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The heartbreakingly simple truth of the Rugby World Cup

By Sam Roberts

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That’s the thing with sport, it doesn’t have much of a memory. However much we’d like to think it cares about what has come before, it doesn’t. You earn what you get. In the moment, the brow-splitting, heart-pumping, sinew-shredding moment, sport is honest. It will find your truth and lay it bare.


That’s not to say last week was untrue. Rugby relies on so many moving and contributing parts, wins of that magnitude are never false. But, because of the intricate nature of the oval ball game, no two weeks are the same, and indeed, just because you can beat one team, it doesn’t mean you can beat another. If Jones knew the multi-digit code to the All Black safe last week, he was perhaps one or two numbers out this. And being that short of knowledge is akin to knowing nothing. In its most basic terms, sport is binary; you either do or you don’t: it’s heartbreakingly simple.

And yet, of course, the players have memory. A World Cup final is played almost completely on ingrained instinct and deep-seated game plan. England were reaching for theirs. It was in there somewhere; they had it only last week. Balls bounced off the turf, sailed high over disbelieving faces, hands grasped thick Yokohama air; this was England’s increasingly desperate search. The more frantic the hunt, the less likely the find.

Which would suggest England lost this game, instead of South Africa winning it. You could make a case for that. England can be a poorly disciplined side. From as early as the ninth minute, when Courtney Lawes pushed himself back to his feet and metaphorically threw the kicking tee Handre Pollard’s way, England were acquiescing to the Boks’ proposal. If last week had been forensically clean, referee Garces kept finding fingerprints and pointing skywards.

But that would also take something large away from the new World Champions. This was a clever performance. One which knew its strengths, understood how best to hinder their opponents and, most importantly, had learnt from recent history. Jerome Garces had conducted the Springboks’ opening loss to New Zealand and then again their semi-final against Wales. In the final, the Springboks quickly recognised the beat of his stick. As much as England appeared out of rhythm, South Africa looked utterly in unison with the breakdown. As much as the scrums were a dominant area, the debilitating work on Curry and Underhill was arguably the most important. Kolisi and Vermeulen were brilliant, but I cannot think of a better blindside performance than that of the man wearing the ‘Bok No.7 shirt. There must be some sort of dire, lasting effect of coming into contact with Pieter Steph du Toit at the breakdown. No doubt some clever soul will come up with a witty acronym.


They had learnt from older history too. This is a country who had felled rugby’s grandest giant. No one could stop Jonah Lomu in 1995 and yet, in the final, under the watchful eye of Madiba, James Small and South Africa did. It was not a dissimilar feat against England. For Kruger, Pienaar and Andrews read Kolisi, Du Toit and Vermeulen; for van der Westhuizen and Stransky, read de Klerk and Pollard. The difference, notably, twenty-four years later came in the black-skinned hands and feet of their wingers. Lukhanyo Am found Makozole Mapimpi sumptuously, Cheslin Kolbe found space to eviscerate his covering defender and suddenly the men in green were untouchable. This was not just a big, bruising, defensive outfit; light had been added to the shade, the colour had been given a chance to shine.

And on top of it all, there is a special kind of courage in Erasmus’ men. Embodied brilliantly by the way their captain sings his national anthem. Throaty, deep, out of key but unashamedly and unmistakably proud. Rassie has harnessed pride so effortlessly. It can be a tricky beast. One that can buck in overzealous prediction and underestimation. In a country where people’s conceit has led to egregious inequality, Erasmus quickly recognised how dangerous a mount it could be. The former Munster head coach never looked it fully in the eye, just whispered reassurances by its side. Because, ridden courageously, pride can take you anywhere. It can certainly take you home.

And for the next four years, the William Web Ellis Cup will call South Africa home. Foster parents as regular as any other. And yet it is they, rather than the trophy, that will need the care. Under the scrutiny of a World Cup win, you hope that South Africa can get the help it needs. It was Siya Kolisi’s first thought post-match: “We have so many problems in our country… Since I’ve been alive, I’ve never seen South Africa like this,” he said, “…We love you South Africa, and we can achieve anything if we work together as one.”

You earn what you get in sport. And South Africa have earned their place in sporting history. The only team to get beaten in a group game to then go on and lift the trophy. An unusual record, a proud record. Proof that winning isn’t everything. It’s what you do with it that counts. South Africa are our champions, let’s hope we can all get behind them.


Post-match press conference with England head coach Eddie Jones, captain Owen Farrell and coach Steve Borthwick, after England are defeated by South Africa in the Rugby World Cup final in Yokohama, Japan. Credit World Rugby.

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The heartbreakingly simple truth of the Rugby World Cup