Rugby World Cup 2023: Once again we’re seeing a two-horse race
As the dust settles on another epic weekend of World Cup Rugby, the chances of a northern
hemisphere team winning the World Cup for the first time since 2003 look all but over.
England are just about hanging in there, having been blessed with the most sympathetic of
routes to a semi-final. Both France and Ireland expected to lift the trophy, and though there
was nothing in it and either game could have ended differently, the southern hemisphere
titans South Africa and New Zealand prevailed. They showed exactly why they have won
two thirds of all Rugby World Cups. Tournament rugby is unpredictable, the stakes and
pressure are so high. So how do these two nations manage it so often?
For South Africa everything exists in a four-year cycle. They always save their best rugby for
the biggest, most important stage. Fans and administrators alike fully expect their country
to win the cup every time. Much is made in the Rugby world of the dangers of ‘peaking’ too
early, and yet again it seems as if, despite a loss to Ireland in the pool stages, the Springboks
have perfectly timed their push to the final.
The incredible physicality they bring to every game and their hyper-focus on the breakdown
make them a phenomenal knockout Rugby team. Armed with some of the world’s most
devastating backs, lesser teams with weaker coaches may have been tempted to veer from
their forward dominated game plan. But outside noise never cuts through to Rassie Erasmus
and his Boks.
There are few bigger challenges in the game than knocking out a host nation at their own
World Cup, and it’s no coincidence that the South Africans have managed to do this at the
Quarter Final stage in each of the last three editions. They revel in spoiling the party.
Following a helter-skelter opening 8 minutes, France looked like they may blow away their
opponents after a succession of immense collisions was backed up with the most aesthetic
handling. The Boks though, have enough World Cup winners in their squad to fill out a full
matchday 23. They composed themselves at a stage where few teams would have been
able, and hit back with an opportunistic try. This was the story of the half, as two rugby
heavyweights traded punishing blows. France were absolutely magic throughout, and must
have found it hard to believe that they lead by only three points at half time having thrown
every weapon in their arsenal at the visitors.
Come the second half, the tole of an epic first 40 minutes was clear to see. They were
unable to cut through the Springboks’ defensive line in the same manner. Fond memories of
Tokyo and Yokohama surely eased the nerves, as the Boks used all that experience to
manage the second half to a tee and win the game.
New Zealand benefitted from a similar wealth of knockout stage knowledge. Indeed, it was
veteran Sam Whitelock, playing in his 151 st test, who eventually turned the ball over and
broke Irish hearts after a desperate 36 phase assault. He is likely to find himself in another
World Cup Final, and should he win it, he will become the first man to win 3 World Cups.
Few would have predicted that was possible a year ago, when the All Blacks blew a 19-point
lead against England, in the dying embers of Eddie Jones’ tenure. Coach Ian Foster looked a
dead cert to be sacked before Jones, but the faith shown was resoundingly rewarded in one
of the great Test matches.
The victory was as much to do with former Ireland Head Coach Joe Schmidt, now part of the
All-Blacks brains trust, as it was Foster. Schmidt brought Irish Rugby out of the dark ages,
but he is now responsible for one of its biggest setbacks. A first phase try, that obliterated
arguably the best defence in the competition at a crucial stage in the game, had Schmidt’s
blueprint all over it.
The game-plan required sterling individual contributions, namely from Ardie Savea and Sam
Cain who almost certainly had the best performances of their lives. World Player of the Year
Josh Van Der Flier, ever present Peter O’Mahony and world beater Caelan Doris never made
an impact, in the biggest game of their careers.
It’s hard to ascertain why it didn’t happen for Ireland. Some believe in the curse of the
Quarter Final, with Ireland yet to reach the semis at any World Cup to date. A team that had
won everything there is to be won in the years leading up to the tournament, and produced
the goods in the pool stages just weeks prior against Scotland and the Springboks, didn’t
look their usual self under the intense scrutiny of a knockout game. New Zealand, by
contrast, looked at ease throughout. They have been there and done it before. The fact
Ireland had beaten them three times in their last four meetings was utterly irrelevant to a
nation that goes the distance in World Cups almost every time.
Barring nothing short of a Rugby miracle, England and Argentina too will exit the
tournament and the final will see old foes do battle once more. Another World Cup where
the Northern Hemisphere nations were simply the appetisers, eaten and done away with
before the real main course business began, looks likely. That said, Ireland and France will
only get better. They have some fantastic players coming through, and will take some
beating four years down the line in Australia. England too, will surely be improved.
But the privilege of having players who have been there and done it in the knockout stages
cannot be understated. That experience, in games of the finest margins, is the difference
between progression or not. It is not something you can fake, or stumble upon. It must be
earned. For now, South Africa and New Zealand will continue to have that advantage, until a
team good enough comes along and rips it off them.