South Africa’s triumph unites a nation but all rugby can celebrate a World Cup of fine margins

A thrilling tournament in France reminded everyone of rugby’s qualities – and its faults

Harry Latham-Coyle
in Paris
Monday 30 October 2023 16:36 GMT
South African players 'proud' of themselves after they beat New Zealand to win the final of 2023 Rugby World Cup

Siya Kolisi came dancing in, two hands on the Webb Ellis Cup, one foot off the floor, the Springboks captain larking about in a gambol of glory. To a packed Stade de France auditorium Kolisi delivered a last sermon from the mountaintop, a fitting figure to be afforded the final words of this Rugby World Cup, the South Africa captain and his country smiling again.

And so the lasting images of a compelling tournament will be familiar ones of a rainbow nation united in triumph. The backing and belief their country gives them most certainly seems to lift the Springboks, but their place atop the mountain is testament to hard work and attention to detail, too. South Africa’s coaching team of Jacques Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus truly turned over every stone. This second successive crown is credit to their years of experimentation, their pursuit of marginal gains, their willingness to zig as others zag.

Has everything that Erasmus particularly has done during these last four years sat well? No. But does their tendency to question conventional wisdom give the Springboks the edge? Perhaps. South Africa certainly seem to relish the pressure like no other side, almost excelling in adversity. Their three knockout contests were each settled by a single point – these Boks most certainly have the big-game bottle.

While Kolisi lifted the trophy aloft, it was Deon Fourie who finished the game as South Africa’s captain. Fourie is emblematic of South Africa’s unique approach, a journeyman hooker-cum-flanker turned hooker again who did not make his international debut until the age of 35, having been playing second-tier French rugby just a year before. After Bongi Mbonambi’s second-minute injury, Fourie went from wire to wire, one of South Africa’s very best on a day for heroes.

Siya Kolisi became only the second captain to lift the Webb Ellis Cup twice

“From 2018, we thought we had the ability to win the 2023 World Cup,” head coach Jacques Nienaber explained. “[The Rugby World Cup win in] 2019 was probably something that hopped on along the way, but it is relief for the players, they were good enough to do that.

“This is probably for our fans and for South Africa. We have 62 million people united, opening up communities to allow people to watch, an entrance fee of whatever they wanted to donate. People have bought green T-shirts for everyone. We felt every single bit of energy they gave us and in the last three games, all one-point victories, that drove us.”

The final may have been low in scoring but felt an appropriate finish to this tournament of fine margins. There were moments of outstanding rugby from the All Blacks backs on a night when the rain tumbled down, but it was the excellence of defensive execution and the ferocity of the South African tackling that just about tilted it their way.

Seven of the eight knockout games were decided in the final moments, with the two Paris quarter-finals a pair of instant classics, compelling contests of a kind rarely sighted in this sport. Indeed, aside from a few pool-stage thrashings, the quality has been high throughout the tournament, with Argentina and Samoa’s encounter in a sodden Saint-Etienne perhaps the only encounter of close to equals that did not deliver something of value.

Who could forget how Ireland’s fans made the Stade de France their home away from home, France affording their lodger a temporary let to redecorate the national stadium with green garments? What a final a clash between those two nations might have been, but both appear perfectly placed to kick on again; these two fine sides will not simply fade away.

Ireland’s fans made the Stade de France their home away from home

That atmosphere was replicated across the country. Some isolated incidents aside, the travelling fans embraced their brief at this tournament in exactly the right way, mingling with a superb French rugby public to ensure that not a single stadium felt flat.

That said, a true festival feel was perhaps frittered away somewhat by the concentration of the action around Saturdays and Sundays. Ensuring that players have time to rest is imperative but it did mean a tournament of weekend peaks and midweek troughs, vivid bursts of cacophony and colour fading away before being enriched again.

The World Cup will be expanded for 2027 to 24 teams. Six pools of four should allow organisers to spread fixtures more evenly across the week without compromising player welfare, which might enable the World Cup to better sustain momentum. The reduction of the tournament’s sprawl from seven weeks to six should also be beneficial in keeping the public engaged throughout. The new format may also base each pool around a single city, a logistical improvement after a tournament of to-ing and fro-ing that has frustrated players, journalists and fans alike.

The addition of four more teams should allow more insight into the relative health of those beneath rugby’s top tier. While the struggles of Romania and Namibia were far from ideal in that regard, the performances of Portugal and Uruguay showed that there is life beyond the traditional boundaries of the rugby world. Nurturing those emerging nations is clearly key to the future.

Teams like Portugal helped enliven the tournament

If there is a disappointment about a tournament that did thrill, it might be the undercurrent of criticism around the officiating. In truth, the moaning about decisions has become thoroughly tiresome, particularly when it comes from individuals who should know much better. Rugby has never been tougher to officiate, given the intensity of the contest and the inherently subjective nature of a lot of decisions. The outcry after each moment of even slight contention suggests a desire to pursue unachievable perfection.

But there is an issue with the high tackle process. Rugby is caught up in a quandary of contradictions as it seeks to make the necessary reduction in head contacts, card chaos overshadowing both the opening weekend and the final.

It can be tough to explain to the sort of casual viewers that rugby is desperate to win over what makes one incident different from another, even with a degree of clarity within the sport’s laws and regulations. The inconsistent involvement of the television match official can also perplex.

The officials have been in the spotlight throughout the World Cup

But for all the calls to simplify rugby’s lawbook, let us not forget it can be its complexities that make it great. Across just the tournament’s final fortnight we have had in-depth discussions of bench strategies and scrum-time skirmish, assessed how full-back selections can reflect a team’s entire approach, and enjoyed the implementation of the ideas of some of rugby’s brightest off-pitch innovators and on-pitch inventors.

After all, rugby is a game that contains majesty in its multitudes, and the sport can sometimes be too eager to talk itself down. The threats to its future are numerous but, for all of the frustration and furore, the on-field product has never been better – it might be time to celebrate that more often.

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