South 3, North 1.
Talk of a potential shift in the balance of power in world rugby toward the northern hemisphere might have been premature.
According to the world rankings, the teams from Europe were favored to win the four quarterfinals in the Rugby World Cup over the weekend.
Rugby is played on grass, though, not on paper. And after a quartet of titanic games with razor-thin margins, it’s the southern hemisphere which emerged — again — as the likelier to win the Webb Ellis Trophy.
The smart money is on a New Zealand-South Africa final on Oct. 28, a repeat of the 1995 title match and the latest episode of the ultimate rugby match and the biggest rivalry in the sport. Both are bidding for a record fourth world title.
England and Argentina still have plenty to say about that but, on the evidence of the quarterfinals, the All Blacks and the Springboks — rugby’s most mythical teams — are at a different level to the teams they’ll be facing.
Indeed, the France-South Africa and Ireland-New Zealand matches were instant classics, the highlights of one of rugby’s great weekends.
The combined margin of victory from those two games was five points. They could have gone either way but they went the way of the south, as is often the case in Rugby World Cups, despite Ireland being ranked No. 1 and the title favorite and France No. 2 and the home hope.
England is the only team from the northern hemisphere to have won the competition in its nine previous editions and is the only European team standing, a beneficiary of a lopsided draw that put Ireland, France, South Africa and New Zealand all on the same side. But England is an experienced World Cup campaigner heading into the semifinals for the sixth time, and may feel hardly any pressure considering no one expected Steve Borthwick’s team to be a threat.
England wants payback against the Springboks from not just the final four years ago in Japan but also the one 16 years ago in France. That 2007 World Cup had three of the same semifinalists — England, South Africa, Argentina — from this year.
France’s slogan for the Rugby World Cup has been ‘United for a Dream’ and it has been clear over the past month that the connection between Les Tricolores and the French public was as strong as ever.
Elimination on Sunday broke French hearts and it’s to be seen if that bond between the rugby team and the nation, which was missing for much of the previous decade, can remain. In superstars such as Antoine Dupont and Damian Penaud, the team has role models to which kids can aspire.
All is not lost for the French, though it might feel like it at the moment.
Each passing weekend sees greats of the game leave the tournament.
None are bigger than Dupont, the 26-year-old scrumhalf tyro and the best player in the world for many. At least he’ll be back for more Rugby World Cups, one would think.
The same cannot be said of retiring Ireland captain Jonathan Sexton. At 38 and with his body just about being held together, Sexton had one last chance to add a World Cup title to a career where he became Ireland’s record point-scorer, the highest scorer in the Six Nations and a world player of the year (in 2018).
It wasn’t to be, but his son couldn’t be prouder.
“You’re still the best, dad,” Luca Sexton could be seen telling his father.
Another top No. 10 who will never be seen again in international rugby is Dan Biggar, the battling Welshman who is 112 tests and out. He was also on his last legs, with his chest and knees wrapped in bandages in the loss to Argentina that he couldn’t quite finish.
Biggar was looking at the bright side following the loss in Marseille as he focuses his energy on his club career at Toulon, also in the south of France.
“The only positive,” he said, “is I’ve got a cheap Uber back to the house in Toulon.”
The twirling of the shirts. The inward flapping of the hands. The jumping on the spot in unison.
Argentina’s fans celebrated their team’s win over Wales with the same passion and style that the South American country’s soccer fans marked all those wins for Lionel Messi and his teammates on their run to the world title in Qatar almost a year ago.
It would be quite the double to win the biggest prize in soccer and rugby in the space of 10 months.
All the Pumas have to do is beat the All Blacks, then either the Springboks or England.