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FEATURE 'The Boks will go again. It is what they do.'

'The Boks will go again. It is what they do.'
8 months ago

There is a strong temptation when writing about a match like that in a city like Paris to stitch connecting threads between events on the field and the world around it.

The totemic Eben Etzebeth can easily be likened to the Eiffel Tower. Antoine Dupont’s brushstrokes wouldn’t be out of place at the Louvre. In every bistro, down every boulevard, across every arrondissement there is meaning and metaphor.

But on a crisp Monday morning, where hangovers mix with heartache, the most poignant through line is found among the quiet tombs in the Pere Lachaise cemetery. Here you’re reminded of the finality of all things. Of the insatiable appetite of time. How even aristocrats and war heroes and rockstars can’t hold back the darkness.

Fabien Galthie’s team have been eliminated from their own World Cup but this is not the end of their journey. Galthie himself remains under contract until 2028. Uini Atonio, who will now retire from Test rugby, is the oldest member of the squad at 33. Gael Fickou is 28. Thomas Ramos is 31. Dupont is 26 and Romain Ntamack, who was so cruelly sidelined with injury before the tournament, is 24.

The bulk of this French squad will have another opportunity to lift the Webb Ellis Cup (Photo by Franco Arland/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

This group has yet to reach its apex and yet the post-match press conference around midnight on Sunday, delayed due to President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to the French dressing room, had the same energy as a wake.

Voltaire said death awakes us from painful dreams, and gives us either a better existence or no existence at all. This is not the death of French rugby, just as Ireland’s loss to New Zealand the night before will not herald a great decline. But it’s hard not to wonder if some teams, perhaps all teams, carry with them institutional memories that nestle in the collective consciousness of those who represent and support them.

Elite athletes will tell you the past is a foreign country. That what came before has no bearing on what will happen next. But history is a series of falling dominoes and narrative quickly calcifies into legend which in turn morphs into ingrained truths.

South Africa’s captain Siya Kolisi said his team “wanted it more”. That just cannot be true. It’s hard to imagine a man wanting anything more than Dupont wanted to become a world champion in front of his own people.

Ireland did not choke and yet they once again lost a World Cup quarter-final. Wales did not bottle it and yet they once again lost a game they had in their grasp. England have been on the cusp of awful and are once again the flag bearers of northern hemisphere rugby. This French side has carried with them a sense of destiny for four years and yet they were vanquished when it mattered most.

When asked why his team triumphed in a contender for the greatest exhibition of rugby there’s ever been, South Africa’s captain Siya Kolisi said his team “wanted it more”. That just cannot be true. It’s hard to imagine a man wanting anything more than Dupont wanted to become a world champion in front of his own people. The team around him ached for a fairytale and the streets of Paris hours before tingled with yearning.

No, that’s not it. Jim Morrison, who now rests eternally at Pere Lachaise, believed “each generation wants new symbols, new people, new names, they want to divorce themselves from their predecessors.” That’s easier said than done, which is a daunting truth for France and Ireland, but it is a delight for the South Africans who can start to see a glinting golden trophy shining on the horizon.

France carried over the gainline 82 times. South Africa managed just 36. The French beat 43 defenders to 12 and offloaded 13 times to keep the attack moving. They won 47 more rucks than the Springboks and spent just under a third of the match in the opposition’s half. Citing destinies and intergenerational traumas as a reason for a rugby result might seem like a cop-out disguised as a literary flourish, but can we categorically rule them out?

Eben Etzebeth’s surge to the try line proved the decisive score in a clash for the ages (Photo by Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images)

Damian Willemse called for a scrum after taking a mark in his own 22. Who does that? What on earth was he thinking? And yet it paid off as South Africa’s front-row won a penalty at the set-piece. Cheslin Kolbe charged down a conversion in a game  decided by a single point. And even as France held a 25-19 lead with under 20 minutes to go, South Africa tapped and went from close range to score with Etzebeth carrying the weight of French history with him as he crashed over.

When the final whistle sounded, a shrill death knell which pierced the night after the most intense resistance from those in bottle green, all those who heard it felt an immediate double tug. The reality we were confronted with both defied belief and made perfect sense. South Africa won a game they perhaps should have lost. They remained standing when their legs should have long turned to jelly. How the hell do they find the energy to go again in six days’ time?

There is no doubt they will. Not just because it’s their job and because they continue to ride a self-perpetuating mythology they’re representing 60 million South Africans. They’ll go again because that is what they do. It’s what they’ve always done. Anything else would be a betrayal of their own DNA.

Death doesn’t stop time for those who carry on though we should at least pause and recognise the fallen French.

Death doesn’t stop time for those who carry on though we should at least pause and recognise the fallen French. Oscar Wilde, another resident at Pere Lachaise, said it best in his poem The Sphinx, described as the “the quintessential piece of fin-de-siécle art”.

Four lines adorn his tomb of Hopton Wood stone:

And alien tears will fill for him

Pity’s long-broken urn,

For his mourners will be outcast men,

And outcasts always mourn.

Thanks to Kolisi’s Springboks, they’ll be mourning Dupont’s outcast men around Paris this week.

Comments

17 Comments
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Beertjie 250 days ago

I don't think others can quite understand the full, beautiful significance of this game, these men, to South Africans. To us, they are not just our national team, they are the dream, the hope, of what we can be as The Rainbow Nation 🌈🇿🇦

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Mark 250 days ago

Great article. Rugby is a brutal art, and you have captured it superbly. I do believe Ireland ran out of puff near the end, due, as you say, to non rotation of their squad. France simply ran out of ideas at the end. Epic encounters, both of them.

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Ftek Sports 250 days ago

Well written and poignant though-provoking article Daniel!

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Snash 250 days ago

i think from a psychology point of view there is a sound argument that Damien's calling for a mark-scrum was the winning of the game, imagine - at the very least - the bewilderment (if not doubt) in French minds.

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Charlie 251 days ago

Well said!!! Boer Bok!! Beautiful words

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Francois 251 days ago

"France carried over the gainline 82 times. South Africa managed just 36. The French beat 43 defenders to 12 and offloaded 13 times to keep the attack moving. They won 47 more rucks than the Springboks and spent just under a third of the match in the opposition’s half."
So it wasnt Ireland that choked, it was France?....

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ColinK 251 days ago

To be a world champion the All Blacks (my team) and Boks have learn't you can't just want to be a champion. You have to want more than that, you have to want the battle the pain and the little steps that lead to glory. Glory is only the outcome, the journey is what you must desire the most. Ireland are a great team, as my team has often been heading into the RWC but it's not enough you must dig deeper as I am sure they will one day. On SA: Sya's an awesome captain and the SA nation is right behind him. I remember 95 when Mandela came down the tunnel I knew we would lose and for once I did not mind as that great man defined leadership, as did Francois Pienaar that day. Good luck to all teams in the QF we Abs fans assume nothing. For France I am sad you are my second team! Vive la France!

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Etienne 251 days ago

There is literally nothing between France, Ireland, All Blacks and the Springboks right now. Both their matches were in the balance on the final play.

I cannot remember a time when there were four team so evenly matched, and with such a large gulf in quality between them and the next rung.

If you have to find a reason for the final results my take is that Ireland literally ran out of steam in the end due to their harder group while the still very young French team lacked someone like Duane Vermeulen to calm things down in the final minutes. That's it.

Both Ireland and France would have been very worthy World Champions this year.

Tough luck to both of them. Wonderful for the game of rugby.

And good luck to anyone trying to find any daylight between the All Blacks and the Springboks. That game too will be down to the smallest of margins and the proverbial bounce of the ball.

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Jacque 251 days ago

Please also mention the 11 Handling errors the French made.

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BoerBok 251 days ago

When Siya says “we wanted it more”, its not something that can be explained in words. its not comparable to a nation who put their hearts and souls into winning a world cup after many years of hard hard preparation. One with massive expectations, who has pulled out all stops to host the world in their amazing country. At that level, I agree with you, he would be lying because every nation who gets to this point after literally blood, sweat and tears and many years of prep, would want it the same.

The issue is in our beautiful country where there is a massive divide between our people - in language, culture, material possession, health, safety, hope, opportunities, etc. Sport, and rugby specifically unites people. Its the only thing that does, and when our people are united, we are stronger. His words cuts to the core of our identity as a country and as a people. Even these words can’t describe it, but I hope it gives you an idea. It is our narrative and you’ll see the team echo it in everything they do and everything they say. From that perspective, I think Siya is right in saying We wanted it more. Not for the accolades of lifting the Web Ellis cup, but for the unification impact it has on our nation.

Your message in your article is not lost however. I know the French is utterly heart-broken.

Nothing would honor our Bok team more than to have the French supporters stand behind our boys as we take on the English and hopefully beyond…

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