Chatting among South African and even French journalists in Stade de France after last Saturday’s epic, there was a common feeling that not only did this monumental occasion have the feel of a final, it could possibly be a foretaste of it as well.
Watching the Springboks do their post-match walk-around and interviews with the media, one’s mind went back to similar scenes after their pool loss against the All Blacks in Tokyo four years ago.
They used the hurt to motivate themselves and became the first side to lose a pool match in winning the Rugby World Cup – their third success in just eight attempts.
Even in 2015 they responded to their shock defeat by Japan to eventually extend New Zealand to a nail-biting 20-18 semi-final win. If any team is equipped to bounce back from a pool loss, it is probably the Springboks.
They may have a tougher route than Japan, Wales and England in the knock-out stages, but they’ll be shaken and stirred again, and there won’t be one Springboks coach, player or supporter who doesn’t believe they will retain their crown.
They’ll improve, but they have issues besides the lack of a backup specialist hooker. Although the Boks won three scrum penalties in a row after introducing the bulk of their Bomb Squad, Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber will surely never risk a 7-1 split again, not least as it meant sacrificing the try-assist master Willie Le Roux. Handre Polard will also most probably come into the mix, whether as a starter or backup kicker on the bench. The Boks have now landed 11 of 23 shots at goal.
But even with their signature 6-2 split, unless they sacrifice the game-breaking qualities of Manie Libbok, there won’t be room for both Pollard and Le Roux on the bench.
As Dion O’Cuinneagain told The Irish Times last week, Erasmus may have missed a trick in not bringing over Libbok’s kicking coach at the Stormers, Gareth Wright, as remote coaching is not the same. The Boks left 11 points behind off the tee, including long-range penalties by Faf de Klerk – although one of those was reclaimed off the upright and led to their try, so eight points is probably the truer figure.
But Libbok missed that conversion and an equally kickable penalty, whereas Johnny Sexton landed two similar kicks in what was, ultimately, a five-point game.
Then again, despite the lineout woes and slow ruck ball, Ireland’s short passing and footwork close to the gain line caused the Boks’ sufficient trouble to make you feel that they have more tries in them. By contrast, Scotland took on the Boks in defence with long passes, keeping the ball in the air longer and setting up receivers as targets.
What is more, the win gave Ireland a bigger boost to their confidence, fitness and momentum than any previously enjoyed by an Irish team after a pool match.
Of course, as Sexton said in the aftermath of last Saturday’s win, if Ireland’s World Cup history has taught them anything it is that big pool wins can ultimately count for nothing.
Sexton also described Scotland as an excellent side, and provided they gain the anticipated bonus-point win over Romania next Saturday, Gregor Townsend’s team will come into that shoot-out on 10 points, four behind Ireland, and five behind the Springboks, assuming do the business against Tonga in their final Pool B game.
So Scotland will know that they’ll need to beat Ireland by more than seven points (something they haven’t done since 2001) to join them on 14 points and qualify by dint of the head-to-head record. Alternatively, if the Scots won with a bonus point, and even if Ireland recorded one, so as to leave all teams on 15 points, South Africa and Scotland would probably go through.
In that scenario, points difference would decide first place, and the Springboks need to beat Tonga by a margin of 36 points or more to overtake Ireland’s differential as things stand. Assuming that happens and South Africa finish top, second place would then be decided by the head-to-head, so Scotland would advance.
Ireland will simply be targeting another victory to win Pool B, in which case they would face a dangerous All Blacks side who will have had a relatively stress-free path to the knock-out stages, other than that defeat by France in their opening match.
For whoever comes through that quarter-final, it would be no surprise if Warren Gatland has taken Wales to a third semi-final in four World Cups. They would need to beat Georgia and, most likely, Argentina, both of whom have been disappointing thus far.
This is no surprise, for Gatland has been a master at pulling together misfiring sides at short notice, as he’s proven with Galwegians, Connacht, Ireland, Wasps, Waikato, Wales, and the Lions three times, only failing to do so with the Chiefs.
Installing him in place of Wayne Pivac looked, alas, like a good move at the time. In contrast, Rugby Australia installing Eddie Jones in place of Dave Rennie has proven to be even more of an unmitigated error than anticipated.
True, the country that won World Cups in 1991 and 1999 has profound problems – in profile, playing numbers, player pathways (eh, Mack Hansen?) and waning provincial sides – that predate Jones.
But his appointment ignored England’s decline under his watch amid internal rancour as well as Rennie’s good work, and seemed as much to do with Jones boosting rugby’s waning popularity in a country where League, Aussie Rules and cricket dominate.
Jones generated a few more headlines but leaving out Michael Hooper, Quade Cooper and Bernard Foley from a callow squad, while making Will Skelton captain, looked an egotistical response to the Wallabies losing their first five games after his appointment.
Also, picking 16 players with five caps or fewer (a higher proportion than in any of the Wallabies’ last five World Cup squads) with one eye on hosting the next Lions’ tour and World Cup, was an insult to Australia’s opponents and this tournament.
Jones was unlucky to lose his best two ball-carrying forwards, Taniela Tupou and Skelton, to injury but the Wallabies’ 40-6 loss to Wales was an embarrassment to Australian rugby union. They looked the callow side they are, and were well beaten long before the end.
Jones has magnified their deep-rooted problems, not resolved them.