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Biltong vs blarney: World Cup classic battle leaves both teams with a sense of final destiny - and a key area they must fix

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24th September, 2023
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SAINT DENIS – With an hour to go before the Pool B bragging rights kickoff, old Paarl Gym cricket teammates Schalk Burger and Jean de Villiers were getting made up by the Springbok cosmetologist under the hot lights of Stade de France on a cool night.

The Bleu fortress had turned green already, with most of the 80,000 partisans already inside, eating and sledging and hoping.

Dark and light green mixed and mingled in that lovely rugby way: a family from Cork sharing chips and chirps with a Cape contingent. The original social network: a rugby match between the best of rivals.

A pack of big Bok fans, we will call them the Biltong Squad, had mauled their way to the barriers and asked Burger, whose quick makeup job was far faster than de Villiers’ ornate Mona Lisa job.

“Schalla! Biltong?” they bellowed, the red faced leader with brown paper bags of the good stuff in hand.

If all the currencies finally tank into a crypto diamond big hole and we are bartering again, that succulent saddle-salted shred of steak will be the new dollar. In the north rugby village before the match I watched gendarme search Saffa backpacks for the precious staple of treks the world over. Biltong confiscation will be Fabien Galthie’s quarterfinal game plan.

Standing with mic in hand just behind his former captain and provocateur, Burger motioned for the pass.

The bag of biltong came out of the big fan’s hand perfectly. It spiraled towards blazered Burger.

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At the very last instant, de Villiers reached out and snagged it as his mascara was being applied, ripped it open and stuck a stick in his mouth like a cigarette. The Interception King still has it; Burger had to bow.

South Africa would have dearly loved an interception to break open a match in which they built the narrow edge but failed to convert.

The score is final and fair and a deserved win for stout Irish defence must be lauded for its poise and composure. Johnny Sexton’s kicks to the line and to the poles were the work of a master.

As Catherine Phil MacCarthy wrote about the Aviva’s trees, but could have been saying about the old number ten:

“Mature trees defy wonders of the boom, promise irretrievable Dublin.”

Meanwhile, if the Bomb Squad did the second half job it is made to do, the Tee Squad for South Africa left 11 realistic points on the green field.

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Coaches love to show a team where they can improve. The Boks crossed the gainline on half their carries; the Irish only on a third. South Africa had more chances at the line than the Irish, and forced penalties in kickable positions.

The referee giveth and the referee taketh away. If the tryline maul sack was dubious to end the game, Manie Libbok’s and Faf de Klerk’s radars were the more dubious.

Do their job and it is a 19-13 win. Irish rebuttals about fixing their leaky lineout are not analogous to kicks at posts because that is the one moment your opponent is stuck watching you work for 90 seconds. The Bok locks were up early and often in Ronan Kelleher’s sights; and Andy Farrell gave Paul O’Connell an earful at the half.

In the second half, the Boks turned off the lineout leaping contest and seemed to work on maul defence.

In a rematch, South Africa may not be as profligate off the tee or as experimental in casting and tactics.

The French television crew kept showing sharpshooter Handre Pollard at ironic moments; perhaps foreshadowing their own quarterfinal story on the 15th of October here.

Irish fans around me all said the same thing as they shook my hand: “See you in the final.”

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Tadhg Beirne Of Ireland Recovers The Ball From The Base Of The Ruck During The Rugby World Cup France 2023 Match Between South Africa And Ireland At Stade De France On September 23, 2023 In Paris, France. (Photo By Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)

Tadhg Beirne Of Ireland Recovers The Ball From The Base Of The Ruck During The Rugby World Cup France 2023 Match Between South Africa And Ireland At Stade De France On September 23, 2023 In Paris, France. (Photo By Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)

Whether that is a statement about French dependence on wounded Antoine Dupont or a compliment to how well the Boks stymied their juggernaut attack (keeping Ireland to 13: any team would take that), there was a feeling of a heavyweight rematch on the night.

Unbeaten Ireland needed to keep winning by any means necessary. Their warmups were regimented. Sexton is already a coach. Not a second was wasted.

In the match, the Irish loose forwards were relentless, Bundee Aki was a steamroller, James Lowe launched kicks that seemed to exit the hole in the top of the stadium, and tricky Mack Hanson continued his unlikely assault on reason and sense.

With the exception of the lineout, one wonders how much better they could play.

At final whistle, the mostly Irish crowd let loose into song after song; the players embraced as if it was a quarterfinal win at last.

Damian Willemse of South Africa is dragged away from speaking to Jonathan Sexton of Ireland after the first South African try during the 2023 Rugby World Cup Pool B match between South Africa and Ireland at Stade de France in Paris, France. (Photo By Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Damian Willemse of South Africa is dragged away from speaking to Jonathan Sexton of Ireland after the first South African try during the 2023 Rugby World Cup Pool B match between South Africa and Ireland at Stade de France in Paris, France. (Photo By Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

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The cost will be counted in days to come; several looked out on their feet.

The Boks were loose all night. In warmups, Duane Vermeulen was showing off his gridiron spirals, 7-1 casualty Willie le Roux was doing backheels, and Deon Fourie was enjoying his throwing practice, even taking a moment to munch on extra biltong from that same intercepted bag.

Rassie Erasmus was on the pitch for an hour taking drop goals and hugging anyone he could catch. Bryan Habana was speaking French to anyone who would listen. The Bok warmup song was vibe; the Irish had headbanger songs.

It is difficult to imagine Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber being disappointed with the Bok defence, and they are pragmatic enough not to trust Libbok to save their biltong in a power matchup with France.

They will be able to show two ‘tries’ that should be converted and any cultural downside of bringing Pollard back in was just solved; Farrell and O’Connell can address their lineout and the Dan Sheehan versus Ronan Kelleher set piece debate is also done.

In the end, kicking out of hand (low by both sides; 20 Irish and 19 South Africa) and aerial contest was superb, but small moments (a slip at scrum, an invisible ball at maul, a caroming penalty off a pole, and timely steals by dogged Ireland) and key execution were the difference.

As we streamed into the fresh air and navigated the overrun trains, defended by the dysfunction of overburdened machines, Ireland was singing and hugging; Bok fans were quiet and thinking of what comes next at this very stadium.

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Did we just see a preview of a final? Or will the biltong be confiscated again?

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