The final — a contest of two contrasting styles in the ultimate battle for rugby supremacy

The final — a contest of two contrasting styles in the ultimate battle for rugby supremacy
Springboks captain Siya Kolisi during his squad's Rugby World Cup 2023 match against Tonga. (Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images)

The time for talking and speculation, for pondering and fretting… is almost over. And that’s just for the fans. The final of Rugby World Cup 2023 has a lot to live up to, but should be filled with drama.

The Springboks versus the All Blacks. Six words that can make people go misty-eyed.

Try telling that to the 46 players who will take to Stade de France one last time in match number 48 of Rugby World Cup 2023 – the final. 

The best of South Africa against the best of New Zealand, for the right to be called world champions for four years. It’s a battle for public immortality in these two countries because Rugby World Cup winners are always revered. 

It’s an addition to a CV that brings a certain aura – hard-earned in so many skirmishes leading to this moment, which leaves scars and breaks bones. Only one side can exit the pitch as winners. For the other, a lifetime of regrets.

To the sound of jaws dropping, they went 7-1. If you don’t know by now, it refers to seven forwards on the bench and only one backline player. It’s like playing sporting Russian roulette with five bullets in the chamber.

The Springboks are the reigning world champions. They have a chance to carry that moniker for another cycle – eight years in total. It would make them statistically the greatest Bok side of all time, and would elevate them to the best RWC team ever.

No side has won four titles, but by 11pm on Saturday night, either the Boks or All Blacks will see their country’s name engraved on the Webb Ellis Cup.

The old foes, in what will be their 106th meeting, and sixth in the World Cup, have only met in a final once before, way back in 1995. Most of the players involved were toddlers if born at all, but they all know the stories.

Isn’t a bigger game in rugby 

There isn’t a bigger game in rugby and there probably hasn’t been a bigger match in history. 

The world’s No 1 and 2 teams in the rankings, with six World Cup wins between them and statistically the two most successful Test playing nations of all time, vying for a record fourth title. It can’t be any bigger.

“Yeah, big. That’s what World Cup finals are about,” outgoing All Black coach Ian Foster said. 

“This is our second one we’ve been to. I don’t think there’s ever a small one. The fact is, we have two teams who have been old foes for a long time.

“We all remember the last final between us [in 1995], which was an epic, and hopefully this one will be the same. Then you do the maths and we’ve got three World Cups each, and someone is going to win four, so it’s a special occasion, isn’t it? 

“We’ve had a few recently. We had the 100th Test against them in 2021. There have been a few big, big Tests we have played against these guys.

“We’ve got massive regard for each other, massive respect for them as a country in how they play. It’s a pretty cool one to get ready for.” 

Prepare well 

Getting to that point though, is going to be fascinating. The tactics, the subplots and the invariables such as injury and weather and old-fashioned luck will have a say.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Forward-looking Springboks opt for sheer power in final against All Blacks 

All that these teams can do, and have done, is to prepare as well as they can to eliminate chance where possible.

The Boks have been battered, coming through two one-point wins over France and England respectively, in the quarterfinals and semis. They’ve had a shorter turnaround between both matches, and are certainly the more battered after playing four of the top six teams in the world (the All Blacks will be their fifth).

Kwagga Smith of South Africa in action during the Rugby World Cup 2023 semi final match between England and South Africa at Stade de France on 21 October 2023 in Paris, France. (Photo: Juan Jose Gasparini/Gallo Images)

Changing it up for the final

RasNaber have changed it up for the final. To the sound of jaws dropping, they went 7-1. If you don’t know by now, it refers to seven forwards on the bench and only one backline player. It’s like playing sporting Russian roulette with five bullets in the chamber. 

It comes with so much risk. Willie le Roux, the ageing fullback, is the only backline cover on the bench.

If scrumhalf Faf de Klerk is injured early on, Cheslin Kolbe will have to play halfback, fullback Damian Willemse will probably move to inside centre, Damian de Allende to outside centre, with Jesse Kriel shifting to wing and Le Roux coming in at fullback. One injury would require four positional shifts. 

The reward factor is that the Boks have almost an entire pack of forwards on the bench. The selection means only one thing; they are going to try and break the All Blacks up front – in war parlance – bust through the centre, rendering the enemies flanks useless.

The All Blacks thrive on width and pace in the game, but they need quality ball from the forwards to bring their superb wings Will Jordan and Mark Telea into the game. 

If the Boks can somehow take that away from them, by dominating the set pieces and tight exchanges, the All Blacks will be forced into a narrower game. That’s where the Boks want them. 

“I’m not going to say what the strengths and weaknesses of the All Blacks are – that would be stupid,” Bok coach Jacques Nienaber said.

“But a lot of analysis went into it and, in the end, we went with a squad of 23. 

“It could have been 6-2, 5-3, it doesn’t matter. You select a team that you think can get a result. The 23, we selected for a reason, and the reason is we think they can deliver and win us a back-to-back World Cup.”

Of course, New Zealand know this is coming too, and will have a kicking plan to get behind the Boks and stretch their big forwards left and right, trying to tire those heavy bodies with speed.

Read more in Daily Maverick: RasNaber confound again as Boks go 7-1 for World Cup final against All Blacks

“[The 7-1 split] is what I love about the game. People try different tactics. They’ve got their way of playing and we’ve got ours,” Foster said. “It doesn’t change the way we prepare. Their strategy suits them, ours suits us and it makes it interesting on Saturday night.” 

Set piece 

Clearly the Boks are looking to the set piece to lay the foundation for victory, and being able to replace almost an entire pack will be crucial in that cause.

The All Blacks of course, will try to nullify that with pace and width, making the Boks’ big men turn and move. New Zealand are happy to kick and kick a lot of it means playing in the right areas of the field.

The All Blacks have a formidable lineout with Brodie Retallick leading the line, and the exceptional ageing warrior Sam Whitelock on the bench, ready to keep up the pressure late in the game.

For varying reasons, the Boks lineout maul has largely misfired at this tournament, sometimes it’s been stopped illegally and the opposition has not been penalised. And other times the Boks have been sloppy. It’s not an area that has rewarded them with many points in this tournament, so Saturday would be a good time to rectify the situation. 

Scrums however, especially late in matches, have been decisive. Ox Nche’s cameo off the bench in the semi-final against England was match-winning and could, in time, become tournament-defining. 

The All Blacks know what’s coming but they might borrow from France’s playbook and try to take set pieces out of the equation, but not kicking out and backing their skills to not make mistakes that lead to scrums. 

It’s a fascinating battle of wits and styles. 

Handre Pollard has been preferred to Manie Libbok ay flyhalf, mainly to keep the scoreboard moving when the chance comes, and to offer a little more defensive steel on the line. 

In reserve lock Jean Kleyn, the Boks have opted to keep up the power game if Eben Etzebeth leaves the field, and with essentially three looseforwards on the bench, it’s clear they need to slow New Zealand’s breakdown ball.

The Boks need a fast start, they can’t get behind, the All Blacks need to match the Boks power and both sides will have to be courageous and attack at some stage.

The need to go to ‘dark places

Most likely though, the defining moment will come down to those crucial moments in the final quarter when tactics, plans, and even skills become secondary to sheer will power. 

Bok prop Steven Kitshoff often mentions the need to go to ‘dark places’. Never has that been more true than this weekend, in Paris, for the ultimate prize.

New Zealand:

15-Beauden Barrett, 14-Will Jordan, 13-Rieko Ioane, 12-Jordie Barrett, 11-Mark Telea, 10-Richie Mo’unga, 9-Aaron Smith, 8-Ardie Savea, 7-Sam Cane (capt.), 6-Shannon Frizell, 5-Scott Barrett, 4-Brodie Retallick, 3-Tyrel Lomax, 2-Codie Taylor, 1-Ethan de Groot.

Replacements: 16-Samisoni Taukei’aho, 17-Tamaiti Williams, 18-Nepo Laulala, 19- Sam Whitelock, 20-Dalton Papalii, 21-Finlay Christie, 22-Damian McKenzie, 23-Anton Lienert-Brown.

South Africa: 

15-Damian Willemse, 14-Kurt-Lee Arendse, 13-Jesse Kriel, 12-Damian de Allende, 11-Cheslin Kolbe, 10-Handre Pollard, 9-Faf de Klerk, 8-Duane Vermeulen, 7-Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6-Siya Kolisi (capt.), 5-Franco Mostert, 4-Eben Etzebeth, 3-Frans Malherbe, 2-Bongi Mbonambi, 1-Steven Kitshoff.

Replacements: 16-Deon Fourie, 17-Ox Nche, 18-Trevor Nyakane, 19-Jean Kleyn, 20-RG Snyman, 21-Kwagga Smith, 22-Jasper Wiese, 23-Willie le Roux. 

Referee: Wayne Barned (England)

Kick-off: 9pm (SA Time) DM 

sprinboks faf de klerk

Faf de Clerk in action for the Springboks in the Rugby World Cup France 2023 semifinal against England. (Photo: Christian Liewig – Corbis / Getty Images)

RWC Factbox: 

  • New Zealand have won 59% of their tests against South Africa (W62 D4 L39), despite this, it is their lowest win rate against any nation; the Springboks have won three of the last five games against the All Blacks (L2), as many as they’d won in their previous 22 (D1 L18), including a 28-point win in their most recent clash in August this year (35-7)- New Zealand’s heaviest ever test defeat.
  • New Zealand and South Africa have met five times previously at the men’s Rugby World Cup; the Springboks won their initial two clashes, including the only time they’ve faced each other in the final (1995). However, the All Blacks have won their last three meetings.
  • New Zealand and South Africa have each won the men’s Rugby World Cup on a record three occasions, while this will be the fifth final in a row to have been won by either the All Blacks or Springboks (twice each); the last time a nation other than New Zealand or South Africa lifted the Webb Ellis Cup was in 2003.
  • South Africa are the only nation to boast a 100% win rate in Rugby World Cup finals. They will be aiming to become just the second side to win back-to-back finals, after New Zealand (2011-15); the All Blacks have won three of their four finals with their only defeat at this stage against the Springboks in 1995.
  • South Africa have never conceded a try in a Rugby World Cup final, while they’ve kept their opponents try-less in 47% of their knockout fixtures (9/19), the best such rate of any nation. Meanwhile, the All Blacks have scored a try in each of their last 38 matches in the Rugby World Cup, last failing to score in the Bronze Final in 1999, against South Africa.
  • New Zealand (4.3) and South Africa (3.3) have averaged more points per 22 entry than any other nation at this year’s World Cup; while they also rank first and second respectively for points conceded per opposition entry (New Zealand 1.1, South Africa 1.2).
  • New Zealand have averaged the most line breaks (13.5) and best gainline success rate (61%) of any side at this year’s World Cup; while South Africa have committed 3+ tacklers on 11.5% of their carries, the best such rate of any nation, just ahead of the All Blacks (11.4%). Only Ireland (47.7%) have scored a try from a higher percentage of their line breaks than South Africa (47.1%) or New Zealand (46.9%) this year.
  • New Zealand have the best lineout success rate at this year’s World Cup (97%, SA 4th best-88%) while only three teams have a better scrum success rate than the All Blacks (94%). However South Africa have won 1.2 penalties per game on the opposition scrum this campaign, more than any other side, with only France (3.0) averaging more scrum penalties per game overall than the Springboks (2.7).
  • Will Jordan has scored eight tries at this year’s tournament, more than any other player; in fact, it’s the joint most tries by any player in a Rugby World Cup campaign, alongside two All Blacks (Jonah Lomu in 1999, Julian Savea in 2015) and a Springbok (Bryan Habana in 2007).
  • New Zealand’s Sam Whitelock could become the first player to win the Rugby World Cup three times, having also lifted the trophy in 2011 and 2015; he is the most capped All Black in test history (152) and has made more Rugby World Cup appearances than any other player (25). DM

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Colin Donian says:

    Two points.
    1. I hope that rugby is the winner – the greatest game of rugby in history, one that is revered and spoken about without caring too much who won, and did not.
    2. South Africans must find a way to translate their already successful team’s philosophy, principles and behavioural attributes into more than a ‘lekka feeling’ for a day or week.
    There are deep lessons about race, opportunity, hard work, values, self-discipline and the power of the collective.
    It is not that the rest of us cannot follow suit, we choose not to.
    What will it take to push us to the point where we say, let us be like the rugby team?
    Why do we admire the coaches, the players and what they achieve, but we as citizens fail in even the most basic things?
    Each of us is responsible for what we do, what we choose not to do and the monuments we build.
    We can, it is a choice.
    P.S. Let us also make sure we get a half decent ‘coaching team’ we can respect through their capabilities and actions.
    Stay calm and enjoy the game!

    • Pierre Strydom says:

      Thanks, Colin, well said. Just one thing: It’s hard to stay calm!

      • Colin Donian says:

        Yesterday, last night, took another few years off my life…
        I try really hard not to be too nationalistic about sport, trying to focus on the game rather than merely supporting the team where I was born or live, but those deep-seated notions are a struggle.
        It is strange however, I always want the team opposing England to win, in any sport.
        Last night could gave gone either way at any time, but better feeling to be +1!

  • Steve Davidson says:

    It’s just a pity about the weather, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles. I would love to have seen how the Bok backs ran the ball away from the suffocating AB defence in drier conditions but that’ll have to wait for another day. If the Boks win, and that’s a big ‘if’, as their opponents play a lot of their rugby in these kind of conditions – except in Dunedin where there’s a roof! – so are far more used to it (like the poms, as showed in last week’s game) and have a huge advantage, it will definitely be one of the greatest achievements in rugby history. The 15 forwards will try to keep the ball in rolling mauls with some box kicks from Faf IMHO and some occasional back breakouts when the ABs at least expect them, and the backs will tackle like demons. That’s about it. But then we have the Rasnaber innovation so anything could really happen…

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    Go boks!!

  • Martin Oosthuizen says:

    Those first 10 minutes – a time when the manne have not been known to be at their best to0 often- are crucial. Watching Jordon running away after an overlap and then big All Black smiles is not going to make me entirely content.
    Vat hom Fluffy !

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