OLIVER HOLT: More than London 2012 and the best of the Champions League, was this the greatest two days in the history of sport?

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On Sunday night, after England’s thrilling Rugby World Cup quarter-final victory over Fiji – England and ‘thrilling’ have not been mentioned too often in the same breath recently – a few of us jumped on the Marseille metro for a few stops and found a pizzeria in Notre-Dame du Mont that was showing the France-South Africa game.

Most places were showing the France-South Africa game. Bars, sushi restaurants, Thai places, kebab shops. The pavements were crowded with people milling around outside bars or sitting at tables, their eyes fixed on the television screens that seemed to have been erected in every doorway and every establishment.

One of the great privileges of being at a major tournament is to experience the way it grips a nation, to feel the intoxication of it and the sense of belonging and togetherness it brings. I still remember Euro 96 and the red and white crosses of St George flying and flapping from car windows everywhere you went.

And I remember toiling up the steep little road from Leme to the favela of Chapeu Mangueira in Rio de Janeiro to watch Brazil’s quarter-final against Colombia in the 2014 World Cup in a packed establishment called Bar do David.

Sometimes, you feel the power of the game more viscerally in a spot like that than in a stadium: the despair when Neymar was carried off after a brutal challenge, the elation when Brazil won. Below us, fireworks lit up Leme and Copacabana when the final whistle went.

Heartbroken Rugby World Cup favourites France crashed out of the tournament on Sunday

Holders South Africa narrowly beat the hosts 28-29 in a tense and enthralling quarter-final

Antoine Dupont - arguably the best player in the world - cuts a dejected figure after the match

Antoine Dupont – arguably the best player in the world – cuts a dejected figure after the match

Usually, it is football that does this but this World Cup has captured France partly because of the beauty and the flair of its own team and the hope, even the expectation, that a side led by the best player in the world, Antoine Dupont, would win the tournament for the first time.

The whole quartier was en fete in Notre-Dame du Mont. There was a delay on the footage from the television outside our pizzeria which meant we saw the action about 30 seconds after the throng that was massed outside the bar across the street.

So we knew before we saw each try that France had gone over for a score. We became expert at interpreting the volume and the tenor of the shouts and groans and whether they signified a line break, a near miss or a try. When there was silence, it signified a period of South African dominance.

The first roar from across the street came almost as soon as the game had begun. The skill of the French was bewitching, the speed of thought and hand from Dupont and Damian Penaud to send prop Cyril Baille over the line in the corner. Everywhere, people stared at each other in astonishment, stupid grins on their faces, at the audacity and the execution of the French play.

It went on like that for 40 minutes. Roars and silence. Roars and silence. Screams of exultation and silence. France were brilliant but the speed of South Africa’s counters, the power of their tackling, the sheer pace of Kurt Lee-Arendse and Cheslin Kolbe as they punished France’s weakness under the high ball with dazzling tries were breath-taking too.

What a match. What a spectacle. What a feast of wonderful sport. Two brilliant sides going at each other blow for blow, six tries in the first half, no one knowing which way it was going to go, Kolbe charging down a conversion attempt that might have made the difference for France between defeat and victory. 

Ireland came so close to victory over New Zealand but fell to a bitter 24-28 defeat on Saturday

Ireland came so close to victory over New Zealand but fell to a bitter 24-28 defeat on Saturday

Irish veteran Johnny Sexton could not quite take his country to the semi-finals before retiring

Meanwhile, Owen Farrell (centre) put in one of his best ever displays to help England beat Fiji

Meanwhile, Owen Farrell (centre) put in one of his best ever displays to help England beat Fiji

Many, even seasoned observers, said it was the greatest game of rugby they had even seen. It was reminiscent, in many ways, of the Brazil-Italy match at the 1982 football World Cup, a wondrous game that was a remarkable clash of contrasting styles that touched perfection as a sporting occasion.

Many had said that on Saturday night in Paris, too, after New Zealand inched past a heartbroken Ireland at the Stade de France. Again, the drama and the standard of the sport was sometimes hard to take in. The commitment, the pain, the willingness to put their bodies on the line, the sportsmanship.

If there was anything to regret, it was that some felt the need to mock the Irish for ‘choking’. They didn’t choke. They were up against the All Blacks, who may not be favourites for this tournament but are still the greatest rugby-playing nation on earth. Ireland gave it everything. They were awe-inspiring to watch. They just weren’t quite good enough.

Sometimes, it is the losers who are remembered more than the winners in matches. It depends if you think winning is everything. I revere that Brazil team of 1982 more than any other team in history. They didn’t win the tournament but they inspired a generation of people – my generation – to love football. What they did was more important than winning.

I would say the same about the New Zealand team that lost the 2019 Cricket World Cup final to England at Lord’s in one of the greatest games ever played. The way they played was memorable. The spirit men like Kane Williamson showed in defeat, the grace and the generosity, taught us more about the beauty of sport than the result ever could.

The losers from the weekend could well have contributed to the best ever two days in sport

The stunning weekend on rugby rivals the Champions League semi-finals in 2019, when Liverpool came from 3-0 behind in the second leg against Barcelona to win 4-3 on aggregate

The stunning weekend on rugby rivals the Champions League semi-finals in 2019, when Liverpool came from 3-0 behind in the second leg against Barcelona to win 4-3 on aggregate

Only a day later, Lucas Moura scored a dramatic late goal to help Tottenham reach the final

In time, maybe we will come to see this France rugby team that way. In time, maybe we will remember them as the greatest thing this tournament produced, even if they lost in the quarter finals. We will remember them for what they stood for longer than we will remember the eventual winners.

It feels likely that this weekend was the best of this tournament. Nothing will match it, surely. Was it the greatest weekend of sport ever, the most drama, the most quality, crammed into two days? It is hard to think of many that have matched it.

The Olympics might have produced similar clusters of drama and brilliance. Super Saturday at London 2012 was so thrilling that it left us punch-drunk with everything we saw across the day. The schedule of the Games lends itself to one high point after another.

The Champions League semi-final second legs between Liverpool and Barcelona and Ajax and Spurs on consecutive evenings in May 2019 almost defied belief for the twists in fortune that they provided.

It is enough to say this weekend in Marseille and in Paris was up there with the best. Even England, derided before the tournament began, did their bit by fighting off Fjii’s stirring comeback. Owen Farrell, booed by England fans before the start, played one of the games of his life and kicked the winning drop goal, Jonny Wilkinson style. 

Mo Farah won the Men’s 10,000m on what has since been referred to as London 2012’s Super Saturday – as he helped Team GB win three Olympic gold medals in the space of 44 minutes

It was a bitter defeat for Kane Williamson and New Zealand to stomach as they were beaten by England in the 2019 ICC World Cup final - but they played their part in an amazing spectacle

It was a bitter defeat for Kane Williamson and New Zealand to stomach as they were beaten by England in the 2019 ICC World Cup final – but they played their part in an amazing spectacle

On any other weekend, that would have been the main event. This weekend, it was a supporting feature. It was a weekend to revel in the best that sport has to give us, to exult with the winners and commiserate with the losers.

The pavement cafes in Notre-Dame du Mont emptied out soon enough when France’s defeat was confirmed. The tournament will not be the same without them. Some of the magic has gone. Some of the fervour, too.

On the television outside the pizzeria, the screen replayed footage of Dupont walking up the tunnel at the Stade de France with his head in his hands.

Sometime soon, perhaps the despair he felt on Sunday night will be replaced by pride for the part he played and what he gave.

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