In a Rugby World Cup that has treated us to some of the greatest matches the tournament has ever seen, the final provided the most fitting of conclusions. It won’t be remembered as a beacon of error-free perfection but the two greatest rugby nations on earth combined to produce a showpiece that was unbelievably compelling in its flaws and delivered almost impossible drama until the very last second.
South Africa and New Zealand entered as three-time winners of this tournament, a storied rivalry dating back over a century, a previous final that produced the sport’s most iconic image and with the victors able to seize a record fourth title and arguably the moniker of undisputed champions. Somehow, someway the Springboks prevailed 12-11 in a ludicrous finale and confirmed themselves as the ultimate tournament animals.
Long live the kings.
The Springboks may not have been the most aesthetically pleasing team at this World Cup but they know how to win. Three consecutive one-point victories in the knockout stage, as first France, then England and finally their greatest rivals New Zealand were held at bay perfectly demonstrates the grit and intensity this team thrives on. The fact that have now won four out of four World Cup finals, yet not scored a single try in three of those matches is another telling statistic.
Springboks captain Siya Kolisi’s second-half yellow card will ultimately be forgotten amid the celebrations of lifting the Webb Ellis Cup for the fourth time but a penny for the thoughts of All Blacks skipper Sam Cane.
Cane has always struggled to become a beloved figure in New Zealand, forever in the shadow of the great Richie McCaw – his predecessor in the famous No 7 shirt and as captain. He wanted to create his own slice of history in Paris and ultimately did, but not how he envisioned. Rather than becoming the third All Blacks skipper after McCaw and David Kirk to lift the trophy, he instead became the first player sent off in a men’s Rugby World Cup final as his first-half high tackle on Jesse Kriel condemned him to watch the rest of the match in purgatory from the sidelines.
What he saw was his side show incredible fight, cutting the South African lead to just one point as Beauden Barrett crossed the try-line with a little over 20 minutes to go. But chances came and chances went.
Richie Mo’unga’s conversion slipped wide, Jordie Barrett saw a 72nd-minute penalty do likewise and they left pointless from extended spells of possession in the South African half. When referee Wayne Barnes whistled for a Springbok turnover from the last, desperate All Blacks maul, they had run out of both chances and time. In Test match rugby, the margins are fine – just ask South Africa. The kings of the one-point win became the kings of rugby.
While all the pre-match attention focused on the Springboks’ decision to opt for the controversial 7-1 forwards-to-backs split on the bench, the fact they have spent most of this tournament with only one specialist hooker in the squad has largely been ignored.
But just two minutes into the biggest game in rugby, it suddenly became rather pertinent. Bongi Mbonambi ended a tough week in the worst possible way as the full weight of Shannon Frizell came down on his right leg at a ruck. His quad and knee were worked on by the medics but Mbonambi was forced to hobble off, with anger written all over his face, as flanker Deon Fourie came on in his place.
Fourie played hooker earlier in his career but the 37-year-old has been a back-row staple for the past few years and his rustiness showed with multiple lineouts stolen off his throw before the interval. But whereas in the 2019 final, a second-minute injury to England prop Kyle Sinckler cost them dearly as Dan Cole endured a day that will still give him nightmares, the Springboks shook off their own front-row drama to ultimately secure the crown.
Frizell received a yellow card for his clumsiness, becoming just the second man – after another New Zealander, Ben Smith in 2015, to be sin-binned in a men’s Rugby World Cup final – but his misdemeanour was soon overshadowed by his captain.
Cane’s 28th-minute tackle on Jesse Kriel was high and reckless. His shoulder connected with the head of the Springboks centre and with no mitigation, his fate was sealed. It may have taken the Bunker Review system a few minutes to confirm his yellow card had been upgraded to red but Cane’s despondent face as he initially trudged off suggested he knew what was coming. And the pure pain etched across his features every time the camera panned to him on the sideline for the rest of the game showed that he understood the magnitude of his error.
Trailing 9-3 with three Handre Pollard penalties to Mo’unga’s one when their skipper departed, the All Blacks battled valiantly with 14 men but the score moved to 12-6 at the break with another penalty apiece traded before basic errors eventually became too much to overcome.
Mark Tele’a was his typically slippery self, weaving in and out of tacklers, but too often a teammate would knock on from a subsequent pass or be sent backwards by Pieter-Steph du Toit hurtling around the pitch like an Exocet missile. The Springboks flanker was simply immense.
While Fourie’s lineout struggles were somewhat expected, opposite number Codie Taylor’s sudden problems at the set-piece were much harder to explain. New Zealand had lost just one lineout all tournament before last week’s semi-final against Argentina, where two went awry, but on the biggest stage, three were lost in the first 30 minutes, although a penalty against Eben Etzebeth negated one of them.
Even when the ball did stick in hands, fates seemed to conspire against the All Blacks. Late in the first half, Rieko Ioane showed his pace to get around the edge of the South African defence and looked destined to dive over in the corner, only for a scrambling Kurt-Lee Arendse to drag him into touch. Aaron Smith then did touch down on 54 minutes after extraordinary work from Mo’unga to get outside Damien de Allende and throw the inside pass to his scrum half but Smith’s 125th and final Test for New Zealand would cruelly go without a try as the TMO spotted a knock on from Ardie Savea at a maul during the build-up.
A few minutes later, the All Blacks finally got that elusive score with Jordie Barrett’s long pass bouncing to Tele’a, who cut inside a defender and then popped the ball off the floor when tackled, allowing a supporting Beauden Barrett to scoop and dive over the line, becoming the first man to score two tries in World Cup finals after his 2015 effort. Mo’unga’s conversion slipped wide of the posts but narrowed the deficit to just 12-11 to set up a fascinating final quarter.
The Springboks could have put the game out of sight earlier on as Kolisi squandered a glorious chance at the start of the second half when he went for the line himself rather than passing and, by the time the offload came, De Allende was able to be held up by a scrambling All Blacks defence. South Africa then survived their captain’s 10 minutes in the sin-bin for a high hit on Savea, as he avoided a red card thanks to the No 8 dropping in height after leaping to catch a ball, and then ultimately survived an intense final 20 minutes.
Jordie Barrett’s long-range penalty from near halfway drifted agonisingly wide and disciplined defence held the men in black at bay during multiple 22 forays.
It wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t expansive but the Springboks did what they do best – found a way to win, for a fourth time at a men’s World Cup, and cemented their place as kings of rugby.