Wonderful being French

2007-10-11 13:59

JJ Harmse

It is almost sad that this year's Rugby World Cup will be over in 10 days.

From the very first match when Argentina shocked the French up to today, two days away from the semi-finals, its managed to entertain, to shock and to revive the game of rugby.

The exits of the two top ranked sides in the world, barely a week after the likes of USA, Namibia and Portugal departed, was of course a huge shock to many.

For France, it was the ideal thing to happen.

I remember the doom and gloom in Paris after that opening game and how many believed that Ireland would beat France to end the hosts' chances in week three of the six-week competition.

Well, thanks to some appalling refereeing by Chris White and Ireland's poor form, the French survived that one to set up a quarter-final clash against the All Blacks.

Even then, the French were sulky. How the organisers could get it so wrong and make France to fight for survival in Cardiff of all places, was the main topic of conversation in every brasserie.

Celebrating

I was in Marseille when the final whistle sounded and New Zealand were eliminated. Or let me rather say, when France survived to fight another day.

Marseille did not sleep on Saturday night. There were thousands of English supporters dancing and drinking the night away after they defeated Australia, but even more French were celebrating in the crowded Marseille streets. Suddenly the whole country was alive again.

Coming back to Paris this week, the weather has changed a lot since we left for Montpellier two weeks ago, as has the mood.

We left a sunny French capital and came back to find a grey, wet and rainy city. We left Paris with sulky French rugby fans, all bemoaning the fact that their Top 14 competition is allowing too many foreigners to play in their domestic competition, thus taking away opportunities from younger French players.

Back then, barely two weeks ago, everything foreign seemed bad.

Not anymore.

Suddenly the French game is as strong as ever, Chabal is bigger than he ever was and the rugby spirit is alive again.

Denial

The Springboks are now seen as possible final opponents and rugby is the talk of the town again.

On the other side of the world, a country is in denial.

The two points that separated France and the All Blacks has dumped one nation into "the smell of death" as Anton Oliver described New Zealand's changing room while the other was dancing with champagne in hand.

The margin of victory in both the first two quarter-finals was exactly the same, yet the effect of the results was poles apart.

The Australians took their defeat on the chin, perhaps realising that they were living a lie believing that their scrum was good enough to survive at this level.

They were also given a real escape route by the Kiwis a couple of hours later. The Aussies are reflecting on their early exit, yes, but were quick to jump on the choker bandwagon their Antipodean neighbours provided.

"Yes, we lost, but how bad were New Zealand," seemed to be the best explanation for the Wallabies. And one that everyone Down Under seems to be happy with.

The winning margin also revived the English media. Most were joking before the kick-off of the Australian game that their reign as world champions was to last another two hours.

Amusing

Suddenly, they are world-beaters again. They too seemed very eager to deflect the shortcomings of their game - again no tries or any trace of attacking play - to New Zealand's failure.

They still have something to play for though, but I find it amusing that they also changed the way they looked at their players and their game in three weeks.

Not too long ago, when England was demolished by the Springboks 36-0, their scribes were outraged.

Too old, too slow, too dumb and too predictable, some headlines screamed. Yet, as time passed and England put some bite back into their campaign by beating Samoa and Tonga, that all started to change. Now, after beating the Aussies, the world is okay again. And England rugby strong.

The French and English are living their "second lives" in the competition. The Argentineans have already made history coming this far.

The Springboks are the only ones that have only one way to go from here on in. The English and French can claim great fightbacks in their campaigns. They were down, but never out and whoever loses on Saturday, will have that claim to cling to.

Not the Boks.

Yes, we have made the semis this time around. Fact is, that is the least that was expected. The way the draw panned out made it even less negotiable to get to the semis.

If we lose on Sunday, did we fail like New Zealand? I say yes. What do you think?

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