PARIS — Siya Kolisi clutched the Webb Ellis Cup tightly then raised it high after helping South Africa make Rugby World Cup history with a fourth title, earning himself a place among the greats as only the second captain to win it back-to-back.
Four years after dominating England, this final against New Zealand was much harder on Saturday. The Springboks overcame the resilient All Blacks 12-11 on the back of flyhalf Handre Pollard’s four penalties, doing so on a rain-soaked night at Stade de France when All Blacks captain Sam Cane felt the gloom as the first player red-carded in a final.
South Africa repeated its 1995 success over New Zealand and denied the All Blacks their own chance to win a fourth title in their record fifth final. Kolisi’s mind turned quickly to the millions of fans celebrating back home — in city centers, farms, townships, anywhere.
“We have the privilege of doing what we love and inspiring people from all walks of life,” he said. “It’s real for us, we care for each other, we care for our country.”
It was a hard road to victory, at the same stadium where South Africa beat England in the 2007 final.
Since England’s success in 2003, the Springboks and the All Blacks have shared all five titles. This tournament, however, was touted as the right time for the northern hemisphere to topple the south again.
Especially after a titanic 13-8 defeat to Ireland dropped South Africa into second place in its pool to set up a showdown with host France, won 29-28. Then the Springboks were two minutes away from losing the semifinal to rank outsider England before Pollard’s long kick sent them through to the final by 16-15.
“We had to fight, and today as well,” Kolisi said. “I can’t believe what we did.”
After holding the trophy aloft, Kolisi kissed his right sweatband, then roared a victory cry loud enough to rattle windows in Johannesburg, Cape Town and everywhere else back home.
“People who are not from South Africa don’t understand what it means for our country. It is not just about the game. Our country goes through such a lot,” he said. “I want to tell the people of South Africa, ‘Thank you so much’. This team just shows what you can do.”
As South Africa’s players celebrated, Kolisi climbed up the stadium stairs to see a special friend high up in the stands — tennis great Roger Federer, whose mother is South African. Federer clenched his fist in celebration as he leaned over to celebrate with Kolisi.
Cane will fly home with regrets.
“Extremely gutted and disappointed,” he said.
He was issued the red card for a high tackle on center Jesse Kriel. Three other players were sin-binned — two Springboks and one All Black — in a chaotic match.
Fullback Beauden Barrett scored the only try in the left corner, setting up a tense last 20 minutes.
He became the first player to score in two World Cup finals and scored the first try conceded by South Africa in a final. But flyhalf Richie Mo’unga’s touchline conversion attempt went wide and ultimately preserved the winning margin.
Both sides finished with 14 players as left winger Cheslin Kolbe was sin-binned for a deliberate knock on. Center Jordie Barrett took the penalty shot from nearly 50 meters wide of the right post but it sailed wide with Kolbe holding his head in his hands, unable to watch.
“Incredibly proud of the way we fought and to get within a whisker of pulling it off is heart-breaking,” New Zealand coach Ian Foster said.
Cane was sin-binned but referee Wayne Barnes pulled out the dreaded red after the punishment was upgraded late in the first half following a bunker review.
The All Blacks had a yellow card after three minutes to flanker Shannon Frizell while Kolisi was sin-binned early in the second half, for another high tackle, evening the numbers with the score 12-6 to South Africa.
Saturday’s 106th showdown between the gigantic rivals pitted the two top-ranked sides. Federer, wearing a South Africa scarf, and fellow tennis great Novak Djokovic were among the crowd of 80,065.
New Zealand scrumhalf Aaron Smith dived over in the left corner early in the second half following Mo’unga’s superb break from midfield but the try was ruled out.
When Kolisi’s card was not upgraded he came back on with 25 minutes left to play. New Zealand was on top and a brilliant improvised one-handed looping pass from Jordie Barrett found wing Mark Tele’a, and he slipped two tackles before feeding Beauden Barrett in the left corner.
It gave New Zealand hope, but in the end Kolisi joined New Zealand great Richie McCaw in the back-to-back club.
When Barnes blew the final whistle, a tearful Kolbe looked up in relief, Kolisi put his hands on his head in jubilant disbelief, then hugged Kolbe while Cane was sat staring ahead in despair. South Africa coach Jacques Nienaber also looked tearful as his staff grabbed him in celebration.
The dream final was stop-started by a stream of penalties under steady rain.
Frizell was penalized for tackling hooker Bongi Mbonambi in a neck roll. Mbonambi hurt his right knee and was replaced by veteran Deon Fourie.
Pollard’s penalty went over and, with Frizell still serving his penalty, Pollard slotted over again when Codie Taylor failed to roll away.
Mo’unga kicked New Zealand’s first points in the 17th minute, but Savea was pinged moments later for a foul on opposite number Duane Vermeulen and Pollard’s 40-meter kick crept over.
Calmness personified from Pollard, in contrast to Cane’s rush of blood. A TMO review showed him leading with his shoulder into Kriel’s face.
New Zealand withstood two yellow cards in a 28-24 win against Ireland in the quarterfinals, but never trailed in that game, and fell further behind in this one when Pollard’s penalty sailed over following an offside.
Seconds earlier, Cane’s foul was upgraded to a red following a bunker review and he sank his head into his hands.
Still, even with a player less, New Zealand almost scored the game’s first try in the left corner when center Rieko Ioane was superbly tackled by Kurt-Lee Arendse. A penalty by Mo’unga to make it a six-point game at the break.
But the All Blacks faced the whole second half — and the threat of South Africa’s ‘Bomb Squad’ — with a player less. Until Kolisi trudged off for a high tackle on Savea, again picked up by a TMO in overdrive.
Smith played his last game for the All Blacks.
Nienaber took charge of his last, and heads back home a hero.
“They are all warriors,” he said of his players. “(They) don’t have egos, and buy into their roles.”
Image credits: AP