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RWC 2023

World Cup final will add another epic chapter to the greatest rivalry in rugby

World Cup final will add another epic chapter to the greatest rivalry in rugby
Sam Cane and Aaron Smith of New Zealand block Steven Kitshoff and Eben Etzebeth of South Africa during the Rugby World Cup 2019 match between New Zealand and South Africa in Yokohama, south of Tokyo, Japan, 21 September 2019. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Kimimasa Mayama)

The Springboks versus the All Blacks is the greatest rivalry in rugby and one of the greatest in all of sport. The two sides contest the final of Rugby World Cup 2023 at Stade de France in Paris on Saturday.

Former Springbok captain and 2007 World Cup winner John Smit has said it many times, but it’s worth repeating to understand the status of a clash between South Africa and New Zealand on the rugby field. 

“You debut twice for the Springboks. Your first debut is your first game for South Africa. Your second debut is your first game against the All Blacks,” Smit told Daily Maverick before the 100th Test between the teams in 2021 in the strange setting of Townsville in Australia. 

And perhaps there could be a third category — a clash against the All Blacks at the World Cup. 

Saturday’s final of Rugby World Cup 2023 will be the sixth time the sides have met at the World Cup and only the second — after 1995 — that they contest the final. 

The rivalry might be 102 years and 105 Tests old, but World Cup clashes between the two sides are rare. 

New Zealand have won three times, the Boks twice. Three of those matches were knockout clashes — the final of RWC 1995 (the Boks won 15-12), the quarterfinal of RWC 2003 (the All Blacks won 29-9) and the semifinal in 2015, won 20-18 by the All Blacks. 

The other two matches saw the Boks win the bronze medal contest 22-18 in 1999 and the All Blacks beat the Boks 23-13 in a pool match in 2019. 

The Boks have a chance to even the score in terms of their RWC clashes by making it 3-3, and whoever wins will claim the Webb Ellis Cup for a record fourth time. 

The South African rugby team celebrates winning the Rugby World Cup after defeating New Zealand at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, South Africa, on 24 June 1995. (Photo: Mike Hewitt / ALLSPORT)

Physically fresher All Blacks

There is no doubt that the All Blacks will be physically fresher, having had an extra day to prepare as they played their semifinal last Friday. Their 44-6 win over Argentina was also far less demanding in terms of intensity. 

The Boks, by contrast, have been taken to the trenches by France and England in the quarterfinals and semifinals, somehow finding a way to win both matches by a point. 

But they were hugely draining performances both physically and mentally. The resolve they had to find to wrestle their way over the line in those contests will have left some scars, and now it’s about whether they can rise one more time. 

“We [South Africans] are quite resilient,” Smit told World Rugby’s official Boks Office podcast this week. “We always feel back home we are fighting through something, for something. Things aren’t always comfortable, it can be a struggle back home for a lot of people. 

“Our mentality is to always knuckle down and rise up against adversity and overcome. That is why I think we fit into that seat a little bit around ‘stuff them, we want to climb up that mountain’. The worst thing for us is to sit on top and talk about how good we are. 

“I think the worry is it’s been two really big weekends in the quarters and semis. With this turnaround, the recovery this week will be a big part of how they can match up. 

“New Zealand, with all respect, had a soft semifinal and have an extra day. South Africa must be pretty beat up. It’ll be about how they are physically after the intensity of the clashes they have had.” 

The South African team face their New Zealand opponents who perform the traditional haka before the World Cup Final match at Ellis Park, Johannesburg, 24 June 1995. (Photo: Simon Bruty / Getty Images)

An extra boost 

And nothing can give the Boks an extra boost like playing the All Blacks. Finding that little something extra against the men in black is deeply ingrained in the DNA of Springbok teams. 

Legendary flank Schalk Burger recalled to Daily Maverick in 2021 that after watching the Boks beat the All Blacks in Wellington back in 1998, he and his friends “were so pumped that we decided to play a match in the back garden. We even soaked the grass with a hosepipe to emulate the wet conditions in New Zealand. 

“All you want as a youngster growing up in South Africa is a chance to play against the All Blacks. I’ve been privileged enough to get a few wins against the All Blacks during my career, but it was always a tough assignment.” 

The All Blacks still dominate the stats in the rivalry, but no side has a better winning percentage against New Zealand than South Africa. 

In 105 Tests between the rivals, the All Blacks have won 62, the Boks have won 39 and there have been four draws. The average score between the sides is 20-16 to New Zealand. It’s likely to be that tight again this weekend. 

In the Rassie Erasmus-Jacques Nienaber era the stats are tighter. They’ve met 10 times, with New Zealand winning five, the Boks four, and one draw. 

Four of those matches were decided by three points or fewer and since 2018 the Boks have scored 247 points to New Zealand’s 240. There really isn’t anything in it. 

Sam Whitelock of New Zealand steals the line-out ball from Victor Matfield of South Africa during the 2015 Rugby World Cup semifinal match between South Africa and New Zealand at Twickenham Stadium on 24 October 2015 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo: Phil Walter / Getty Images)

Party crashers 

The Boks might be seen as the party crashers in France after ending Les Bleus’ journey with that 29-28 quarterfinal win, but in truth, there could not be a better final. 

The two best sides in Test rugby and historically at the World Cup, competing to become the first country to claim four world titles in their first World Cup final against each other in the professional era is a mouthwatering prospect for a neutral. 

The Boks will have to mine a new seam of deep resolve after all they’ve been through in the last two games, and indeed the entire tournament. 

In addition to playing all the other teams in the top six of the world rankings at this tournament (with the exception of New Zealand), during the past week they’ve had to deal with the situation around allegations of a racial slur made by hooker Bongi Mbonambi to England’s Tom Curry. 

But that adversity drives them too. 

Irish assistant coach Felix Jones, who will leave his post after the tournament, reflected on one of his biggest takeaways from his time with the Boks. 

“It has to be just how we stuck together,” Jones said. “On-field and off-field, every team faces challenges and sometimes you come out the right side of the result. 

“But there’s been many games where we’ve lost via the last kick of the game or in the dying minutes, but I’ve never seen us giving up. Off-field, there are so many challenges in general in South Africa, but for the guys it just makes them tighter.” DM 

Boks versus All Blacks head to head

Overall (1921-2023)

Played: 105

Boks 39, All Blacks 62, draw 4 

In South Africa

Played: 52

Boks 26, All Blacks 25, draw 1 

In New Zealand

Played: 46

Boks 10, All Blacks 33, draw 3 

Neutral ground

Played: 7

Boks 3, All Blacks 4 

Professional era (1996-2019)

Played: 63

Boks 18, All Blacks 44, draw 1 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Rugby World Cup 2023 News Hub

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