plays with styles of play and the idea of pitting tiny nations against international powers. 15 Fijians on the field play 15 from France, South Africa or England – countries 60 times their size. Samoa’s population is half that of Cardiff’s, Tonga’s – one tenth of Soweto’s. This is a chance to say: here we are equal. And we’re going to show you how we take your game and play it our way. If 5 million Kiwis can fly rugby’s flag then so can we. The beauty of world cups is that they let you pick (at least) a second affiliation based on style and heart. In 2023 we’re all part Portuguese, and just a little bit Fijian in our rugby nationalities.

The rugby-tariat of former pros who fill the airwaves, pod-to-pod, will comment on the stats, gains, losses and results with insight and with glee. Young Robbie Owen in his Squidge persona will de- and re-construct the plays and ploys of coaches who have maxed the possibilities their players can perform. We rugby public look on wonderingly and thank our lucky stars that Pieter-Steph du Toit is not targetting our loved ones, nor that we have to suffer the slings and arrows, death threats and wild abuse that referees are menaced with. We can talk amongst ourselves about the fact that England have done rather well despite the boos and jeers and fresh- and post-colonial antipathies, and that we all wish well to Marcus Smith; about the fact that Wales and New Zealand will be back next time, that we’ll see France and Ireland soon enough again, that WXV looks great and that Stacey Fluhler’s playing Sevens now and that looks great as well. Hooray.

And we’ll talk about mythology and character, pluralism and nationalism, violence and elegance, about what matters and what doesn’t. And we’ll watch the news and think: thank God and Faf and Ardie, Tadhg, Jac, Antoine and Levani for the drama, play and inconsequentiality of rugby.

Click here for all of Peter Florence RWC Diary entries.