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FEATURE Fudge and almond fruitcake

Fudge and almond fruitcake
7 months ago

The worth of any win is always best defined by the despair of the losers, the measurement being that ‘All Black’ is now a national mood. As Sam Cane put it at the final whistle, ‘so many shitty emotions’; or as Sam Whitelock sammed it up; ‘this is going to hurt for a long, long time.’ And so it will. Not only that but, in their absence, the National Party won the New Zealand general election so the team are now flying home to a Tory government. Truly, it never rains but it pours. 

But what’ll haunt the players – what always haunts – won’t be the defeat but the manner of it. Add up the Black cards, subtract the Green Ones and New Zealand played more than half the final a forward down. South Africa, emphatically, are not a team to be facing when your picnic’s a sandwich short and yet – ceteris paribus – ‘Bill’ was still there to be won. 

Except that ceteris wasn’t paribus; not least the All Blacks making 12 handling errors, catch/pass being what ITV’s Brian O’Driscoll – quite rightly – described beforehand as ‘their secret sauce’. What’s more, ‘kickable’ penalties were hoofed to the corner and fluffed, Mo’unga missed a conversion that could’ve snatched it and Barrett missed a penalty that could’ve nicked it; tally it all up and a four-year marathon effort ended a skinny inch short. Regrets? As he mows his lawn, Ian Foster will have a few.

Yet, one Kiwi saw it all coming. Back in August, Nick Evans was asked how he thought #RWC2023 would shake down: ‘Well, obviously, with my New Zealand hat on, I’d be backing the All Blacks to get there,’ he said. ‘But if I’m going to be honest, I can’t look past South Africa. And I think their ‘how’ is the way they can make games ‘ugly’ and how comfortable they are breathing in tight games. It suits them. They’ve got the game-plan for that.’

Pieter-Steph du Toit
South Africa’s title defence was built on bone shuddering hits from the likes of Pieter-Steph du Toit (Photo by Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images)

And, specifically, what did Nick Evans think might be the most decisive factor? ‘Well, number one will be discipline,’ he said. ‘I think games are going to be decided by someone in a truck … a try chalked off or a red card seen or not seen. That’s going to be huge. Teams just can’t give anything away.’ And just in case you’re looking to monetise this article – and why wouldn’t you – Nick’s lottery numbers this week are 10, 15, 18, 23, 33 and 41. 

Look, tough luck New Zealand but credit South Africa, a rugby team that first shaped the sense of national identity in 1995 and continues to do so to this day. Two statistics sum up the Springboks: (1) Four World Cup finals, four wins and just one – one – try conceded. (2) Three knockout wins in 2023 against France, England and New Zealand, each by a single, solitary, solo point. You’ve more chance of sneaking the sunrise past a rooster than you have of putting one over South Africa.   

Defensively, South Africa were as watertight as a kipper’s knickers which, as it turned out,  was just as well because it was a tough night at the brick factory.

We are talking cussed; we are talking unflinching; we are talking Pieter-Steph du Toit making 28 tackles of which 26 seemed to be on Jordie Barrett. Defensively, South Africa were as watertight as a kipper’s knickers which, as it turned out, was just as well because it was a tough night at the brick factory. 

But while the Springbok game-plan is squarer than fudge, the wider strategy can sometimes look like almond fruitcake. Or, if you prefer, here’s a team that, almost instinctively, twists on a ten and a seven and, almost always, comes up with a four.

You pack four scrum-halves in your World Cup luggage and pick only one of them for the Final? Handré Pollard – the tournament’s MVP – is available for each of three white-knuckle, knockout games, yet you start him only for the last one? You go 7/1 on the bench for the final – ‘it’s a massive, massive risk,’ said an almost twitching Bryan Habana – and, once again, the trigger’s pulled on an empty chamber. Now, are Rassnaber good or are they lucky? The answer would appear to be yes. 

England v South Africa
The only side with the same record as South Africa in the tournament were England – which would have surprised many people before the tournament.(Photo by Christian Liewig – Corbis/Getty Images)

A penny, certainly, for Ireland’s thoughts, given they beat the Springboks in the pool stages; indeed, they’ve not lost to them since 2016; three games, three wins. The best team in the world? Stroll into any tap room in O’Connell Street, Limerick and they’ll tell you the ‘Boks aren’t even the best green team in the world. 

And no question, this World Cup has thrown up a knot of anomalies and a jumble of quirky statistics; not least who’s the only player to have won a gold, silver and bronze World Cup medal and scored a try in each medal-winning game? (I’ll leave that one with you; it’s not taxing.)

Or, if you prefer, the only team to match the  World Champions’ playing record at #RWC2023 was, ahem, England; namely, played seven, won six. And if you spotted that opportunity in the window of your local bookmaker the day after Fiji won at Twickenham last August, you’ll be spending this weekend wallpapering your bedroom with fifty pound notes. 

It’ll be more than intriguing to see where Steve Borthwick goes from here. Will he double down even further on his percentage approach or might he start offering English supporters something a bit, well, a bit more Portugal?

England. Where to start? You pick Henry Arundell on the wing in the Bronze Medal game – five tries in his one other World Cup start – and (a) you don’t pass him the ball for an hour and, then (b) once you have passed him the ball, you hoick him off and replace him. Perhaps some sort of explanatory diagram would help here. 

In this World Cup England registered the highest average kicks per game of any team, the most box kicks and the slowest attacking ruck speed. All their six wins were against teams below them in the World Rankings yet England Rugby fervently hope that they’ve ‘made the nation proud’. Of what exactly?  

It’ll be more than intriguing to see where Steve Borthwick goes from here. Will he double down even further on his percentage approach or might he start offering English supporters something a bit, well, a bit more Portugal? Look, whatever it is, England Rugby needs to find some way of connecting with its customers and not just for aesthetic reasons. 

Springboks v All Blacks
The Springboks won the final by the tightest of margins to lift a fourth World Cup in eight attempts (Photo by Henry Browne/ Getty Images)

But if we’re talking aesthetics, Socrates is our boy. Not the Greek philosopher and founder of the ethical tradition of Western thought but the – alas, departed – Brazilian footballer, qualified doctor, inveterate drinker and heavy smoker who, when asked about what mattered most in football, memorably said: ‘Beauty comes first; victory is secondary.’ Emphatically, my kind of sportsman.

Look, good luck selling that mantra to Steve Borthwick or, indeed, to any other coach in any other professional sport. But this Rugby World Cup has highlighted, as Ian Foster put it, ‘a few issues that need to be sorted out.’ He was referring specifically to head contact but that’s by no means where the list starts or ends. Growing Tiers Two and Three is crucial; likewise, de-powering the contest for possession, increasing the flow of the game and getting fewer feet and more hands on the ball; something, if you like, a little more Socratic.  

Portugal to edge Spain 54-53 in the final in an Iberian ‘El Classico’. You heard it here first.

But the criticism, vilification and abuse of referees and officials is what’s, potentially, the most damaging to the long-term future of the sport at every level. Polly Barnes – Wayne’s better-looking other half – wrote on social media that the atmosphere at Le Stade de France was ‘vile’. She added: ‘See ya later, Rugby World Cup. Won’t miss you, or the death threats’. I’m really not sure it gets much more depressing than that.

On the upside, Fiji/Portugal was, in the words of Nat King Cole, unforgettable; Bundee Aki was, at times, unplayable and Eddie Jones’ cosmic pratfall was almost poetic; just a shame he took the whole of Australia down with him. And in 2027 in Sydney? Portugal to edge Spain 54-53 in the final in an Iberian ‘El Classico’. You heard it here first.   


Snash 226 days ago

well next year Ireland are touring SA - 2 tests - so lets see how that pans out but with all the retiring players its likely to be comparing apples and oranges and on that note - Boks beat NZ who beat Ireland ;-)
I reckon if Ireland had rotated players as well as Boks for eg, they would have put ABs away but instead they ran out of gas in the last quarter, particularly Jonny Sexton.

Louis 229 days ago

Ceteris Paribus hey. WTF.

Turlough 229 days ago

The reaction of NZ to their loss with Foster et all blaming the ref has done enormous damage to the game. Polly Barnes has been targetted and abused by some of these arrogant dangerous NZ idiots. Foster should make a statement acknowledging NZ lost the match fairly and state that no vitriol should be directed at referees. NZ supporters should get a grip and understand you are being viewed as world crybabies.

Turlough 230 days ago

The ridiculous draw meant the final was almost between the 4th best team and the 8th best team. New Zealand couldn’t beat a very tired South Africa and yet can only blame the ref. This is not humble. The new coach needs to work on the personality of NZ rugby. It ain’t likable or liked at the moment.

Drew 230 days ago

You can say youre the best or you can prove it. So much shoulda woulda coulda ifs ands and buts

Mark 230 days ago

Well written, and thanks for that. The Springboks simply have the uncanny knack of winning what counts, with ample amounts of bloody-minded grunt, and as cake-loving Ox Nche says, ‘Salads don’t win scrums’, so pass the fudge and almond fruitcake, and celebrate!

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