It is hard to imagine a more heart-breaking defeat. Down to 14 men for the last hour, and having lost our cornerstone on the tighthead after only 10 minutes, Wales had no right to be in this match at all; and yet we were. Thanks to a remarkable display from the Welsh, and a remarkably negative approach from the French, we spent the last 20 minutes of the game a single point behind – and that, of course, is where the real heart-break was. We had no right to be so close – but having got there against all the odds, we had opportunity after opportunity to steal the victory, and simply could not do it. Attacking lineout after attacking lineout was thrown away, kicks at goal hit the woodwork or fell inches short, drop goal attempts went badly wrong or simply didn’t happen, and the final whistle brought an unlikely dream to a bitter end.
It is hard to imagine a more heart-breaking defeat; and yet heart-break should not be, must not be, the legacy we take from this World Cup. There is no glory in defeat. There is, however, a glory that defeat can not extinguish: the glory of finding your limits and being pushed beyond them, of refusing to break however shattering the blow, of discovering that you have more to give than anyone else imagined. This Welsh team has much of that glory already, and will win more in their response to this defeat, in their performance next week, in their performances in the months and years ahead. It takes the raging, vicious heat of magma to make diamonds – this defeat is surely painful enough to match that heat, and this Welsh squad is full of players who have the strength to become diamonds.
Adversity shows us who we really are. We will see that in how these players respond; but it is every bit as true of us as supporters, as people. We had seen what our team could produce, we had dared to dream, and those dreams have been trampled in the mud of Eden Park. It would be easy to blame the referee, to blame the fickle hand of luck, to howl against the fleeting nature of sporting opportunity – and yet that is not what we should do.
No. Instead, we should ask ourselves, ask each other, as we sit over our tasteless pints, why it is that we watch rugby, and why it is that we care. The answers should be clear. We watch it because it is the pinnacle of sport; because it marries the brutal with the poetic, marries passion with analysis, marries a dozen and more different contests in a single match. We care because it expresses something of our lives; of adversity, of triumph and disaster, of the fascinating complexities that being Welsh involves.
Those answers should help us see how this adversity will reveal us to ourselves. Perhaps ironically for a Welsh supporter, it was an Englishman (but qualified by birth to play for India) who said it best of all: ‘If you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same.’ And there’s the truth of it – triumph is an imposter, disaster is an imposter. Neither is real. Reality is the journey, not the temporary stations that we mistake for destinations. Reality is the glory of the struggle, the glory of getting back on your feet every time you are knocked down, the glory of reaching further than you think you can, the glory of life itself.
These young men of ours, these sons and brothers, have wrestled with that glory. They have reached past their own limits time and again, and they have represented us to the world as well as we could possibly have hoped. They deserve our respect and admiration; but more than that, they deserve that we should be inspired by them, and that we should collectively set our own sights higher in recognition of their endeavours.
So drink those pints of bitter, people of Wales – and then when the sun rises again, shake off your headaches and do whatever you do best a little bit better. Achieve more, laugh more, help others more, love more, live more – and make the legacy of this Welsh team and this World Cup defeat a ripple effect that gives us all a taste of glory. Every single person in Wales who was watching the game was knocked to the ground by the final whistle – let every single one of us get back up again, wipe the blood away, and aim a little higher.