The ball was in play for 38 minutes in the 2023 Rugby World Cup final and it will require the same time investment to savour this decadent memoir of the decider from HARRY JONES.
As we wedged into the clogged beer line at the half, hot in the coats and caps we had in the rain of the Stade de France, brake feet set as if in a scrum, hips square, with a six-point lead in the mother of all Tests, we swayed all at the same time, as if some old green and gold tune made us tick, eyes fixed on the three choices of food and that one type of beer.
No space for a phone to be out until we reach the nirvana of the till where we said a thing the French did not believe: “ten beers, s’il vous plait? Ja no, I’m serious.” We were all buying for all. Deals were made. As one would leave the maul with a vow from the man next: “I got you, boet” it was as if a ghost ref was with us, regulating the flow of thirst and brotherly love, and we had, finally, after all these years, adapted.
“Where you from?”
“Potch” or “Bloem” or “Welkom” and then the customary rugby bum sniff of which school you played for and who you played with and what position you played in (followed by disclaimers about how much you weighed back in the day, before we all turned into props) with “lekka” the social glue of these chats, but also:
“Cape Town. Actually Vancouver.”
“Ja, Durban but London.”
Cue tales of woe and wait in the train or on the ferry or by the plane.
But then all the things we miss.
The sun, the food, the vibe, the mess, the laugh, the jol, the friends, the sea, the taste, the game; just as would veer far too close to real tears, we had got to the beer pour.
This game was a homecoming but also we felt a strange responsibility, a duty if you will, to bring it home. To send it home. To be home.
This was not a night for the neutral. Where we live now was not the thing. What our family did or does, who we look like and how, what strange journey we had taken to be here, and what we believe the Bok can do for us and why: unimportant.
Tonight was skop, jag, chop, vat, pak, drill, shout, sing, and bring all you have, all you ever had, and all your memories too.
The blood which washed down to the divided sea all these years in an often unbeloved country is not bad.
There is a way for it to work, just about, and maybe never as neatly as in Roger’s Switzerland but South Africa can be, can do, can work, and on the other side of war and pestilence, shed the load of the past and shine on the world stage.
No. Ready. Eyes open; prepared to fight.
But if everyone actually does their job, their own bloody job, the talent is there and so is the love abundant.
A grand illusion it is, for the fanatic, each one bringing their superstition, to will the team home. One is silent, another bellows, some have strings attached, others pray, and of all the many rugby tribes I have communed with, South Africans think they have a Thing they must do on game day, mystically connected to the Boks.
Thus, if I must always go on a long run in the morning of the Test, it will give Cheslin Kolbe that extra bunny hop. If I dig in the garden Kwagga Smith will fetch that turnover. If I lift my personal best on the bench, Eben Etzebeth will crack some ribs. If my office is perfectly clean, Handre Pollard will not miss. If I solve the crossword, Damian Willemse will catch everything. If my axe work is clean for the wood on the braai, Bongi Mbonambi, the Last Hooker Standing, will hit his jumper.
Wait. More on that in a bit.
The truth is every people on earth tends to believe their story is the most poignant, their dishes the most delicious, their songs the deepest, their beauty the standard, their history the most tragic and glorious, and their march to victory the least fair, the most beset with thieves and obstacles, the cruelest denial of justice. We love our own myth.
South Africa just happened to have eleven or twelve of those tales wrapped into one sticky koeksuster, dropped into hot bunny chow, laced with vetkoek and walkie talkie on the side, covered in roti, chased by a Limpopo freakshake, braaied with ox liver sitting next to chicken dust at the chisa nyama, and on top of the sheep head, amagwinya.
For centuries, these mismatches caused real bombs and squads from too few schools. You know the ones: striped blazers in just the right places; names rhyming.
This squad comes from thirty schools; from all over the show. They do their jobs across the globe, as do so many of their supporters.
On this night, the night of no excuses, fight night, the race to four cups, the end of an era, and an answer to just one question: not who is best at rugby, necessarily, but who is the best at Rugby World Cups?
Of the ten matches I went to, the final was the most sorted: the green and the black and the blue had their own queues to drink, eat and leak. (But to be honest, any old wall did fine on the last job).
Thus, the slow march to the slow pour was a time to meet a guy from all over the world who had come to this place at this time: a home away from home. One issue on one night.
We were in the Stade that Jacques bilked. The quiet man behind the Man; hat and glasses on, Meneer Anoniem. But for three weeks, he was DJ Data in Saint-Denis, the Fizz Physio in the box, spinner of records.
Knock the furious French hosts out, floor the ferocious English in the rain, and find a way to stop All Black tries; three weeks and three points.
The last time I was in this place it was two shades of green in the stands, and a maul stop was the end of the affair: a grind of a game and not well liked by New Zealand’s coach Ian Foster.
Did he know his team would be in the same house of smoke, salted and cured and spiced and sent packing, dried? His side did get a chance to test the Nienaber-Stick pointy-umbrella rush-rage Faf-renzy monster truck D: if the Kiwi Way was more righteous, surely it would notch more than what Ireland did?
But eleven points were all they could score within the eighty minutes on offer.
This time, the Boks had scored four more points than the last time I was here, by oranges.
This time, we had the No 10 who kicks better with the game on the line than when there is no stress. This time, the coaches had gone all in: one hooker, one scrumhalf, and one Willie.
This time the beer tasted better.
One by one the French poured their beer; cup by cup, as if they did not know we would be there for a month, a week, or just this night.
The covered concourse was cool. Good friends Malcolm Marx and Vincent Koch sat just as we went in and out, a few metres below Novak Djokovic, who joined Roger Federer in backing the Bokke.
Would it be kick tennis in the second half? Could Rieko Ioane break serve, or would the extra meat on the great gatsby Saffa sandwich swallow the Kiwi attack forever.
A six-point lead with a carded Kiwi cappie was also cool, but the only team more used to second half All Black blitzes — the Wallabies — could be part of a Tri Nation support grief group full of sad Saffas.
We knew, we all knew, they would not go quietly into the Paris night.
The bomb squad would not just roll over the seconds in this hard pack, like they did the English. Aaron Smith and the Barretts have more big trophies in their cabinets than Fabien Galthie has swimming costumes or cheap glasses.
We had just seen concrete scrums. A bit of a budge, but no crack. The referees were in no mood to ping a prop for a knee or a stumble.
It was no coincidence that the two best scrums were in the final match of the biggest tournament in the history of the sport.
Three of the front rowers who played in the final said about the same thing to me afterwards: it was the hardest they had scrummaged in ages; one added: “maybe ever.”
Scrums matter in Rugby Union, but only when you fail to have one ready do you have something to worry about.
There is a strange and terrible beauty to this heaving organism we call a scrum: like a humpbacked, barnacle encrusted whale come from the deep, blowing and writhing and emitting sounds of pain and strain both high and low at the very same time.
On this night, the scrum for beer or the Cup was almost unmoving.
Forty minutes of hell awaited us.
But the Bomb Squad philosophy is not only about an edge at the end.
The big idea is to have mismatches on the pitch throughout the game: make the whole match a mismatch.
If the best lock and tighthead and blindside in the world know they never have to save any gas, they can floor it from the jump. The coaches can adapt to the exact evidence in real time: only one man need go the distance (or we can just name that eighty minute position “PSDT” from this point).
On this night, Frans Malherbe’s Bredasdrop Bind lasted fourteen minutes longer than the Spicy Plum marmelade. Siya Kolisi and Duane Vermeulen stuck around longer than before, and Deon Fourie ran around like he had no tomorrow.
The final forty was a sledgehammer of emotion: we dug in and held on.
We had seats in our section but they were swimming the mud of our shoes. Nobody sat until the end.
Ox Nche was kind enough to set down his cake for a bit and seat me in the midst of the Springbok family. Section U6 may sound like a bad submarine or Bono’s successor but on this night the bloc was a family reunion. Here were the agonising wives and children and fathers and brothers and sisters of the players.
Every call was a slap, every chance a miracle, every lineout a trial, and a player down was family.
Two minutes in and one of the only scenarios which was not allowed to happen, the loss of the only hooker with an official license to throw, was down and out, corkscrewed by the All Black enforcer at a breakdown, which meant Fourie would have to throw over crusaders and chiefs for almost two hours; as if a pretty good amateur golfer is suddenly subbed in for Amen Corner and the home holes at Augusta, when the champ twists a knee.
But whilst the stadium and spectators around the world saw Bongi Mbonambi, the recipient of racial abuse charges in the week and unable — as none of us are — to prove a negative, down and in pain, the beautiful little girl next to me saw her daddy hurt on the grass, and felt her mommy worried.
Engulfing both of them in a bear hug, I told the little one every little thing would be alright, and her father would be good, and now he just wants her to be brave so he can win. For the rest of the Test, we took turns amusing her, lifting her as if in a lineout, and one of my best memories in rugby will be seeing her big beautiful smile as we all danced and hugged at the end, a union far more deep than the 1995 interlude.
This is a real family. No borders, no limits, and no excuses. The team finding excuses, those rationales, is just figuring out how to lose.
Something goes wrong: adapt.
This Bok team adapted: to a new way, to new rules, to losses of their lineout caller, defender-creator Lukhanyo Am, and one of the best tight forwards in the world, to animosity, the pressure of defending a Cup, to scandal, to life in this loud bloody Stade de Farce, and to one-point games under a director who went on a virtual jol a few times, Rassie the Moulin Rogue, the brandy-tweeting, seven-forward-thinking, full metal jacket leader of this merry crew.
Most memories just happen and you do not know they will be so big as the moment is happening. Some are so massive you know they will be your friend or enemy forever.
This was huge.
Having gone to see the Boks lose at the Cake Tin and Twickers in 2011 and 2015, and being able to replay both in my mind any time I feel a bit too happy, I already knew we were all forming a memory which would stick forever.
One kick had to miss and then another. All the chances for a try were gone and made up for anyway; Kurt-Lee’s first ever squandered squeeze as a Bok was balanced by his tackle of Ioane. Siya not seeing the pass; but he stopped fourteen All Blacks cold at the pass. Pollard’s offload to du Toit, whose tip to de Klerk was wasted with a rushed pass? There was the blonde bomber finding Dalton Papali’i’s ankle just before the Blue flank found space.
All of it indelible and yet, being at the grounds, so much is unseen.
The disputes. The controversies. All of it is shrouded in mystery, waiting of you in the hotel in the middle of the night.
The reasoning of the ref, who on replay I see told the front rows for the ultimate scrums: “Everyone do your job.”
And so they did.
Live, we saw the ribbons of spectators filing into the sphere. The rumble of anthems. The little half chances not seen on television. The reunions far from home. Not just the colour of cards but the feeling of justice or injustice, as if we were eighty thousand jurors. The absence of space; the slendering of time. The whir of the ball seeking a flag aloft. Seeing the younger Barrett kicker know, feel, and understand he had missed; seeing it in his bones.
Live, we heard the hosts were against us: les Bleu was still blue and mad about being bested. But their sound was strangely muted.
Live, I could feel the gainline; no need to look at the stat sheet.
And the power of raw, desperate tackles. I swear I heard Etzebeth’s early tackle of Jordie Barrett, who must have been hit harder all game than anyone I ever saw, a trigger of days gone by, of Saturday mornings and that first big hit.
Memories revive other memories. Rugby spectators watch to remember how they played.
Do you remember waking too early?
The porridge tasting like a scrum? The cold Kawasaki with too few cc. The tog bag with just what you needed; no more. The smell of rubbed knees in the Deep Heat cloakroom. Your one mate who always upchucked. The clitter-clatter of your boots on the polished red stoep. The throng watching the seconds finish as you took the field? Rubbing your damn ears to death. Stretches; two boys seesawing back to back with arms locked. The cold coin. The wet grass. The tall trees. The slow tiled scoreboard. The brutal whistle. The kickoff too high and the fluttering ball too slow.
Do you remember that first blessed impact? Game day is game day.
And some games are bigger than others. This game was the biggest.
When the final whistle blew after the Seventh Forward, Jasper Wiese, took five men with him and kept on his feet to allow his cleaners to arrive, after the frenzy following the missed Barrett kick, I buried my face and sobbed like a baby and everyone’s shoulder was for everyone else to cry on; we just did not know colour or creed or province or what our fathers did to each other, because we needed shoulders of green, and then as the music began to play and I raised my head and emerged and looked around, all I saw were tears of joy, the tears of memory, the tears of goodbye and a return home or faraway, the sorrow of the last Tests for the oldest veterans, and what may never quite be the same again.
After the party after the party after the final, and after a few hours of sleep, I woke without a liver and several categories of morals, and my exhausted phone needed an adaptor and I had the wrong one and the reception had none either.
I walked around in the spitting rain searching in vain for an open shop on a Saint-Denis Sunday before I realised I would need my phone to be charged to use it to pay anyway.
I swear on the life of all I hold dear: when I was almost back to my hotel, wet and nearly defeated, I saw a small black plug near the tram on the grass which is grown and left on the tracks in this quartier.
An hour later, showered and adapted and charged, full of bacon and eggs, I began to read about what we had just seen and watch the game anew. It will not be the last time.
Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images