Rugby World Cup final 2023 is ‘one of the most important games in All Blacks history’
The All Blacks appeared relaxed and focused as they prepared to take on the Springboks in Saturday’s Rugby World Cup final in Saint-Denis on Saturday.
There is no such thing as a mundane Test between the Springboks and All Blacks; every game is like a war contested on a sports field.
But Saturday’s Rugby World Cup final at the Stade de France between the two sides has special significance for the All Blacks. They may have won three World Cups, 20 Rugby Championships and held the Bledisloe Cup for two decades, but this match might be the biggest in their history.
For their current squad, which features many of the greatest All Blacks to play for their country – and therefore some of the best players ever to play the game – the struggles they have endured over the past two years make the achievement of reaching the final even more significant.
The Boks have dished out two heavy defeats – 26-10 in Mbombela and 35-7 at Twickenham – they lost a home series to Ireland in 2022, and suffered their first-ever Pool defeat at the World Cup.
It was quite a statement from flank Dalton Papali’i following a Monday night team session in which stalwarts of the side expressed the depth and meaning of what it is to be an All Black.
He didn’t mention names or precisely what was said, but it’s fair to assume that the likes of Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Aaron Smith and Dane Coles – who are retiring from international rugby after the tournament – would’ve been among those who said a few words.
“It was quite special to hear some of the things those certain players said from the heart. You know, you think you know someone, but once they open up and really be vulnerable in front of a team, it was quite special to hear,” Papali’i said.
“You know those leaders have been through a lot in their careers, the highs and the lows, the off-field and on-field stuff, and for them to open up, it sort of makes you feel welcome and you want to play this game for them.
“There were a few tears and I think that’s awesome to see … players showing vulnerability, just opening up about how much this tour and this sort of game means.
“There were some (people) saying this is probably one of the most important games of All Blacks history. (The) All Blacks went through a bit of a hard path to get here, media, friends, family even criticising us and all that, and we stuck together. We weren’t even said to be in the final and now look at us, we’re here.
“Different players take it differently and some of the older players probably were hit a little bit harder and it was good to see just a bit of emotion and the want from them. Seeing that gives all the other players an extra two, three percent to think, ‘okay, we are going to the well and we’ve got to give it our all’.”
The All Blacks bench, especially the forwards, have started an internal group – mimicking the Springboks’ approach – aimed at defusing the so-called “Bomb Squad” when the sides meet in the final of Rugby World Cup 2023 on Saturday.
Papali’i, who appears to be an All Black captain-in-waiting given his impressive play and even more impressive dealings with the media, has taken charge of the bench.
The Boks, of course, have used their bench to devastating effect in the knock-out stages of the tournament, overturning significant deficits against France and England to win both matches by a point.
Against France, the Boks were 25-19 down in the quarterfinal when the full Bomb Squad was unleashed and they clawed their way to a 29-28 win.
The situation against the English was even more dire in the semifinal when the Boks were down 15-6 with 11 minutes to play. All looked lost, but the pack, inspired by a brilliant cameo from loosehead Ox Nche, won several scrum penalties.
The Boks fought their way to a 16-15 win to set up a date with the All Blacks.
“I’ll tell you a quick story… I’ve got a little group happening in the team room at our hotel and we’re watching Band of Brothers and the 101st Airborne and their Easy Company,” Papali’i said.
“So, I made a little joke saying, ‘you know they’ve got the ‘Bomb Squad’, so we could have the ‘Easy Company’. We want to go and finish the job and be in the trenches.
“Talking about the Bomb Squad, man, they’ve proven themselves. They can come on and change a game like that (clicking his fingers). So, we sort of need to identify whoever is on the bench and need to really be screwed on up top and give it hell.”
Papali’i is remarkably mature for a 26-year-old player and it’s obvious he is the spiritual leader on their bench, even though he won’t be the oldest or most experienced among their “finishers”. He is one of the new breed that will take the All Blacks forward under coach Scott Robertson post-2023.
For now, the All Blacks appear ominously calm and ready to win their fourth world title.
They’ve had no obvious distractions in their build-up, unlike the Springboks who are dealing with racial slur accusations against hooker Bongi Mbonambi.
The All Blacks seem focused and relaxed. They planned to build from physical work and game-specific detail early in the week, to a mental crescendo by the weekend.
As part of their mental preparation, they said they’d tap into the history of the rivalry between the teams. This is the first RWC final between the teams since 1995 – which makes it the first in the professional era.
“The history is a big part of it (the build-up). We build that up probably more towards the end of the week. We’ve got to make sure we get our game right first and foremost,” forwards’ coach Jason Ryan said.
“We believe we have got a clear plan, then as we get closer to the game, the old mental side kicks in.
“We talked a bit about legacy last week. But it’s no secret that it’s been a massive tradition. It’s awesome. You love going to South Africa, being part of the All Blacks, and getting into some biltong and braais.
“It’s just a special place to tour and they bring a special part of their game that makes it just a great rivalry. To be doing it in a World Cup final, that’s when you want to be playing, that’s when you want to be coaching.
“All you want to do is set yourself up for a gold medal.” DM