Loose Pass: Rugby World Cup’s grand finale and the rushed onset of everything else

Lawrence Nolan
Loose Pass image 31 October 2023.jpg

Springbok captain Siya Kolisi and All Black captain Sam Cane.

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with the grand finale and the rushed onset of everything else…

It was a week which showcased all that is good and in need of repair in the game at the same time. From the ill-timed and insubstantial press release showcasing all that is self-interested about the top tier nations, to the onset of a full weekend of Top 14 action before the Stade de France had even been fully cleaned, we were given a timely reminder of how exclusive and over-crowded our top table is.

We had death threats to a referee – again – following on from those to a player earlier in the week. You know you’re in trouble when reports of social media death threats evoke a primary reaction of ‘Again?’ The same goes for the disruption to matches for head contact moments.

Yet we also had an enthralling rugby match between two of the world’s finest in a chock-full national stadium – two matches actually. We were lucky enough to witness some of the greatest players in the world at the very peak of their game, playing for an honour of magnitude and under an emotional pressure that most of us simply can’t grasp. There were a few sour grapes among the afters, but there was plenty of honesty and sportsmanship too.

Springboks are worthy winners

South Africa are the world champions for the second time in a row. They have just won three knockout matches, each of them by a single point and each, it needs to be said, each one in an atmosphere akin to an away game, two of them against members of the world’s top four teams. Every time they needed to dig deep, someone came up with something dredged up from a new depth of resolve. Cheslin Kolbe managed to charge down a conversion. Handre Pollard nailed a clutch penalty from 46 metres. Pieter-Steph du Toit made 28 tackles in a game: that’s more than one every three minutes, only slightly less than one per minute of in-play time.

This is a team that refuses to be beaten, so it ends up winning. The old adage runs that you can’t beat a team, you can only score more points, but these Springboks are different. You would come off swearing you had beaten them, that you’d had the better of it. Then you look at the score.

And by and large, and with the glaring exception of Willie le Roux, they are pretty good sports.

Their fans are, however, the worst in the world. They are unbelievably brash winners and unbelievably miserable losers (John Smit’s words, not mine, don’t shoot the messenger); and by fans, you can frequently extend that to anybody not physically on the field of play. The government’s message: “The Webb Ellis is in South Africa’s kant” not long after the Final victory gives you an idea of the depths to which even statespersons will sink. The team does its people proud, but the favour is not always returned. By the way, the Afrikaans for on is ‘op’. So, you know, there’s a lot less lost in translation this time than might have been by Tom Curry.

Perhaps that, and a few other bits and bobs which have teetered on the edge of correctness, partly explains the snub to anybody South African in World Rugby’s awards. Andy Farrell has done great things with the Ireland team and set-up, but back-to-back World Cups? Or is Jacques Nienaber’s and Rassie Erasmus’ role change somehow a discredit? South Africa are often a team more than the sum of its parts, but only one player in the World XV of the year? Come on.

Spare a thought for the losers. A proper thought, too, nothing about the other kant, please. Sam Cane has been vilified horribly in some quarters, accused of stupidity, idiocy, cluelessness, when his was a split-second misjudgement which will now live with him forever. It would do nobody in the game good to forget that he has been an honest and thoughtful leader throughout a lengthy inconsistent patch for New Zealand, who delivered a captain’s performance for the ages in the quarter-final.

Sam Whitelock was a missed kick away from becoming the first person to win three World Cups. Will Jordan’s quest to become the highest try-scorer in a World Cup foundered only on the best defence in the world.

The real losers, however, are the non-tier one nations. This World Cup, more than any other, has shown that the rugby world is growing, that the tier one nations are facing a credible competitive threat. Do they face that threat on the pitch? Of course not. The blazers close ranks and dream up a competition that excludes all these new colours from the picture until 2032 at the earliest – two more gallant performances from positions of competitive disadvantage and resource scarcity at World Cups are required first. But the best of luck to you, chaps. Bloody good show.

We can’t pretend to know exactly why Joe Marler ignored Bill Beaumont but we’d have ignored him too. As, notably, did Erasmus, whose social media picture, for a short time at least, was one of Gus Pichot. Maybe that explains the shortage of World Rugby accolades?

No time for a breather

Is there a breather after it all? Or course not. Even the flashy older brother sport takes a few weeks off after World Cups – mid-season tournaments awarded to oil-rich human rights infringers notwithstanding.

Not rugby. On Sunday afternoon there was a full Top 14 programme. The Premiership has already started, as has the United Rugby Championship. The Investec Champions Cup (formerly our beloved Heineken Cup) is already under starters’ orders (in whatever diluted format it is taking on to shoehorn itself into the season this time). No time to lose, chaps, got to keep it all rolling. What do you mean, they’re tired? They’re athletes, for goodness sake. A free weekend in July, you say? Well then let’s find a game and fill it up.

I love rugby. It’s been a great World Cup with some excellent hosts and the high-quality games outweighing the bad. We have worthy champions. Lots of people have new friends and eyes are now wide open to rugby possibilities in countries other than the usual shower. The newly-formatted European Nations Cup, the Pacific Nations Cup and South America’s Sudamericano 4 Naciones should pique curiosity.

But after chasing around France for a few weeks and then clearing out the weekend schedules to get all the knockout games in, I, and my family, need a break.

READ MORE: Two Cents Rugby’s five takeaways from the final Rugby World Cup weekend as All Blacks fail to take their chances