PARIS – South Africa’s win over England contained one serious allegation that’s under investigation and plenty more moments – both excellent and ugly – that showcased the stakes and intensity of the battle.
New Zealand, meanwhile, showed up the folly of the draw (again), when Michael Cheika’s Argentina were ruthlessly dispatched in a semi-final mismatch – setting up a final this Sunday between the two greatest World Cup nations – with one set to go out alone on four titles.
The Tom Curry racism allegation against Bongi Mbonambi has added a sharp news edge to the week leading into the final. Before that match, though, is a game not even the players could be reasonably expected to get up for.
It’s not just a rugby absurdity – the same nonsense happens at major football tournaments.
The third-place playoff at the end of a seven-week campaign is the undisputed dumbest idea in sports (comfortably ahead of the second dumbest – which is playing a sport with something called a shuttlecock instead of a ball).
If you want to argue otherwise jump in the comments. But you’re wrong. About badminton too.
Most coaches and players find press conferences an irritant at the best of times, so imagine how they’re coping right now, dealing with the grief of bowing out one game from the final, and having to delay journeys home to play for a bronze medal, all the while needing to front up to mandatory media obligations where they fail to convince anyone they’re really keen to leave on a “winning” note.
Then there’s the risk factor. How hard do they charge in, knowing they could suffer an injury that keeps them out of the game for an extended period? Imagine blowing an ACL in a nothing match like this, where the only conceivable point is to add a few more euros to the stack.
England coach Steve Borthwick all but suggested it was the first game of the next World Cup cycle for his young outfit.
“Friday night is another important game for us. I want players playing big games at World Cups, I want them having that experience. It will benefit every one of these players and this team as it moves forward,” he said.
Anyhoo, I’ll be back with more bad a little later but first …
Siya Kolisi continues to amaze as a leader, player and public speaker. I’ll admit to a few goosebumps in the post-match press conferences late Saturday night when the Boks skipper was asked to chat about Jacques Nienaber who is leaving the Boks after the final to coach in Ireland.
Kolisi recalled his first dealings with Nienaber when he was 18 and a member of the Western Province academy.
“One thing I love about him is he goes far deeper than what is happening on the field. He got to know me, my family and why I do what I do. He speaks to us with human courtesy,” Kolisi said.
“He knows my kids by name, asks me how I am doing as a person and that is why I can go and give him everything on the field because he cares about the person, he cares about Siya from the township.
“It is so special to be known as a person, not just as an object or a rugby player.
“I have enjoyed every single year that I’ve worked with him. The tough times too, when he comes and calls me out. He is always honest. He’s a special coach and a special human being, an amazing father and a great husband. I will always be thankful. When I first met him I couldn’t tackle.”
Pollard’s big nuts moment
No matter your view on the Ben O’Keeffe decision to award South Africa a scrum penalty with a few minutes to play – and to be fair the England camp accepted it graciously, it still presented an incredible challenge to Springboks’ No.10 Handre Pollard.
The Roar expert Brett McKay summed it up perfectly on “the socials”.
Springbok prop Steve Kitshoff, who watched it from the bench along with nervous teammates, also nailed it.
“He’s got real BMT [big-match temperament], a big set of nuts on him and plays pressure situations really well.”
“It was a hell of a kick to put a team into a final. Ultimately, they are in the big dance and we are not,” said England scrumhalf Danny Care of Pollard’s winning penalty
Pollard had entered the game as a 31st minute replacement for the struggling Manie Libbok and was superb, not just from the tee but also with his long range kicking.
Owen Farrell showed his skills with a stunning drop goal, but perhaps the second most important kick of the game was a penalty touch finder from Pollard that led to the try that got them in touching distance of the lead.
“We struggled to get a foothold in the game and get things going. Like the 2019 World Cup quarter-final and semi-final, you need a 60-metre maul, something special to break the game open, and I think the touch kick that set us up for the try [was it],” said Nienaber.
“In this weather and these conditions, to score a try against England that has an unbelievable defence, and this is their first loss in the tournament, was special. And then there was big pressure on nailing that last kick for the win.”
Will Jordan and the All Blacks’ attacking excellence
I’m not a betting man but when The Roar’s rugby editor Christy Doran informed me, during an interminable Uber ride to Stade de France, that Will Jordan was paying $1.70 for JUST ONE TRY against the Pumas I almost rang a real estate agent and opened a PlayUp account.
Jordan’s hat-trick took him to 31 in 30 Tests and he really should have had four, only for Richie Mo’unga to go hunting his own meat pie at the end and ignore the wide open right winger.
“Richie has put me over for that many tries over the course of my career, so no issues there,” said Jordan afterwards.
Jordan joined Jonah Lomu and Adam Ashley-Cooper as the third player to score a hat-trick in a men’s RWC semi and he also shares the record for most tries at a tournament with eight with Lomu, Bryan Habana and Julian Savea.
“It is pretty humbling to be honest. When you think about those guys, they were all huge legends of the game and, particularly in the position I play, really trail-blazed the way to play the game as a winger. So that’s pretty cool,” said Jordan.
The All Blacks were so efficient against Argentina that they scored their 44 points off 10 entries into the Pumas’ 22. Argentina has just one fewer but couldn’t breach the NZ defence.
Jordan is just one part of the machine, but a key one.
“Why he is so good at finishing is because he can see the picture early,” said NZ assistant Scott McLeod. “He understands where the space is and where it’s going to be and positions himself really well, so when he does get the ball he understands what he has to do.
“Players around him are now starting to read off him as well. They get excited when he gets the ball and he can create something out of nothing so they get ready for that. But if you take the ball to a different part of the field and take all the defenders over there, then try and quickly get it to him because he can pretty much make something out of nothing. That’s exciting for us and for him.”
Surprising plot twist
Before he played a psychopathic killer in the epic No Country for Old Men, Spanish actor Javier Bardem represented Spain at rugby.
“I’m always saying that playing rugby in Spain is like being a bullfighter in Japan,” Bardem joked on the sideline during the first semi-final.
Willie le Roux copped deserved pelters for his ugly celebrations in the faces of the shocked England players after their semi-final climax.
Le Roux ran from from the back of the Boks to gloat over the one-point win before getting into a push and shove with Owen Farrell and others.
This spider cam view gives the clearest version of events. The Springbok replacement appears to point at the scoreboard as he celebrates.
Handre Pollard warned us before the game that there would be “beef” between the teams, and Le Roux took it too far, although Farrell dismissed it as a mere “misunderstanding”.
While Le Roux has received the most blow back for his behaviour it would be wrong to let others off the hook. Indeed England set the tone early when they loudly celebrated a Springboks lineout throw fail – something they could actually take zero credit for.
Farrell was also fired up during the game and when winger Kurt-Lee Arendse dropped the ball twice after a Farrell kick on 57 minutes, the England captain celebrated as if he’d scored a try. If they’d actually managed to then the game would have been iced right there.
Ref abuse is OTT
The reception given to Ben O’Keeffe before, during and after the semi-final was perhaps the worst seen at a rugby tournament. His appearance for a warm up, was intensely booed, as was the pre-game introduction of the officials.
It didn’t help that a French newspaper leaked a report by World Rugby into his quarter-final display which found five major errors made by BOK and his team.
It was hard not to feel for him when Owen Farrell kept getting up in his face during the game, leading to a 10 metre penalty that took Manie Libbok from 52 metres out and into goal kicking range in the first half. That’s three points Farrell and England would love to have back.
Much of the crowd reaction stemmed back to France’s loss under O’Keeffe a week earlier, but it also followed scathing reviews for Angus Gardner’s performance in the All Blacks vs Argentina game.
Considering the context, it was a refreshing take from Steve Borthwick when he was asked about O’Keeffe’s performance afterwards.
It’s not just the officials who have been on the end of abuse this tournament – and Eddie Jones copped more than his share every time his image went up on the big screens.
French president Emmanuel Macron was also passionately booed during the World Cup opening fixture – but it was a close thing who copped the worst abuse between him and BOK.
This week the abuse went even further with Rassie Erasmus revealing a deranged French fan sent death threats on social media to Cobus Reinach and the player’s son.
Reinach had an admirably-level headed response to that outrage: “It was someone stupid doing something stupid when he was emotional. Let him go.”
Rassie, meanwhile, got into an unsavoury, and frankly misogynistic spat with a RugbyPass journalist.
The Springboks’ Director of Rugby has his own “beef” with the site which has gone wildly off the clickbait deep end since being purchased by World Rugby. It’s been an intriguing move.
Clickbait is a bit like pornography. It’s hard to define but you know it when you see it, and plenty have been calling out RugbyPass.
The Wallabies coach (as I type) gave his last press conference a week ago – just after the last edition of The Good, the Bad and the Eddie was published. So as a public service I won’t go over that strange ground again.
I’m getting the sense that readers would appreciate a little Eddie holiday before he inevitably comes crashing back into the headlines when Japan name their next coach. (No promises).
Instead, I’ll end today by sharing a little personal detail.
On a romantic World Cup interlude to see my partner, for the first time in six weeks, she woke me one morning mid-dream.
“What were you dreaming about?” she asked, potentially hoping for a different answer to the one I gave her, which was: “Ah, I was sitting in an Eddie Jones press conference and he seemed a bit angry.”
On reflection, that was actually a nightmare. And Eddie killed the mood.