It’s fair to say the 2023 Rugby World Cup has been a slow burner. After five weeks of a meandering and predictable pool stage, in which we all could have picked the quarter-finalists, this was a weekend in which the tournament in France finally came to life.
There were very few proper match-ups in the groups with a series of one-sided contests in which the strongest nations regularly ran riot against their tier two opponents. Scorelines such as France 96-0 Namibia, New Zealand 73-0 Uruguay, Scotland 76-0 Romania and England 71-0 Chile did little to showcase rugby union’s blue riband event and instead only served to highlight the gaping chasm between the upper echelons of the game and those that simply don’t get the exposure at this level.
Thanks to the world governing body’s incredibly short-sighted planning, the World Cup draw was one of the most lopsided ever. The fact the world’s four highest ranked sides met at merely the quarter final stage made a mockery of the inexplicable decision to conduct the draw three years before the tournament.
For example, Scotland – the fifth-best nation on the planet – were given a group containing South Africa and Ireland. You had to feel for them as they were never going to make it through.
There was no doubt the four matches we’ve seen over this past weekend have been the best of the tournament so far – with the possible exception of Fiji 23-24 Portugal and Ireland’s 13-8 win over the Springboks that preceded them.
Ireland came into the tournament as the world’s top ranked team, on a 17-match winning streak and a Six Nations Grand Slam to boot. The men in green from the Emerald Isle had never gone beyond the last eight but 2023 was widely predicted to be their year. Andy Farrell, once of this parish, had steered his side to a 100% record in Pool B to set up a mouth watering knockout tie with the All Blacks – a team still licking their wounds from a record 35-7 defeat to the rampant Springboks in August. In short, they would never have a better chance of winning rugby’s greatest prize.
If there’s one thing for certain, though, it’s to write off New Zealand at your peril. They may not be the all-conquering force of old, but when it comes to the big occasion and the pressure of high octane sport when it matters most, they have been there and done it so many times before.
Often, such hotly-anticipated clashes can fail to live up to the hype but this was an instant classic befitting of the world’s two best sides. New Zealand raced into an early 13-0 lead but, in a simply magnificent exhibition of knockout rugby, ended the match camped on their own try line in the face of a fierce, 37-phase Ireland onslaught.
Time seemed to stand still as Ireland kept coming, but it was the New Zealand players with their arms raised in triumph having withstood intense pressure with a herculean defensive effort at the last. An absolute howitzer, won by the men in black 24-28. A match to go down in the annals of the all time greats.
Like Ireland, Wales had been tipped to go deep into the tournament after a faultless pool stage which included a record thrashing of Australia. They had reckoned without the fighting spirit and pure durability of the Pumas in a match which lurched from control to chaos and somewhere in between. Wales looked comfortable at 10-0 and 17-12 ahead but Joel Slavi’s late breakaway ensured Wales were unable to reach a third World Cup semi final. Like their football counterparts, there is something about the Pumas and Rugby World Cups.
That paved the way for Steve Borthwick and our England boys. Dogged by poor form and lack of preparation, this was perhaps the lowest ebb we have ever been at coming into a major competition. A torrid series of warm-up games only fuelled the belief that England – and Borthwick – were doomed to fail.
The fact one of those defeats came against Fiji – the Pacific Islanders first ever win over the might of the White Rose – meant Sunday’s rematch was far from a foregone conclusion. England started strongly and were on course for what seemed a comfortable victory, our best so far.
Their country may be tiny, but Fiji and their team of giants defied the odds to claw back a 14-point deficit and pull level. Two tries in four minutes had those of a nervous disposition reaching for the heartburn tablets as England somehow looked to have snatched defeat from the very jaws of victory.
But the big occasion calls for those with a cool head and Owen Farrell’s drop goal was followed by a penalty to edge our boys to victory as the only home nation left in the competition.
If we thought Ireland against New Zealand was good, and it was very good, then the best of the bunch was saved until last. The hosts, France, with the collective will of an entire nation roaring them on, finally poised to win their first World Cup on home soil and bring rugby home. Against the mighty Springboks, the world champions, a team who thrive on steadily dismantling opposition scrums and battering all comers into submission.
This is what the phrase ‘on a knife edge’ was seemingly invented for. A clash of styles if ever there was one. France, all fluidity and flair against South Africa – brutal, bludgeoning and darn right bloody minded. Throw all those ingredients together, and you have the recipe for something very very special indeed.
Six tries were shared in a thrilling, open, end-to-end first half to give France and their fit-again talisman Antoine Dupont, a narrow interval lead. It was asking a lot for the second to live up to its counterpart. It didn’t, but it certainly was no less exciting.
Back and forth the match went, no quarter given and nothing left out there. Like Ireland against New Zealand, it seemed almost criminal this was only a quarter final. A match of this magnitude and quality deserved to be a semi or even a decider. Roared on by an entire nation with the clock in the red, France searched for the score to keep their elusive quest for the William Webb Ellis cup alive.
But the ball spilled loose and, with that, France’s World Cup was over by the narrowest of margins – their hopes, dreams and destiny snatched from them by a single point, 28-29. As les Bleus slumped spread-eagled on the turf, even the most hard nosed cynic had to feel for them.
So South Africa advance to face England and are now favourites for a successful defence of their title – it would be their fourth World Cup win. To face New Zealand? You would think, but we can bet the perennial underdogs of Argentina will have something to say on that…