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Thursday, December 7, 2023

Springboks defend World Cup crown against All Blacks in rare final duel

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PARIS—South Africa.

New Zealand.

New Zealand.

South Africa.

That’s how the last four champions line up on the Webb Ellis Cup.

One of the Springboks or All Blacks will take it again in Paris on Saturday when they collide in the Rugby World Cup final for the only the second time.

The first time was so iconic that a movie was made about it. Jonah Lomu was corralled, Joel Stransky hit the winning drop goal in extra time and Nelson Mandela wore a Springboks jersey and cap. It could only be 1995.

The fates have prevented rugby’s legendary rivalry from featuring in another final until now, and even this was unexpected.

It’s the first final in which both teams have lost a pool match. The All Blacks lost to France. The Springboks lost to Ireland. Stade de France rocked for both unsurprising results. But the old stadium was literally shaking on consecutive nights in the quarterfinals when the All Blacks stunned Ireland and the Springboks knocked out host France.

The Springboks have surprised nobody. They were big favorites before the tournament and have possibly ploughed the toughest path to the final in tournament history. Beside Ireland, they had to shake off Scotland and Tonga in the pool stage, then win one-pointers against host France and England in the knockout stage.

The final will be their fifth bone-rattling match in five weeks, perhaps one reason why they have gone for the unconventional 7-1 split of forwards and backs on the bench. Perhaps fatigue has forced the Boks to require two forward packs to grind down the All Blacks and hope no backs are injured.

Or perhaps because 7-1 worked when they first tried it, against the All Blacks just before the tournament, and gave their great rival their worst ever defeat by 35-7.

The 7-1 didn’t work against Ireland but rolling the dice is a trait of the Boks brains trust of Jacques Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus. When they took over a broken team five years ago, they planned to win this World Cup. Winning the 2019 World Cup in Japan was a bonus.

The starting XV has 10 from that 2019 final, including halves Handre Pollard and Faf de Klerk, who have been reunited as starters for the first time in more than a year. Hooker Bongi Mbonambi was another from 2019, selected after he was cleared by World Rugby of allegedly making a racial slur against England’s Tom Curry last weekend because there was insufficient evidence.

“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,” Nienaber said.

The All Blacks have gone with their usual 5-3 split, answering South Africa by only replacing backup prop Fletcher Newell with the more experienced Nepo Laulala. Coach Ian Foster was nonplussed about South Africa’s 7-1.

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

The All Blacks were written off after consecutive losses to South Africa and France. But they got their mojo back a month ago when their injury list cleared and captain Sam Cane, forwards Tyler Lomax and Shannon Frizell and back Jordie Barrett returned. The ideal lineup was completed when prop Ethan de Groot came off suspension in time for the knockout stage. Even with no room for retiring hooker Dane Coles, one of their 2015 winners, the All Blacks will field 1,387 caps, their most experienced final team.

With the band back together, the All Blacks have played with a power and pace not seen in years, allied to an unexpected defensive grit.

The Springboks prefer a slower game, going to the air, and bringing their bigger forwards into the contest as often as possible. It’s also suited to the wet conditions forecast for game time. Their semifinal was wet, too, but the Boks suffered from a mental dip after their quarterfinal and came right against England just in time to force a late penalty to win.

Even then, their defense has been reliably tough, conceding only seven tries, joint fewest in the tournament.

“From my point of view,” All Blacks lock Brodie Retallick said, ”it is the greatest challenge that we have in test rugby.”

This is their third meeting this year. The All Blacks won in Auckland, the Springboks in London. The winners were marked by explosive starts. The final should be different. They have been together longer and systems are synched in.

The stakes are much, much higher, not just a first World Cup title for most on the field, but a possible second title for quite a few, and a possible third title for one, All Blacks lock Sam Whitelock. The winner between the three-time champions will also become the first four-time champ.

But its motivation enough for both teams that it’s All Blacks vs. Springboks, Springboks vs. All Blacks.

Their 102 years of history—most of them for mythical world domination—and deep respect for each other’s love of the game have nourished a rivalry that will be elevated to new heights in Paris.

“I don’t think it’s [a final] that you can dream about because it doesn’t happen often,” said South Africa’s Siya Kolisi, who could become the second captain ever to win two World Cups. “I don’t think it will happen in our lifetime again to have two teams like this.”

Image credits: AP

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