Subscriber OnlyRugby World CupOn Rugby

Gerry Thornley: South Africa were worthy World Cup winners, but it’s a shame about aspects of their game

Springboks’ conservative game plan prevailed again and whatever about enjoying watching them, no one can enjoy playing against them

France 2023 began in stifling, 36/37 degree late summer heat, passed through autumn and finished in incessant rain after the clocks went forward into winter time. Whatever about it being the best it was certainly a marathon.

As well as being too long, public and media interest ebbed and waned rather than flowed, albeit this was compounded by the tournament losing the hosts and the best-supported visiting side for the last fortnight.

France is a wonderful rugby nation and made for great hosts again in many ways. When the weather was warm and sunny, and the tries flowed like the wine, and while there was some movement between base and match cities, Le Mondial held much of its appeal.

But by the end, even Paris, and particularly the hours upon hours spent every day commuting above or underground to hotel bases around or well outside the peripherique, as well as the tiresome 9pm kick-offs, were a drag.


Maybe France spent so much procuring the Rugby World Cup, and on then bringing marquee global names to the tournament, that everything else was done on the cheap. Partly as a result, overall, despite the tournament having a sole-country host, there was a curious disconnect as well to France 2023.

There also wasn’t the slightest sign of the sport’s showpiece game every four years taking place last week in Paris. Not a billboard. Rien.

It’s hard to imagine the Olympics will be as anonymous next year.

Even the organisers and World Rugby did nothing to promote the final, but rather left the All Blacks and the Springboks to their own devices. To their credit, guided by a former journalist in Andy Colquhoun, SARU’s general manager of corporate affairs, the Springboks were the most generous of all the leading sides in the time afforded the media for asking questions.

One cannot say the Springboks were not worthy winners either. Certainly, no team was more resilient, resourceful and so sheer, cussedly bloody-minded, as they showed in winning each of their three knock-out matches by a solitary point.

To put this in context, the last side to achieve this feat in the history of Test rugby was England in the 1936-37 season, when they beat Scotland by 9-8, Wales by 4-3 (now that really puts it in context) and Ireland by 9-8.

South Africa’s triumph is also good for the URC. As Jean Kleyn said in the glow of the Boks’ win, a rising tide lifts all boats.

What was less appealing about the Springboks’ triumph is their willingness to do almost anything which enhances their chances of winning, such as liberal use of HIA assessments, notably in their quarter-final win over France.

Then there was their less than creative brand of rugby. They hardly had a backline move worth the name in any of the big games in which they played, and do not use the full extent of the pitch with ball-in-hand, but undoubtedly apply the most unrelenting and physical brand of rugby on the planet.

Whatever about enjoying watching them, no one can enjoy playing against them.

Variety is good in any sport. The contrast in styles between South Africa and the more inventive Irish, French and New Zealand sides, made for some of the tournament’s most compelling matches. If everybody played like Ireland it would be boring. But it would be even more boringly one-dimensional if everybody played like the Springboks. The thought of it.

But now, not only have the Springboks provided the winning template for a second World Cup running, and what’s more in every knock-out game bar the All Blacks’ facile semi-final win over Argentina, the losing team in all four quarter-finals, the other semi-final and the final, played the more positive, attacking rugby by every metric, be it passes, possession, carries, metres or offloads.

In almost every instance too, the losing side could feel aggrieved with the officiating, although some expressed this more audibly than others. Alas, too much of the game’s laws – particularly at the breakdown and scrum time – are open to the interpretation of the officials.

The clock should rewind if a scrum has to be reset, so as to prevent the clock being run down near the 80th minute – as was the case in both the South Africa-England semi-final and the final – and thus ease the pressure on referees. Maybe bring in the fourth official to view the overhead camera as well, as it’s usually the best angle.

This World Cup will also always be remembered for having the most skewed draw ever, and so it came to pass. The pool games involving France, New Zealand, Ireland and South Africa, were the standout games of that phase of the tournament, and it’s doubtful that any World Cup has ever witnessed two quarter-finals of such high quality as those involving the same four sides.

Ultimately, though, the World Cup suffered, even if the lopsided draw did actually make four close and competitive quarter-finals, as well as one of the semi-finals unexpectedly, and the final.

So, draw aside, looking ahead to Australia, if it ain’t broke, why fix it? While there were 11 winning margins of 50-plus points in the pool stages (and six of those by 70-plus) there was still some degree of jeopardy in the clamour for quarter-final places.

Indeed, four Tier 1 sides – Australia (for the first time ever), Japan, Scotland and Italy – were all knocked out in the pool stages.

By increasing the next World Cup to 24 teams, World Rugby’s decision will not only mean more lopsided scorelines in the group phase, but will reduce that element of jeopardy.

This World Cup format, like the previous five editions going back to 2003, contained four pools of five teams. This meant 40 pools games to eliminate more than half of the contestants, ie a dozen of the 20 teams.

While Australia 2027 will gain an extra knock-out round with the introduction of a Last 16, with six groups of four, the top two in each pool along with the four best third-placed sides will advance. So this equates to 36 pool matches to eliminate just a third of the field, ie eight teams.

That’s an awful lot of games with little risk attached, albeit jostling for position among the Tier 1 countries especially will be significant. Even Italy might finally reach the knock-out stages.

Whether 2031 in the USA comes to pass remains to be seen. We’ve been hearing about rugby’s ‘new frontier’ in the USA for about 20 years and it’s no nearer happening. A truly new frontier would be a 2035 World Cup in Italy, Spain and Portugal. Now that really would be breaking exciting new ground for World Rugby as well as broadening the game. Maybe a World Cup or a Lions tour in South America some day too?

But let’s not hold our breaths.