Rugby World Cup is the last hurrah for a bunch of greats
Rugby World Cups can be a bathtub of tears.
Of the 20 competing teams, 19 will have their hopes dashed. The 20th team won’t be immune, either, as the champion sheds tears of joy.
But every team has players who know they are not only playing their last Rugby World Cup, but also their last match for their country.
With only the final and bronze matches remaining, some rugby luminaries are in the final week of their careers.
The chance to go out in glory in Saturday’s final has been earned by the likes of South Africa’s Schalk Brits, Tendai Mtawarira and Frans Steyn, and England prop Joe Marler. None have said they’re retiring but expectations are they will.
Steyn could become only the second Springbok to win two Rugby World Cups, after Os du Randt, a teammate in the 2007 squad. Steyn missed the 2015 Rugby World Cup following the death of his brother, and he didn’t expect to play in another until he was summoned in July by coach Rassie Erasmus.
“I’m at a stage now where you know there is not going to be 10 more years to make a wrong right,” Steyn said. “So I get a little bit more serious before a test match.”
Marler already retired once, but changed his mind 10 months later.
“I have worked my buns off to try to get back into an emotional and mental state capable of contributing to the squad the best I can,” he said. “And the physical state, too, that has been even harder.”
Friday’s bronze playoff between New Zealand and Wales will mark the last appearances in an All Blacks jersey for captain Kieran Read, center Sonny Bill Williams and fullback Ben Smith.
The All Blacks’ loss to England in the semifinals was only Read’s 16th in 126 tests. Like Williams, Read won unprecedented back-to-back Rugby World Cups in 2011 and 2015, after which he became the captain following the retirement of Richie McCaw.
“In your heart you want to play forever, but in your head you know that’s not possible,” Smith said.
Kenki Fukuoka’s 27-year-old heart could have played on, but the Japan winger decided before this Rugby World Cup to quit test rugby to attend medical school. It’s a family tradition to be a doctor. He wants to bow out of rugby in sevens at next year’s Tokyo Olympics.
In the meantime, Fukuoka has returned to Top League club the Panasonic Wild Knights, where he will be joined by Australia flanker David Pocock, another who has retired relatively young from internationals. The 31-year-old Pocock endured a career disrupted by injuries, including six months out until September. That break made him feel like his year was just starting to hum until the quarterfinal loss to England.
“This is not how I thought I would end,” he said.
At least he got to play. Teammate Sekope Kepu was a mere spectator at the end of his 110-cap run. Scrumhalf Will Genia also finishes with 110 caps.
“How lucky was I?” Genia asked. “Got to play 11 years for Australia, three World Cups.”
Ireland captain Rory Best played in four World Cups, but a third consecutive quarterfinal exit had him in tears as he was replaced against New Zealand in the second half of his 124th and last test.
“There are big men in tears (in the changing room) and that is what happens when you put heart and soul into something,” Best said.
Best had the whole second half to see the end coming, unlike France captain Guilhem Guirado, who thought his team was advancing to the semifinals until the last minutes against Wales.
Louis Picamoles also hadn’t envisaged his 82-cap France career would end in the quarterfinals. It might not have if teammate Sebastien Vahaamahina hadn’t been sent off after halftime while they were leading 19-10. Vahaamahina retired from test rugby the next day, saying he was sorry and “I just lost control.”
Very much in control was former captain Mamuka Gorgodze as Georgia bowed out with only one win in four pool games. Gorgodze quit in 2017, returned for the World Cup to help an injury-hit squad, played well, but had no more tears for his second retirement: “I don’t feel any pressure or sadness.”
Tonga also won only once, but it was the perfect finale for captain Siale Piutau and Sione Kalamafoni. Tonga beat the United States , Piutau scored a try, was man of the match, and it was his 34th birthday.
“I see myself coming back, hopefully as a coach,” Piutau said. “There’s a calling for me to keep being a part of this team.”
Family commitments are calling Kalamafoni.
“My wife and I had our third child just a few months ago and hats off to her for staying with them so I could do this,” he said. “A rugby career involves a lot of sacrifices and it feels like the right time.”
Other careers finished with a whimper. Typhoon Hagibis forced the cancellation of three matches, including the last for Canada and Italy.
DTH van der Merwe, Canada’s all-time leading try-scorer, was denied a last chance to become the fifth player to score in four World Cups.
“Nobody has the divine right to have a fairytale ending,” he said after 13 years wearing the red maple leaf.
Reports of Italy captain Sergio Parisse retiring after 18 years proved to be premature in the wake of the abandoned group game against New Zealand. He’s available for the 2020 Six Nations, which conveniently finishes for Italy in Rome.
“My final page with Italy is still to be written,” Parisse reportedly said on a fan site. “It won’t be a typhoon to end my adventure with the national team.”
Juan Manuel Leguizamon got to write his final page in style. Argentina dedicated its last pool game to its last Puma from the 2007 World Cup side, and Leguizamon was lifted on the shoulders of teammates in front of his wife and kids and singing fans.
“It’s hard to say goodbye,” Leguizamon said. But, “you have to do it.”