Rewording… “The World Cups’ Impact: South Africa’s Victory in Rugby’s Close-Fought Struggle”
It is not widely known that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of Sherlock Holmes, had a strong interest in rugby union. He attended matches in France, South Africa, and New Zealand and stated in his autobiography that he believed rugby to be the best team sport due to its combination of physical and mental demands. Interestingly, even Dr. Watson, Holmes’s loyal sidekick, was said to have played for the oldest English club, Blackheath, as a winger in the past.
What conclusions would the renowned detective have drawn, nearly 100 years later, after analyzing the 2023 Rugby World Cup? It is simple to envision him releasing a puff of tobacco smoke in his living quarters on Baker Street and determining that the tournament’s defining moments were those that did not occur. The French hosts were not celebrated in the streets of Paris with the trophy, the Irish team could not fulfill their supporters’ greatest hopes, and in the finale, the All Blacks did not emerge victorious. In the end, all were surpassed by a South African team who proved to be stronger and more cunning than their opponents.
Could anyone have predicted this outcome? Perhaps. The eager Springboks were the reigning champions and dominated New Zealand 35-7 in their last preparation match at Twickenham before the tournament. Coincidentally, I found myself next to All Black head coach Ian Foster at the coffee machine that same week and inquired about his team’s readiness for the ultimate challenge. Foster was confident in his team’s progress, unaware that the Boks were in an even stronger position.
Upon further examination of the knockout stage details, it becomes apparent that the margin for success or failure is extremely narrow. No team will be able to replicate the Springboks’ tightrope victory in the same manner they did in this Rugby World Cup. Their three consecutive one-point wins in the quarterfinals, semifinals, and final were all hard-fought battles. It was a display of collective determination from South Africa, rather than individual achievement. In essence, it was a simple yet powerful demonstration of their refusal to be defeated.
Each World Cup is recalled in various ways, depending on where people were during the event. The most recent tournament was a prime example of this. Those who were physically in France could feel the excitement deflate as the defeated hosts collapsed on the ground after the final whistle of their quarter-final match. The same sentiment was shared the night before when Ireland suffered a devastating 24-28 loss to New Zealand. It would be hard to convince anyone from these two countries to express endless gratitude, as is still happening in South Africa, for the abundant successes of the 2023 World Cup.
Despite a variety of themes, there were still common threads that brought excitement to even the most tired audience. Being present at the Stade de France while thousands of Irish fans sang Dirty Old Town and Zombie, following their team’s victory over the Springboks in the pool stages, was a true display of the strong sense of camaraderie that rugby fans can create (as long as they are not booing Eddie Jones or Owen Farrell on the large screen). This sense of unity was also present in the thrilling final moments when Portugal scored a late try against Fiji in Toulouse, securing their first win in the World Cup main draw. The World Cup truly comes to life when people are on the edge of their seats, and Portugal managed to achieve this every time they took to the field.
In the end, one man stood out above the rest – Siya Kolisi, the captain of the victorious Springboks. Despite the outstanding performances of players like Eben Etzebeth, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Handré Pollard, and Ox Nché, it was Kolisi’s leadership that truly shone throughout the competition. In a time where analytical data and coach control dominate the sporting world, Kolisi’s sincerity, integrity, passion, and humanity in his media appearances serve as a reminder of the importance of leadership. Hailing from the impoverished township of Zwide in the Eastern Cape, Kolisi has grown into an incredibly impressive figure in global sports. Even as the New Zealand team blames their loss in the final on a controversial red card shown to their captain Sam Cane, they fail to recognize the strong bonds and camaraderie that propelled South Africa to victory. It takes a special individual to lead a team to one World Cup triumph, and Kolisi has now achieved this feat twice. He is truly a remarkable ambassador for the game of rugby union.
The imagination can be fooled during World Cups. Can you believe it was just four months ago that Eddie Jones was considered Australia’s best asset? It feels like much longer now. Few coaches have left behind as much damage in the past year as Jones, who is now preparing for his second term as Japan’s head coach. After England fired Jones last December, they handed a difficult task to Steve Borthwick, who had limited options in creating a game plan for a tournament that required more sophisticated tactics. And the Wallabies? Their defeat against Wales in Lyon was messier than a toddler’s mealtime, leading to Jones’s inevitable departure from his home country.
What would have happened if France’s star player, Antoine Dupont, had not been hit in the face by the captain of Namibia during a game they were already winning? One unfortunate injury could have caused a major blow to the nation’s confidence. Although Dupont returned to play with a protective headguard in the quarter-finals against South Africa, he was not able to perform at his usual level. In just a split second, France’s most valuable player was replaced by uncertainty and daily updates on his condition, causing frustration worldwide. If France could go back and change one moment of their World Cup, it would be to substitute Dupont at halftime in the Namibia game before the injury occurred.
The organizers of the Rugby World Cup had good intentions when they announced the use of a new bunker review system to assist referees in making decisions about dangerous or reckless play. However, the outcome of many reviews was often subjective and caused uncertainty. For example, in England’s first game, Tom Curry received a red card for accidentally colliding with an Argentinian player who was falling. The possibility of a prolonged slow-motion investigation affecting a crucial playoff match was always high. As expected, this scenario played out in the final game. All Black captain Sam Cane was dismissed for a seemingly less serious offense compared to his teammate Shannon Frizzell’s earlier action, but according to the rules, he had to go. This situation did not benefit the sport, especially since the ultimate decision to dismiss Cane after a long bunker review process was taken away from the capable referee, Wayne Barnes. The intention was to support officials, not leave them at the mercy of unpredictable outcomes.
Even worse was the flood of social media outrage that followed towards Barnes and his fellow English referee, Tom Foley. Both made the decision to retire from international rugby shortly after the tournament due to the relentless abuse directed at them and their loved ones. This is not just a problem within society, but also within the rugby community. Eddie Jones is convinced that there is a direct correlation between lengthy video reviews during games and the disrespectful behavior of fans towards individual players on the big screen. Despite Barnes’ outstanding performance during the final, he continued to face criticism from anonymous and spineless individuals. While the Rugby World Cup had moments of joy and celebration, it also revealed moments of disheartening darkness.
Let’s begin with the positive update. The quarter-finals between France v South Africa and Ireland v New Zealand were exceptional displays of rugby; intense, quick-paced, skillful, resourceful, and impressively executed. The only downside was that two of the top four teams in the world were unable to participate in the final stages. In the future, the draw will take place closer to the event, decreasing the likelihood of ranking discrepancies significantly influencing the competition in a similar manner. Additionally, the tournament will now span seven weeks instead of eight: the 2023 edition was so lengthy that even those of us with minimal French language skills had become nearly fluent by its conclusion.
If World Rugby had the power, their wish would be to increase the number of equally competitive teams to align with the planned expansion to 24 nations (from 20) in the future. Along with addressing concussion lawsuits and financial issues, the international game must also be cautious of excessive mismatches, lack of risk, and an unbalanced playing field that favors the top teams. The success of the 2027 and 2031 tournaments will ultimately be determined by the results of matches between the teams ranked 21st to 24th in the world rankings and the traditional powerhouses.