For the first time in its 20-year history, the third place play-off game was better than the Rugby World Cup final. A joyous Argentinian side swept aside host nation France at the Parc des Princes 24 hours before South Africa finally quenched the English flame and put the light out on that team’s four-year reign as champions.
Given the political background to South Africa’s win it is hard to underestimate its impact, but ultimately the five-try performance of the Pumas may be more significant in the global growth of the game. The International Rugby Board (IRB) is bringing pressure to bear on both the Six Nations and the Tri-Nations to accommodate Argentina.
There has already been contact between the Argentine Rugby Union (UAR) and its Spanish counterparts to set up a ”home” ground in Barcelona. The predictable response of those with vested interests to protect is, ”They’re good now, but what happens when this generation of players isn’t available anymore?”
Which brings us rather neatly to the Springboks. What now? Coach Jake White, with no new worlds to conquer, would be mad to accept an extension to his contract with Saru, in the extremely unlikely event that one were offered. He would be equally crazy to give in to the overtures of Wales and Australia, two proud rugby nations that currently find themselves on the canvas with toes pointed skywards.
White’s autobiography, Black and White, will be out in time for the Christmas market. The money he makes on it, together with the lucrative after-dinner speaking circuit and some free money from a broadcaster or three should keep the wolf from the door until at least this time next year. By which time he will be in the position to make a far less emotional decision on what to do with the rest of his life.
He may by then be heartily sick of being congratulated for doing a great job with the national side. He may even allow himself a chortle at the expense of the poor soul who inherits his job. And he may have come to terms with his own achievement: four years and 52 games in charge. It will never happen again. White shares with Kitch Christie two distinctions: winning the World Cup and leaving the coaching job on his own terms.
The bookmakers may already have set their odds for the number of Springbok coaches that will preside in the four years between now and New Zealand 2011.
You can have any money you like on one, because it won’t happen. Try two or three and don’t rule out four.
White has implored his employers to keep his team together, but the likelihood is that, like its 1995 predecessor, this will be seen as the end of an era, not the beginning of a new one. Money and the onset of professionalism broke up Francois Pienaar’s team. Money and the crying need for transformation will do for this one.
But that’s a story for another day. For now everyone feels the need to celebrate.
Those who knew nothing of rugby two months ago have hopefully been bitten by the bug, while those who feared another all-too predictable World Cup were delighted with the vagaries this one threw up. Delighted, that is, unless they happened to be from the Antipodes.
In retrospect it was possible to see the future from the Stade de France after the opening game. Argentina almost lost to France despite being demonstrably the better side. They lacked the self-belief that six more weeks with the big boys eventually gave them in spades. The fact that they held on eventually delivered the death knell for Graham Henry’s All Blacks.
Argentina’s win opened up South Africa’s side of the draw as surely as it closed down New Zealand’s. France were desperately disappointing throughout, but they always had one big performance in them. That it should come against New Zealand was one of the more predictable scenarios of the tournament.
It meant that the Springboks were able to win the Webb Ellis Trophy without facing a Tri-Nations or Six Nations team other than England. They had a considerably smoother ride in that respect than the 1995 team who had to fend off Australia, France and New Zealand to win. You can only beat what’s put in front of you, though.
The capricious bounce of the oval ball saved the Boks against both Tonga and Fiji, but it might be argued that the quality they showed in beating England 36-0 in pool play entitled them to a bit of luck. When they needed to be ruthless — twice against England and once against Argentina — they were. The mark of a great team is to have a little in reserve at all times and these Springboks were never stretched to breaking point.
Several players touched greatness on the biggest stage of all and it was fitting that Victor Matfield won the man of the match award at the final. He has come a long way from the callow fellow who was sent home from New Zealand by White and advised to get a haircut.
Bryan Habana scorched the earth in every game and Fourie du Preez was the calm eye at the centre of the storm. And then there was Percy Montgomery, who now has more caps and more points than any other Springbok. He was immense in the final. So much so that one might finally be tempted to compare him favourably to Andre Joubert. Hang on, though, let’s not get carried away.