South Africa defeated New Zealand in the men’s Rugby World Cup final to emerge as the champions.
No one had ever won four men’s Rugby World Cup titles. And, even on a soggy Parisian evening, this really did have the feel of a truly momentous occasion. South Africa have successfully defended their crown and any arguments about the most dominant rugby nation on earth can be temporarily laid to rest.
The match was an intense and back-and-forth battle. It will go down in history as a story of two leaders. In 2015, when Siya Kolisi became the first black captain of South African rugby and lifted the Webb Ellis Cup in Japan, it became one of the most iconic moments in sports. Now, for all Springbok fans, there is a wonderful sense of reliving that moment. However, for Sam Cane, the captain of the All Blacks, it ended up being a devastating night.
Prior to the 27th minute, the teams were evenly matched. However, after a video review, Cane was given a red card for his tackle on Jesse Kriel. While there have been more forceful tackles in the past, the use of the phrase “a high degree of danger” typically results in a player’s ejection. This is the first time in a World Cup final that a player, especially the captain of the All Blacks, has been sent off.
However, the intense excitement did not end there. Kolisi received a yellow card just five minutes into the second half for making contact with Ardie Savea’s head. This gave the 14-man New Zealand team the opportunity to mount a frantic comeback. Although the All Blacks initially thought they had scored a try through scrum-half Aaron Smith, it was ultimately ruled out due to a knock-on by Savea in the lead-up. However, they were able to score a valid try through Beauden Barrett just before the hour, setting the stage for a thrilling finish. In the final minutes, Barrett’s brother Jordie attempted a long-range penalty but was unsuccessful.
In the bleachers, two of the most renowned players in tennis, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, would have understood the intense battle. The Springboks, led by the excellent kicking of Handré Pollard and the impressive play of Pieter-Steph du Toit, who was named world player of the year in 2019, never gave up and became only the second men’s team to win back-to-back finals, following New Zealand’s feat in 2015.
It was bound to be intense. These two nations with a strong sense of pride have been competing in rugby union for 102 years, but some matches hold more significance than others. The determination of the South African players was evident as they sang their national anthems, and the New Zealand team was clearly focused during their Haka.
The heavy rain made the atmosphere even more intense. Regardless of Jacques Nienaber, the heavy rainfall before the game would have reminded Jacques Cousteau of home. For New Zealand, a wet ball could spell trouble. More fumbles mean more scrums. And this South African team, as England knows, excels at scrummaging. Prior to Barrett’s try, the Springboks had never let in a try in three World Cup finals.
In the event, it was South African bloody-mindedness that once again proved decisive. Incredibly they won all three of their knockout games by a single point, making light of all manner of adversity. In this case it was the loss of their hooker Bongi Mbonambi after just three minutes, victim of a falling, twisting tackle by Shannon Frizell which did not look great in slow motion. It forced South Africa to revert to the 37-year-old Deon Fourie and capped an already difficult personal week for Mbonambi.
Pollard converted two penalties for South Africa, taking advantage of their early territorial dominance. However, the All Blacks soon stepped up their game and came close to scoring with a clever attacking chip from Jordie Barrett that was almost caught by Savea. Aside from a penalty by Richie Mo’unga, New Zealand struggled to make a decisive move. Pollard, similar to his performance against England, sealed the deal with an impressive long kick, giving his team a six-point lead once again.
The New Zealand rugby team, known as the All Blacks, were advised to remain composed. However, they temporarily lost their composure. They made a couple of mistakes during lineouts and ended up with only 14 players on the field after Cane’s costly mistake. South Africa took advantage of this and earned a penalty for a turnover. Pollard was preparing to take the kick when it was announced that Cane would not be coming back onto the field. Pollard successfully made the kick, putting New Zealand in a difficult situation.
No team behind at half-time has ever won a men’s Rugby World Cup final and, at 12-6 down, the Bok defence was not falling for the All Blacks’ deft midfield interplay. Following Kolisi’s departure, though, the momentum of the contest shifted yet again and New Zealand, having turned down kickable penalties to go for the corner, deserved their reward when Mark Telea found a little space on the left and his offload was adjudged to have bounced backwards before Beauden Barrett scooped it up to score.
The final quarter was equally breathless, even before Cheslin Kolbe was sent to the sin-bin by the authoritative Wayne Barnes seven minutes from time for a deliberate knock down. It has been not been an entirely flawless tournament – overly long and frustratingly lop-sided at times – but the best games have been as compelling as any sport you could wish to see. And in South Africa they can now bask in the ultimate glory. The northern hemisphere – one World Cup triumph in 10 attempts – has an awful lot of catching up to do.