The platform for the Navetto tram outside Gare Lyon Part-Dieu had a workaday appearance at Wednesday lunchtime – men, women, children, babies and buggies but only one person in a rugby jersey on a line that wends its way through the city to the suburbs. The Décines Grand Large stop is where supporters alight for the OL Stadium, which will house five World Cup matches.
Last Sunday evening ahead of Wales’ pivotal pool encounter against Australia the platform was invisible given the throng, a scene replicated inside the tram where every millimetre of space was consumed; cheek by jowl, red and gold jerseys layered like a human millefeuille. People spilled out inadvertently when the doors opened only to have to repack.
It made for a laborious 25-minute commute for the sweaty mass. There was very little chat, oxygen at a premium. There were no such constraints on Wednesday, seats freely available. At the appointed time about 20 people made the commute from tram stop to stadium three hours before the evening kick-off, a gentle 20-minute walk in the warm 27 degree sunshine. There wasn’t much of a take-up on the €20 half-and-half scarves.
The man in the rugby jersey didn’t have an affiliation to either Uruguay or Namibia, as it proclaimed across the back, he’s from Linz FC in Austria, there to enjoy the tournament. At this point, as fans wait to be ushered through the gates no one is sporting a jersey from either country. That would change over the next hour.
It’s been a rough tournament for Namibia but then it is arguable that every World Cup has followed a familiar pattern. The southern Africa side had yet to win a match, 25 defeats going into Wednesday night’s game. This is not the time for a spoiler.
Captain Jean Deysel picked up a six-match suspension, reduced to five if he attends tackle school, for a head clash that left France’s Antoine Dupont with a double fracture to his cheekbone. The word is that he may retire after the tournament. A handwritten message in the crowd picked up by the television cameras, “Johan we forgive you if Antoine is alright,” offered absolution of sorts.
Centre Le Roux Malan suffered a horrific leg break in the defeat to New Zealand while flanker Johan Retief was ruled out of the Uruguay match because of a spider bite that developed into an abscess on the open wound. The Namibians were without eight further players through injury.
Head coach Allister Coetzee, who had a spell in charge of the Springboks and was part of the South African backroom team that won the World Cup in 2007, refused to bemoan the unfortunate circumstances that have hobbled his team.
“When you don’t have a lot of depth in your squad it is really a challenge, but I must say our players have really stepped up. I call them warriors because it’s really not easy when you have teams getting 12 days, 13 days, two weeks off until the next game. This is our fourth game, final game.”
The latter is a reference to the fact that Namibia completed their four-match pool fixture list in just 18 days, while some countries have yet to play their third match, the inequitable schedule striking in black and white.
There are less than 1,000 rugby players in Namibia, five teams in the domestic league and 10 of the squad have day jobs, accountants, insurance brokers and bankers; centre Alcino Izaacs runs a business with his father.
This wasn’t a contest between minnows per se, Uruguay led Italy by 10 points at half-time before collapsing to a 38-17 defeat, having previously acquitted themselves superbly in a 27-12 loss to France.
The majority of their squad play for the Peñarol club, several came from the Sevens programme while a few play in France led by their marquee player, quicksilver Castres scrumhalf Santiago Arata. He would go on to confirm that status with a man-of-the-match display.
The majority of the crowd – announced as 49,000 and change, but nowhere near that to the naked eye – had no allegiance and just wanted to be entertained, and they were royally, given the yo-yo nature of affairs. Occasionally they took matters into their own hands, the first Mexican wave materialised on 12 minutes.
Uruguay had beaten Namibia on four of five occasions including last month, but burdened by favouritism the South Americans were wantonly careless. At one point the unthinkable, a Namibian victory, was more than a pipe dream, as they led 23-12 early in the second half.
One of their try scorers had an Irish connection. If the game was on in the Old Wesley clubhouse in Donnybrook, a cheer would surely have gone up when wing Johan Corne (JC) Greyling crossed for a try in the corner. He played for the Dublin club for a couple of seasons, first with the under-20s and then the senior team.
Three yellow cards, one upgraded to red, and some questionable officiating proved insurmountable for the Namibians whose grit and application was admirable in a 36-26 defeat. The sequence rolls on into the next World Cup. For Uruguay a date with the All Blacks beckons.