Peter Florence continues his Rugby World Cup diary looking forward to the prospect of the final four, and asks, what do we do now?
It’s 50 years since that January day in Cardiff and THAT Barbarians vs All Blacks game with THOSE players, THAT try. Now, too, we’ll tell our grandchildren that on an October night in 2023 for 40 minutes we watched the Springboks play France in Paris with levels of skill and intensity and verve that we wouldn’t believe if we hadn’t seen it live. Children will play back the moments that Arendse and Kolbe take their tries at warp factor 5 and have to blink their disbelief away. Coaches will study each frame of the turnovers and counterattacks, and they’ll say THIS was the game that changed rugby, that consigned to the stale-beer-pit of history the truck-it-up, hoist it high and back and high and back, pods, mauls, chuggy-chuggy game that bored everyone to tears. Maybe. We should be so lucky.
The quarter-finals seem something other than just the titanic top four reversals we witnessed in Paris. This goes deeper into rugby lore; the lore that whispers softly and surely that world cups are not four year cycles, one-tenure projects for elite coaches, but that they are built on fundamental rugby cultures, of generations in the making. Ireland and France have raised the game of elegant, dashing rugby. New Zealand and South Africa have met the new wave and out-thought it and out-defended it – they have had to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield. Because that is what the All Blacks and the Springboks do, both of them, drawing on reserves of experience and heritage. They’ve found a way. It ain’t always pretty, but it’s bloody clever, and to the subtlest degree researched and planned and drilled; and if you have the player pools and physio resources to regenerate your squad, then you will be the last men standing when 39 phases in the 83rd minute have brought your gallant opponents to a literal standstill. At the level these four teams were playing at victory comes when you eliminate mistakes and your opponent drops one ball, shanks one kick, blinks at the wrong millisecond. Next time… The world cup came, cruelly, a year or two too late for Peak Sexton and so a year or two too soon for Jack Crowley. Antoine Dupont is 26. Romain Ntamack’s cruciate ligaments will mend.
Argentina wrangled a thoroughly deserved victory. Solid. The manner of Wales’ most un-Gatlandish capitulation will no doubt be the subject of review, regret, and let’s hope no recrimination, but they have given us a helluva ride through the pools. Defeat is nothing like the spirit-crushing agony of thwarted expectations for France and Ireland. Honestly – it’s been a blast. We’ve seen the emergence of a core of youngsters here who will have learned some invaluably hard lessons and lifted their sights. Jac, Daf, Rio, Dewi, Christ and Sam (what do you bet me he masters that loop and taunts the world with it?) are also amongst the most genuinely likeable players a fanbase could hope for. Louis Rees Zammit is not the new Messiah, but Gerald Davies is President of the WRFU and Shane Williams is available on YouTube. Hashtag: #canchangedirectionwhilstacceleratingandkeepingholdoftheball. And Morgan Morse. Just that. For now.
Which team would you most like to see play your team every year? Fiji should be box office in every major stadium around the world. Playing with passion and daring, they scored four tries and won a worldwide base of friends and fans. England won the quarter final.
OK, OK. Ben Earl is phenomenal. He’s got a bit of Richard Hill and Dean Richards about him. His late solo charge was a perfect and ironic metaphor for how far ahead of his teammates he is. Except for Courtney Lawes, who is just utterly brilliant and appears blessed with that rarest of England attributes, total hardness and genuine humility.
Let me slip back to Fiji for a moment and their try count. It’s insane that a side can score twice as many tries as their opponents and still lose. All four games were won by missing conversions and kicking penalties, some of which resulted from intentional or careless foul play, most of which came from technical or arcane rucking infringements. Maybe we should look at this again? Rethink free kicks and penalties, maybe tap and go a-la-League. 7 points for a try, wherever you touchdown. No conversions. 2 for a penalty. 3 for a dropped goal. And any team whose numbers fall off the backs of their shirts has to get tattooed and play shirtless for the rest of the season. Whaddya say?
We have semi-finals of the Rugby World Cup with teams from four continents. That’s pretty wonderful. Only a fool would bet against a superheavyweight final or put money on a winner. If Am plays the second half and Willemse the full 80, the Boks by 3. If Damian McKenzie gets a half, well, yeah, foolish, but hell.. New Zealand by a wing, a prayer and some All Black magic.
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