Rugby World Cup: Weekend of sport in its purest, most awesome form answers some critics

There will have been contented smiles at World Rugby HQ on Monday morning as the dust settled on a quite brilliant weekend for the sport.

This World Cup has had its critics, so for all four quarter-finals to deliver drama and rugby of the highest quality was a much-needed fillip. Nobody could quibble with the action on Saturday and Sunday. There was not a disappointing tie out of the quartet, with the outcome in the balance right up until the very end. France and South Africa probably saved the best til last with an extraordinary match-up in Paris, with the defending champions sneaking past the hosts 29-28. New Zealand’s 28-24 win over Ireland is not far behind on the quality-o-meter, and while England’s 30-24 success over Fiji and Argentina overcoming Wales 29-17 may not have been quite as high-level, they were two compelling matches in their own right.

The tournament needed this, a cluster of matches to get people talking about the sport in a positive light. There have been valid complaints about consistency over high tackles, contact to the head and yellow/red cards. Some have griped about some of the complete mis-matches – you always get them in the group stages of a Rugby World Cup – and there have been, of course, plenty of column inches devoted to the draw, with the top five teams in the world all stationed in Pools A and B. That’s what happens when you set it all up three years in advance, so when the competition comes around, the seedings are antiquated.

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We would not have had such a momentous weekend, though, had it not been this way. There is an argument that these clashes of titans came along too soon, that they ought to have been semi-finals. Argentina and England will of course disagree. There is a chance that the next matches – Argentina v New Zealand and England v South Africa – will be less competitive affairs. It does not take a rugby expert to spot that the top four teams in the world – Ireland, France, All Blacks and the Boks – are playing a different brand of rugby to the rest. The bookies have it odds-on that the October 28 final will be between South Africa and New Zealand and it is hard to bet against that. The way they won at the weekend, the awesome nature of their rugby, will send fear into their opponents.

South Africa's Cheslin Kolbe is tackled during the Springboks' incredible 29-28 win over hosts France.South Africa's Cheslin Kolbe is tackled during the Springboks' incredible 29-28 win over hosts France.
South Africa's Cheslin Kolbe is tackled during the Springboks' incredible 29-28 win over hosts France.

Never before have there been a set of matches that have showed off the sport’s brutal power and athleticism quite like this. The speed – mentally and physically – of the players and their skillsets were showcased quite brilliantly. The South Africa v France match was sporting theatre, a Hollywood blockbuster of a match. Ireland’s defeat was just as gripping, a team seven days’ beforehand had serenaded their adoring fans to the tones of Zombie after whacking Scotland in the very same stadium that they eventually came unstuck. Ireland really believed this was their time but as their former player Brian O’Driscoll put, they came up against 23 possessed men in black.

On the evidence of all this, rugby can still deliver to the wider public, despite the criticisms, the complex rules and the scattergun officiating. The tournament may not hit the same heights over the next fortnight but the purest, most perfect form of the sport displayed across two mesmerising days will live long in the memory.