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FEATURE Cojones and Corleones...

Cojones and Corleones...
8 months ago

You knew it was going to that kind of a game when ITV’s David Flatman turned up ring-side wearing what appeared to be a flak vest under his jacket; this a man who, famously, is never knowingly under-dressed. Indeed, not since ‘Marvelous’ Marvin Hagler put his middleweight crown on the line against Thomas ‘The Hitman’ Hearns at Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas in 1985 has sport offered anything quite as incendiary, as brutal or as ding-dong as this; the beauty of France/South Africa being that it lasted ten times longer.  

What will France be thinking this week? Merde, most likely. Too many inaccuracies, too little sang froid at critical moments and far too much of the second half – much like Hearns with Hagler – getting embroiled in the dogfight the other guy wanted. South Africa rode their luck in the first half – all three green tries came from French fumbles – they weathered the third quarter but in the final twenty they took the game by the scruff of the throat. Why take three, Clive, when you can bank seven? And while you’re there, what is the Afrikaans for ‘cojones’?

Dupont was – again – almost unplayable; a floating butterfly, a stinging bee. Rarely in rugby have you seen any player with a greater range – or a better selection – of shots. But in a tournament where several teams have wantonly boasted about how they’re difficult to beat – Wales and England most obviously – South Africa are invariably a straight flush. Cheslin Kolbe tears thirty metres to charge down a Thomas Ramos conversion; the Springboks win by one. If it didn’t directly decide the game, it symbolised the spirit that made it possible.  

Truly, you feel for France whose sweet dreams – Fire and Rain, James – now lie in pieces on the ground. The national fervour of the past two years was almost tangible; the sense of destiny inescapable. Surely – finally – this time. But when bums started to squeak, the team that’s never won a World Cup found itself unable to navigate a route around a team who’ve won it thrice. All of which, of course, applied equally the night before to the luckless Irish.   

South Africa v France
The agony and the ecstasy of Test match laid bare at the Stade de France (Photo /Sylvie Failletaz/Getty Images)

Has anyone got any ideas about what Ireland should do with this hex of theirs? Maybe a phone number for a reliable exorcist in the Dublin area? Or perhaps there’s a simpler, DIY remedy to all this; pee on the posts before the match starts; cleanse their aura with a selenite wand; pour salt and baking soda into a hot, team bath and stir counter-clockwise with a wooden spoon until both dissolve? Whatever it is, they’ve four years to come up with something because, clearly, a World Cup quarter final curse is upon them. There is only so much we can write off to coincidence.

Once again, the glass slipper hasn’t quite fitted; once again, someone else is heading to The Ball. We’re in Peter O’Toole territory here – eight Oscar nods; each of them, ultimately, in someone else’s direction – and absolutely no sense of consolation in losing out either to the mighty All Blacks in Paris or to the peerless Marlon Brando in ‘The Godfather’. 

Sam Cane’s ruthless, narrow-eyed focus looked very much like a performance born not just of an eighty-minute delivery but a fifteen-month gestation. And he was by no means alone. Bugger the semi final; New Zealand had a score to settle.

Speaking of which, was there a whiff of Corleone about New Zealand’s performance? A cold helping of vengeance? Or was it just happenstance that the man who led the Kiwis’ tackle count, their turnover count and, indeed, the entire team was the same man Peter O’Mahony described last year – to his very face – as ‘a shit Richie McCaw’? From where I was sitting, Sam Cane’s ruthless, narrow-eyed focus looked very much like a performance born not just of an eighty-minute delivery but a fifteen-month gestation. And he was by no means alone. Bugger the semi final; New Zealand had a score to settle.  

Perhaps the best compliment you can pay Ireland is that they were beaten by a team playing ‘Irishly’; impeccable basics, a pitiless approach to the breakdown, a willingness to improvise on attack and to adjust to whatever numbers the dice rolled. Asked at the final whistle how the two yellow cards had affected his team, the Birthday Boy, Ardie Savea said: ‘To be honest we didn’t really notice. We just stepped back into our Blackness’. No question, New Zealand rediscovered their DNA last Saturday night.

Sam Cane
Sam Cane enjoyed, arguably, his greatest performance in an All Black shirt against an Ireland side that had dented his pride last summer (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

And nowhere was that better epitomised than in their defence where they trusted themselves and each other implicitly. (‘God! Defend, New Zealand!’ appears to be an anthem you can take to heart, assuming you make a few discreet alterations to the punctuation.) Astonishingly, they made 276 tackles in total and 100 of them in the last quarter. That’s about as cussed as it gets.

Individually, the hugely influential Jordie Barrett held up Ronan Kelleher over the line – thanks to what ITV’s Maggie Alphonsi intriguingly described as his ‘thighs of steel’ – and, collectively, The Thick Black Line held its shape in a final play that was 37 phases long. ‘They were going with a cut-and-paste attack, doing the same sort of things,’ said Head Coach Ian Foster afterwards. ‘I actually felt quite calm to be honest.’

If you’re crap and you don’t cut the mustard, then tant pis, but when you’re hotter than fire and you trip over destiny’s doorstep, as Ireland have been, regret doesn’t really cover it.

But, in truth, it was hammer and tongs throughout, memorably so in a game where the ball was in play for a breathtaking 42 minutes and which was brilliantly whistled by Wayne Barnes. But, ultimately, New Zealand’s intelligence and execution was decisive, best epitomised by Richie Mo’unga’s break for Will Jordan’s try. I confess, this was the moment when I dropped my chips. 

And as much as yet another quarter final exit will pain all of Ireland, what’ll grieve them to their dying day is being the best side in the world in 2023 yet not being World Champions. If you’re crap and you don’t cut the mustard, then tant pis, but when you’re hotter than fire and you trip over destiny’s doorstep, regret doesn’t really cover it. What’ll also irk Ireland mightily is the thought that had they been in Pool D and England in Pool B, they’d have walked blindfold to the semi finals and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Courtney Lawes
Courtney Lawes put in a performance befitting his status as an England great against Fiji (Photo by Pascal GUYOT/ Getty Images)

England? Hell, they’re the only unbeaten team left in the competition and there we all were thinking irony was dead. Tell me, has this been an imperious march into the last four sealed with a stoic, stiff-upper lipped win over a fabulous Fijian side or have they stumbled through a tissue paper-thin draw via yet another narrow squeak against yet another Tier Two Pacific Island side who, in this case, couldn’t even beat Portugal in the pool stages? Your call. 

Indisputably, England’s back row was immense against Fiji and, indisputably, it needed to be. Ben Earl has spent five weeks making Eddie Jones look like a prize chump and Courtney Lawes, clearly, is part thoroughbred, part Shire horse. He could win you the 2,000 Guineas or plough you ten acres of turnips, probably in the same afternoon.

Is that being unfair on Argentina? It’s hard to see how. Much as they’ve improved – and as much as they’ve needed to – you’d reckon New Zealand should sneak that particular semi final by 25.

But, be honest, who’ve England played so far? Answer: no one ranked higher than eighth in the current world standings; not their fault but, at the same time, not exactly the most obvious preparation for turning over the holders in the last four. To be frank, both semi finals could get messy. Someone at Le Stade de France next weekend needs to remember to bring along a dustpan and brush.

Is that being unfair on Argentina? It’s hard to see how. Much as they’ve improved – and as much as they’ve needed to – you’d reckon New Zealand should sneak that particular semi final by twenty-five. Should’ve been Wales, of course, but they were two beats out of synch at the national anthem, their numbers fell off their shirts in the first twenty minutes and, from that moment on, the writing was on the wall and it was in Castellano. Matías Moroni’s head-in-the-spokes tackle on Louis Rees-Zammit was – unquestionably – a ‘con gloria morir’ moment and Nicolás Sánchez picking Sam Costelow’s pocket in the final play was pure larceny. Wales mislaid the Warrenball formula in the second half and never recovered. Au revoir, Les Rouges. 

Nicolas Sanchez
The grand larceny of Nicolas Sanchez broke Welsh resistance in Marseille (Photo by Paul Harding/Getty Images)

All in all, then, some weekend, some drama. Rarely in any competition do the semi finals and quarter finals take place simultaneously but you sense they did last weekend. Indeed, in a fortnight, and as sure as Thursday follows Wednesday, we’ll be looking at South Africa and New Zealand trying to become the first team to win four World Cups. The best England can realistically hope for is Wayne Barnes being the referee. No question, he richly deserves it. 


Ace 272 days ago

A very enjoyable read. Thanks 😀

David 272 days ago

Thanks for a wonderfully written article which I enjoyed far more than I agree with it!
Rosses' comment mentioning FIFA leads me to comment how the IRB has woefully and arrogantly ignored lessons that they could have learned from FIFA about how to draw an international event. This years RWC has done absolutely Nothing to grow the game internationally ;-

  1. Stupid draw - Biased toward England and Australia (who still flopped)
  2. Inconsistent referreeing. Neutral refs is great, but they need to read the same rule book
  3. Think How do others see rugby? The 10m and 22m lines aren't even from the same reference point!
  4. The USA has abandoned rugby because it doesn't make sense to them and their public wouldn't tolerate the self-serving officials and their crass ineptitude. And you say W. Barnes is the best!?! I will let that go for now except to say they are only 'whistlers' because a referee by definition should show impartiality not influenced by the colour of a team or by the current scoreline.

ross 272 days ago

Graham, a thoroughly enjoyable article. Apologies to those who took offense at some of your writing - they seem to have taken it personally. Overall, I thought it was accurate, well written and especially the fact that irony is alive. If I were more of a skeptic, I’d wonder if England rugby helped engineer such a ridiculous draw, when World Soccer, with all its corrupt officialdom, has long shown us how the drawer should work. If I’m not mistaken, England were ranked #6 going into the tournament, so probably should have been in the same pool as the #1 and #2 ranked teams going in, namely Ireland and France. It may all ultimately be academic, but please keep writing enjoyable articles.

Nickers 272 days ago

Tempting fate with comments like that about Argentina. Please retract.

carlos 272 days ago

Is that it for the Argies? Really? Cojones and gloria? Wow, I must have watched a different game. 😳

Ryan 273 days ago

Regarding Ireland being "the best side in the world in 2023"
That definitive statement is rather questionable.

The ABs for example, play more matches against SH opposition, whereas Ireland play more matches against NH opposition. This means that all is not even when it comes to the rankings and it thus should be regarded as more of a suggestion than an authoritative measure of who is best.

Ryan 273 days ago

"South Africa rode their luck in the first half – all three green tries came from French fumbles"

Were it another team, you would have written about how "the mighty '_' made the French pay for their mistakes, as each fumble was punished with a try."

"You can't afford to fumble against a team like this"

"The French were put under such pressure by the rush defence that they inevitably fumbled and were punished"

But when writing about SA, then it is pure luck that the French fumbled for no apparent reason and thus gifted the Springboks with free tries. No skill was required with the deft kick from Jesse Kriel perfectly chased down by Cheslin Kolbe, that was just dumb luck.

Bruno 273 days ago

Geeezz Graham!! the way you underestimate Argentina it is unbelievable, do not wake up the dark horse and eat your own words. In the SH humility it's first..

Marc Antoine 273 days ago

Balle is Afrikaans for cojones

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