Afrikaans lessons and bunker problems: 41 things we learnt from Rugby World Cup

Afrikaans lessons and bunker problems: 41 things we learnt from Rugby World Cup
Afrikaans lessons and bunker problems: 41 things we learnt from Rugby World Cup

The 2023 Rugby World Cup began amid a hail of criticism for its skewed draw but, unfair as it might have appeared, that produced the greatest weekend of rugby in the tournament’s history and then only the second final between the sport’s two superpowers.

Over seven weeks there were incredible matches, agonising late defeats, immense bravery, amazing skill, fortitude, luck, injuries and controversies.

Portugal and England gave stark reminders of how two totally contrasting ways to play the game can still bring results, while, as in every previous tournament, tier-two nations departed with a plea for more meaningful competition to avoid being mere cannon-fodder.

Here, we look back at the highs and lows from what was an enthralling tournament...

1. Viking appropriation must be stopped

The origins of the Viking clap are disputed. Fans of Motherwell FC have a strong claim to its invention and Iceland obviously popularised it at Euro 2016. Seven years later, rugby union had a go at its global showpiece. Led by scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park, the Ireland squad staged a few renditions upon arrival at their base in Tours. Later, when the pool games got underway, supporters were encouraged to build a buzz before kick-off by urging a chant of “Rug-by! Rug-by!” with clapping in between those shouts. Despite pockets of enthusiasm, it may not catch on.

2. Zombie is a stirring song...

Hordes of Ireland supporters crossed the Channel and belted out Zombie by the Cranberries, creating a phenomenal atmosphere. Munster, who initially adopted the 1994 tune a couple of years ago, will have to allow the national side to keep borrowing it. Because it really does stir the soul.

3. ...with interchangeable lyrics

We will address Ireland’s exceptional inside centre in more depth later, but “Zombie” was traded for “Bundee” rather easily. “Ardie” and “Rassie” were also swapped in, with locals mocking Ireland in the hours between the two Paris quarter-finals by singing: “Les Irlandais, Irlandais, sorry, sorry, sorry-eh-eh.” Although admirably witty, the schadenfreude evaporated the following evening. Lastly, our very deputy rugby union correspondent has a surname perfectly suited to poor impressions of Dolores O’Riordan, the late lead singer of the Cranberries. How will Dan get anything done back home without being spurred by “Schoey, Schoey, Schoey-eh-eh-eh”?

4. The draw deserved the criticism it copped

Everyone highlighted this way before the tournament began and it did not become more palatable when the action started. Though done for noble enough reasons, to mitigate the effect of Covid on schedules, the early draw did not reward progress of teams over the last cycle. Scotland, grouped with South Africa and Ireland, had most cause to be aggrieved.

5. Cycle obsessions are silly

World Cups create their own wacky ecosystems where anything seems possible for two months and nobody really cares how you have built over a four-year period since the last one. Squad depth, tactical clarity and cohesion can be developed over time, clearly. However, getting the last couple of months right, in order to peak with perfect timing, is paramount.

6. You will get wet in France

Games in early September, especially on the south coast, took place in sweaty temperatures of well over 30 degrees with humidity stifling. For the knockout rounds, a gloomy Paris was far cooler and rain set in. On the face of it, that range requires adaptability. Then again, both of those conditions cause handling to become difficult in the face of defensive pressure.

7. Crush frightened fans in Marseille

Fans are crushed trying to get inside Stade Vélodrome
The crush at Stade Vélodrome could have been very nasty - X

Early in the tournament, prominently at England’s opener against Argentina in Marseille and Ireland’s win over Romania in Bordeaux on the same weekend, queues caused thousands of supporters to miss kick-off. The crush at Stade Vélodrome could have been very nasty. Fortunately, the organising committee acted quickly and things ran more smoothly and sensibly over the remainder of the World Cup.

8. Côte D’Azur lifestyle is enviable

Before covering England’s quarter-final against Fiji, I ate cheese for breakfast and had a swim in the sea. Doing both of those things on October 15 next year might prove trickier.

9. Antoine Dupont was mesmerising...

Slightly subdued, by his own astronomic standards, in the opening-night win over New Zealand, Antoine Dupont, the poster boy of the tournament, produced a first half from the heavens against Namibia, book-ended by try-scoring kick-passes off either foot. He was just as brilliant in the quarter-final against South Africa. Sadly, each occasion ended badly.

10. ...and taught us about cheekbones

Johan Deysel breaks Antoine Dupont's cheekbone
Johan Deysel broke Antoine Dupont's cheekbone - ITV

Google searches of “maxilla-zygomatic fracture” will have soared after Johan Deysel, the Namibia skipper, clattered Dupont and sent a nation – and a sport – into a state of panic. Thankfully, the victim returned in time for the knockout rounds.

11. The bunker system needs refining

The inaugural World Cup for bunker officials, or foul play review officers, ensured that referees did not show any red cards on the field, instead sticking with yellows and delegating responsibility for match-defining calls to anonymous colleagues. It was all a bit odd, and communication to those at the stadium must be totally clear if this is to continue.

12. 9pm kick-offs test stamina

They are a staple in France, with the showpiece Top 14 game of the weekend often taking that slot on Sundays, but 9pm kick-offs are draining for everyone. Scrambling around the mixed zone [where journalists meet players for post-match interviews] afterwards would easily keep you at the stadium beyond 1am.

13. Celeb spots are eclectic

Javier Bardem watches the semi-final between Argentina and the All Blacks
Javier Bardem (centre) watched the Argentina-All Blacks semi-final - Lionel Hahn/Getty Images

Javier Bardem’s appearance for the semi-final between Argentina and the All Blacks came with the actor’s revelation that he has represented Spain in this sport. He also turned up to the final a week later. Dan Carter and Sophie Turner delivered the match ball, while Novak Djokovic and Rita Ora were spotted in the stands and Roger Federer celebrated with the victorious Springboks. Hours earlier, a personal highlight had been spying Shaun Wallace, a star of The Chase quiz show.

14. Eddie hit his nadir

Australia and Eddie Jones officially parted company on the day after the decider, the Wallabies having been at home for weeks due to the first pool-stage exit in their history. The final ignominy had been waiting to see if Fiji could record a single bonus point against Portugal. They could, albeit after a struggle, and Australia were gone. Their head coach had gambled on a green squad, shorn of Michael Hooper and Quade Cooper, and it back-fired badly. The 40-6 loss to Wales in Lyon was truly horrible.

15. Rest weeks stall momentum

Another unintended consequence of installing rest weeks for each team – a schedule change made in good faith, with player welfare at its heart – was that the tournament felt fitful. With more midweek matches, the tournament would be inescapable for new consumers during its moment in the spotlight.

16. Os Lobos became the darlings

David Wallis of Portugal celebrates victory with members of the crowd
Portugal were the darlings of the Rugby World Cup - Julian Finney/World Rugby

Portugal’s intrepid performances under Patrice Lagisquet stirred the soul. Nicolas Martins’ try against Wales, from a no-look line-out transfer, encapsulated their spirit. Martins also tackled relentlessly. Mike Tadjer’s clearance kick during the narrow victory over Fiji was another uplifting moment. Samuel Marques, their wily scrum-half, ran his socks off and kicked goals. Raffaele Storti, just 22, is a fabulous talent on the wing. Dwelling on individuals feels rather beside the point, however. Os Lobos were a special team with a definitive style. They kicked cleverly, spread the ball with vigour, mauled above their weight and defended desperately. The reception for them at Lisbon airport was a joyous image.

17. There were mixed returns for ‘tier-two’ crew

Of the teams outside the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship, Portugal, Fiji and Uruguay should be pleased with their campaigns. Although Tonga and Romania played out an entertaining encounter, Samoa pushed England close and Georgia improved, with Davit Niniashvili predictably excellent, the rest will have been largely disappointed. Chile and Samoa were most vocal in imploring the powers that be to give them more fixtures. That must be the upshot of World Rugby’s global league plans.

18. Darcy dazzled

Ultimately, Scotland fell significantly short in their two crucial pool games. South Africa stifled them in Marseille and then Ireland smashed them at Stade de France. Before the World Cup, though, Gregor Townsend vowed that they would continue to play with an intrepid, expansive approach. Darcy Graham, their skating, effervescent wing, bagged four tries in an 84-0 dismantling of Romania. Watching him in the Six Nations will be a treat.

19. Manuel Ardao arrived...

Being likened to David Pocock, as Miguel Ardao was by Italy assistant Marius Goosen, is a decent fillip for a back-rower. Ardao has signed for Miami Sharks. What price a move to Europe in the future?

20. ...but veterans showed value, too

Johnny Sexton fronts up for Ireland
Johnny Sexton fronts up for Ireland - Christophe Ena/AP

Courtney Lawes, Dan Cole, Deon Fourie, Duane Vermeulen, Mike Tadjer, Francisco Fernandes, Nicolás Sánchez, Agustín Creevy, Sam Whitelock, Levani Botia and Johnny Sexton all influenced their team in a positive manner. People covet experience at World Cups for good reason.

21. Italy underwhelmed

For all the excitement over Ange Capuozzo and co, with the Six Nations having hinted at further progress, the Kieran Crowley era ended in a whimper. Italy gave themselves a chance of the quarter-finals by overturning Namibia and Uruguay before a terrible outing against New Zealand and another heavy loss to France.

22. Knockouts delivered tension despite draw

Only one of the eight knockout matches, New Zealand’s thrashing of Argentina, was a dud. Ideally, the two spectacular quarter-finals in Paris would have been semis. That said, the draw did ensure four tight, tense games at the last eight stage, albeit of differing quality.

23. Go to Au Métro

The Telegraph Rugby Podcast went on the road and recorded a special episode at the front of a charming bar in Pasteur that captures France’s affinity with the sport. Charles Richardson, our Francophile rugby reporter, and owner Jean-Pierre go way back.

24. Mood of host nation was hoovered

Antoine Dupont debates with Ben O'Keeffe
France turned on referee Ben O'Keeffe after their World Cup exit - Franck Fife/AFP

Faf de Klerk’s strip on Reda Wardi, which sealed the exit of Les Bleus, inevitably sucked enthusiasm out of the World Cup. France fans filled their free time by booing Ben O’Keeffe. Ireland’s defeat also caused wonder for what might have been, given the volume and noise brought by their supporters. Hopefully Australia get their act together for 2027...

25. Ireland bumped, but could not break, their glass ceiling

Ten tournaments, eight quarter-final exits and no knockout wins. That record is more galling for Ireland given their excellence since 2021. This crop, steered by the retiring Sexton, was good enough to win the whole thing. But it does not happen that way.

26. Bundee Aki was immense

Integral to Ireland was Bundee Aki, who found the best form of his career. His pace, which helped him score five tries, was particularly eye-catching. The 33-year-old returned home and promptly had a contract extension announced.

27. “That’s the game, brother”

Michael Cheika speaks to the press
Michael Cheika is never shy about saying what he thinks - Gaspafotos/Getty Images

Michael Cheika tends to be a star of World Cups because of his forthright answers and charisma. Among his last messages from the World Cup was an impassioned plea to organise more fixtures for less established nations. In a previous top-table session, following the semi-final, the Argentina head coach broke off from a response that had started in Spanish to sign off with: “That’s the game, brother”. Interpreters must keep on their toes with Cheika around.

28. Refereeing gripes grate

That said, Cheika and Dupont were among those to deliver barbs towards referees in post-match interviews. Even accounting for how high emotions run, this is an unedifying trend that is becoming more prominent.

29. Mounties took Paris

Travelling fans make the World Cup what it is and those from Argentina, Portugal and Chile were the loudest I encountered. A special shout-out to the touring party led by Dave Lougheed, the former Leicester Tigers wing who played for Canada at four World Cups between 1991 and 2003. Dressed as Mounties, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, they raised awareness of Lougheed’s charity, For the Love of the Game, by turning heads at the Stade de France.

30. England enjoyed a nostalgia trip

An unfancied team travelling to France and going deep into the knockout rounds, leaning on experience, determination and drop-goals before almost upsetting the Springboks? For 2007, read 2023. Now for Steve Borthwick to build upon an encouraging campaign.

31. Afrikaans tutorials can be free

Tom Curry and Bongi Mbonambi argue
Tom Curry and Bongi Mbonambi were at the centre of a race row - Mike Egerton/PA

Knowledge is power and learning that “wit kant” means “white side” in Afrikaans was the only benefit of the bitter fallout from Tom Curry’s serious accusation that Bongi Mbonambi, the South Africa hooker, had branded him as a “white c---“.

32. Wayne Barnes was rewarded

There can be very few honest complaints about the officiating of the World Cup final. Wayne Barnes was deservedly appointed and met the occasion calmly. Ardie Savea was harshly penalised at an early breakdown, but the man in the middle explained matters with the conviction and clarity that have characterised his rise to the top of refereeing.

33. We said fond farewells

The list of those stepping away from the Test arena is too long to detail, so a word on Aaron Smith, who gave a touching interview on the verge of his final week as an All Black. The storied scrum-half spoke of wearing his heart on his sleeve, which reinforced the physical and emotional commitment that players and coaches make for our entertainment.

34. Owen Farrell grabbed the golden boot

Marcos Kremer, Argentina’s bearded back-row enforcer, topped the tournament tackle count with 92. Bundee Aki and Ardie Savea finished level on 81 carries. Salesi Piutau and Antoine Dupont recorded 10 offloads each, more than anyone else. And, courtesy of his last penalty against Argentina to seal bronze for England, Owen Farrell was the leading points-scorer, finishing one ahead of Thomas Ramos. That was while missing the first two matches through suspension. Not a bad effort.

35. Will Jordan was robbed

Will Jordan scores a try against Argentina
Will Jordan finished on eight tries - Mohammed Badra/Shutterstock

As it turned out, Richie Mo’unga’s dummy in the final moments of the semi-final, as Will Jordan waited on the touchline for the score that would have usurped Jonah Lomu, Bryan Habana and Julian Savea to set a new record for tries at a World Cup, was pretty costly. South Africa starved Jordan of space the following weekend and he will have to strive for nine in 2027.

36. Try of the tournament was a crowded field...

Jordan’s chip and chase against Argentina was probably his best try, though might not even have been the best featuring a kick in the tournament. Mani Libbok set up Kurt-Lee Arendse with a beautiful, no-look strike against Scotland and Amato Fakatava’s effort for Japan against Argentina inspired numerous smiles. Rampaging locks have that effect.

37. ...with a head-banger

Courtney Lawes’s finish against Japan, via a header from Joe Marler in midfield, was one that only a mother could love. And yet, it proved vital for England in a scrappy affair. To borrow cricketing parlance, they all look the same in the scorebook.

38. Kick-pressure still pays

The final was punctuated by no fewer than 72 kicks. Though conditions certainly influenced matters, kicking will remain pivotal as a means of controlling territory, finding space and exerting pressure. Portugal’s adulation proved that people forgive and forget it so long as there is ambition and accuracy in other areas.

39. Cane sunk from hero to zero

Sam Cane puts his head in his hands
Sam Cane became the first player to be sent off in a World Cup final - ITV

Superb in the quarter-final against Ireland, avenging the stinging sledge of Peter O’Mahony, who had compared him unfavourably to Richie McCaw the previous summer as Ireland overturned New Zealand, Sam Cane then suffered a red card in the final for a high tackle on Jesse Kriel. “Unfortunately, it’s something I’m going to have to live with forever,” said the All Blacks captain. Brutal.

40. Ardie was awesome, Pieter-Steph peerless

Two epic individual displays punctuated the last dance, which was an absorbing contest. Pieter-Steph du Toit produced a clinic in destructive tackling, while Ardie Savea spearheaded the All Blacks’ determined attempt to upset the odds following their captain’s dismissal. That latter was justifiably crowned world player of the year.

41. Great leadership lies in the subtle moments

Siya Kolisi is a fine orator and winning back-to-back World Cups has sent him into the pantheon of great captains, but a U-turn crystallised what makes him a true leader. At the last whistle of the final, having been replaced, he began sprinting onto the field before turning and running back towards the touchline. Cheslin Kolbe, who had been sin-binned for the denouement, had been unable to watch. Kolisi had the presence of mind to embrace and reassure his distraught team-mate before the celebrations could really start.