The eyes of the Rugby World Cup were on a scrum cap, allowing another man in headgear to steal the crucial march.
Antoine Dupont’s cheek and protective scrum cap captivated the entire Stade de France last night as the scrum-half delivered a mesmerizing performance.
However, tournament hosts France were unable to dislodge reigning champions South Africa – thanks to another man in the hat, Cheslin Kolbe.
The winger with the peaked cap flew off the line and somehow fended off Thomas Ramos’ attempted conversion. With the season over and South Africa winning by one point, 29-year-old Kolbe’s impressive intervention proved crucial.
Fine edges only sound boring if everyone is constantly talking about them. The closest test encounters revolve around such hair-raising procedures.
South Africa head coach Jacques Nienaber praised Kolbe for turning a lost cause into a game-winning moment.
“You don’t see that often, and it was someone pursuing a lost cause,” Nienaber said. “We were open a few times, but the scramble and effort from the players was enormous.”
Dupont was back in action just 24 days after breaking his cheekbone against Namibia.
The fear was that he would need protection, instead he protected Les Bleus: he filled gaps and dropped into defensive pockets. Then the little general led one attack after the other, with clever passes, incisive kicks and his typical sure dexterity.
Cyrille Baille scored two goals and Peato Mauvaka also crossed in a turbulent first half. But South Africa made up for this, through Kurt-Lee Arendse, Damian de Allende and Kolbe himself.
After the break, the reality dawned that a team was losing an epic game that almost didn’t deserve to be a loser. Just like the clash between Ireland and New Zealand the night before, this game was to be won not lost.
There would be no surrender, no giving in. France threw everything at the wild South Africa, but could not deliver the final blow. Instead, Eben Etzebeth shot the ball into the goal, Handre Pollard converted and converted a penalty two minutes later. France pushed again, but to no avail.
South Africa managed to keep the Webb Ellis Cup defense alive. Dupont had risen from the dead, but could not quite survive another fight.
England be warned. Whatever was thrown at South Africa in this World Cup was chewed up and spit out.
These untouched predators happily eat every single bite. Anything less than a near perfect approach and those big bad Boks will come and get you.
South Africa’s all-encompassing control could hardly seem more daunting unless and until the head coach turns around and insists there is still a lot to fix.
“We did a lot of things wrong,” Nienaber said. “That’s probably the pressure of a knockout game, but we still have a lot to sort out now.
“I know you’re looking at the bench but it’s a squad of 23 players that we select to get a result on the day. The distance between our players is not big. We’re lucky.”
South Africa never lacks motivation to make their nation proud, but now they might be able to gain the support of the French public for the rest of the World Cup.
“We have 60 million South Africans supporting us all the way and I think that will be enough for now,” said hooker Bongi Mbonambi.
“But if the French want to support us, they are very welcome!”
For France, their daring attempt to win a World Cup on home soil for the first time is over.
“This is the end of the adventure,” said flanker Francois Cros. “It’s a shame for this group who deserve to progress. We will never play another World Cup in France. It’s hard to end like this.”