Antoine Dupont sank to one knee and covered his face with his hand as the disappointment of France’s Rugby World Cup quarterfinal loss to South Africa sank in.
This was supposed to be his night, the script written perfectly for the captain to lead his side into the semifinals on home soil.
Instead, Les Tricolores lost by one point — 29-28 — and the world’s best scrumhalf was unable to summon enough magic to make the difference. In fact, his performance became rather sloppy after a bright start.
Dupont won his race to recover from surgery for a broken cheekbone sustained in a game against Namibia 3 1/2 weeks ago, and wore a scrum cap on his surgeon’s advice.
He lasted the whole match with seemingly no ill effects. He even endured some rough stuff midway through the first half, when he was bundled to the ground by South Africa captain Siya Kolisi.
When he was injured by an illegal head-on-head tackle by Namibia captain Johan Deysel on Sept. 21, Dupont thought his Rugby World Cup was over.
Now it is.
After being hugged by coach Fabien Galthié, he trudged off the field with his hands locked behind his head.
The dream comeback started so well.
Dupont took one minute to open up South Africa with a clever kick into space for flyhalf Matthieu Jalibert to run onto, and left winger Louis Bielle-Biarrey went close to scoring a try in the left corner.
Two minutes later, Dupont picked the ball up off the back of a monster maul and fed right winger Damian Penaud, who passed inside to give prop Cyril Baille an easy try. Minutes later, Penaud dropped a pass from Dupont near the left corner.
At that point, France looked on top.
Then errors crept in, including from Dupont.
He failed to cover center Damian de Allende’s run leading to South Africa’s second try.
Then, after emerging from under a pile of bodies near the tryline, Dupont bounced back with a quick tap penalty to feed rampant hooker Peato Mauvaka to dive over in the right corner for France’s second try.
They were 22 minutes played at a frantic pace, and Dupont was keeping up. He even looked fresh and full of running having at least rested his legs while rehabbing. Yet he also looked rusty and failed to spot lock Eben Etzebeth bearing down on him when he tried a pass near halfway. Etzebeth got too close, and Dupont scuffed the pass, which ultimately led to the move which produced South Africa’s third try.
After the fourth try, scored by Etzebeth, made it 26-25, Dupont dallied on the ball and got knocked back as South Africa won a penalty and went further ahead.
On the last attack, he twisted around trying to find gaps that never opened up for him.
This was not Dupont’s night and Galthié may wonder why he did not replace him earlier with Maxime Lucu, an able backup.
Last time they played, France rounded off a perfect 2022 by edging South Africa 30-26. Dupont was red-carded early in the second half for clumsily taking out airborne winger Cheslin Kolbe, who landed on his neck in one of several bone-jarring moments.
This time, Kolbe was one of South Africa’s try-scorers on a night Dupont will want to forget.
When Kolbe comes back to Stade de France next Saturday to face 2003 champion England, perhaps Dupont will be mulling over why he couldn’t do enough to be there instead.
As it happened:
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