By Paul Eddison in Paris
The Stade de France used to be a somewhat soulless place – a magnificent stadium that struggled to match the atmosphere of other rugby grounds in France.
All that has changed with the rise of this French team, and this weekend it played host to two of the greatest matches in Rugby World Cup history.
France and Ireland have been the best two teams in the world over the last four years, but just as the Irish were left heartbroken by defeat to New Zealand on Saturday night, les Bleus suffered the same fate on Sunday, losing 29-28 to world champions South Africa.
Just as with Ireland, France will have regrets. Perhaps even more. They started perfectly with a try from Cyril Baille after just four minutes. They could even have scored before then when Louis Bielle-Biarrey was just denied by Kurt-Lee Arendse.
They looked so dangerous with the ball, with Antoine Dupont pulling every string. The scrum-half’s participation in this game had been the only talking point in France for the past three weeks but he showed no ill-effects from the facial fracture suffered against Namibia.
When France look back, their inability to double their early lead will really sting. They created an overlap out wide but Gael Fickou chose to go himself rather than give to Bielle-Biarrey outside him. He was hauled down just short of the line, and then Eben Etzebeth’s decision to fling out a hand saved South Africa just after. Had it been deemed a knock-on, it would have been a penalty try and yellow card. Referee Ben O’Keeffe saw a knock back and South Africa breathed a sigh of relief.
That turned into a roar of triumph when Arendse sprinted home on South Africa’s first chance, showing his pace as the Springboks punished France’s failure to deal with high balls.
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Another loose ball allowed Damian de Allende to extend South Africa’s lead, but France struck straight back. Peato Mauvaka got this one, the hooker was only starting because of injury to first-choice Julien Marchand but he produced one of the all-time great performances. Cheslin Kolbe sprinted to charge down Thomas Ramos’ conversion attempt – it proved a match-winning moment.
South Africa’s scramble defence was allowing them to hang in, combined with a remarkable efficiency with the ball – Kolbe scored next from a turnover and kick through by Jesse Kriel.
France looked stunned but came back with their third, Baille again scoring. When Etzebeth went to the sin-bin for a head-on-head tackle on Uini Atonio, France went into half-time 22-19 up but feeling like they should have led by more.
It was the first time in the history of the Men’s World Cup, dating all the way back to 1987, that six tries had been scored in the first half of a knockout game.
France needed a bigger lead though and could not add points with Etzebeth off the field. South Africa turned to their bench early and that made the difference.
While France did get the score to 25-19 with a Ramos penalty, the sense was always there that they would need more.
Little knock-ons cost them, with South Africa’s scrum gaining the ascendancy. When Dupont was scragged by his own line, the Springboks used the territory to get over, Etzebeth the man to do so. With Handre Pollard’s conversion, they were back in front, and he soon added a long-range penalty.
I think they are excited he’s back! pic.twitter.com/JjfnocmCU2
— Paul Eddison (@pauleddison) October 15, 2023
Ramos pulled it back to a single point but although France got the ball back and had one final attack in the South Africa half, they had run out of gas. Where Ireland felt like they might eventually break through on Saturday, les Bleus were out on their feet.
The Stade de France was ready for a huge party. The fans inside were treated to two absolute classics this weekend.
But when the final whistle blew to South African cheers, the disappointment was palpable.
This is a venue transformed and which has played host to more high-quality rugby in 24 hours than any venue in the sport’s history.
Now with hosts France and Ireland’s great support gone, the test will be whether it maintains its atmosphere over the next fortnight, as England stand alone as the only remaining northern hemisphere challenge.
Based on the showings in the quarter-finals, a battle between the tournament’s two most successful sides awaits in the final. New Zealand against South Africa has the potential to be a sensational final.
But Ireland and France will be left to think about what might have been.