New Zealand and South Africa vye for boast of record fourth World Cup

By Paul Myers - RFI
OCT 28, 2023 LISTEN

Two old foes rejoin battle on Saturday night at the Stade de France for the most prestigious prize in international rugby union: the World Cup. New Zealand and South Africa have both claimed the Webb Ellis trophy on three occasions. New Zealand in 1987, 2011 and 2015; South Africa in 1995, 2007 and 2019. And in the 10th World Cup final, one will emerge with bragging rights of a record fourth title.

As they prepare for their seventh match in France, both squads can look back with pride over seven weeks of changing fortunes.

New Zealand began in the pomp and circumstance of the opening game against the hosts France on 8 September.

They recovered from that 27-13 defeat to wallop Namibia 71-3 on 15 September, crush Italy 96-16 two weeks later and obliterate Uruguay 73-0 on 5 October.

Finishing Group A behind France led to a quarter-final against the Group B winners Ireland. The clash provided a game of searing intensity and a slender victory before the 44-6 waltz past Argentina in the semis.

South Africa too had to digest defeat during the pool stages. They went down to Ireland after an opening day win over Scotland and a 76-0 romp past Romania.

Though they crushed Tonga 49-18 in their final game in Group B, Jacques Nienaber's side faced the possibility of elimination.


That depended on Scotland beating Ireland by at least 21 points while also claiming a bonus point and Ireland also securing a bonus point by scoring at least four tries.

The Irish dissolved those permutations with a 36-14 victory to claim Group B and send the defending champions as runners-up into battle against the Group A's leading side France.

That match swiftly seized the honour of game of the tournament as South Africa silenced a ferociously partisan crowd to scrape past Fabien Galthié's men 29-28.

The late revival against England in the smis to win 16-15 seemed par for the course.


"It's huge," said South Africa skipper Siya Kolisi on the eve of the final.

 "We've prepared as hard as we can. We know what to expect. I don't think as a player it will ever get any bigger. I think it will be the biggest game of my life."

Hyperbole? Perhaps. But only the bravest of souls would dispute such existential claims in front of Siyamthanda Kolisi.

Standing 1,86m tall and weighing in at around 100kg, this is a being who has vanquished adversities to become the first black player to skipper the South Africa team to a World Cup triumph.

Nearly four years on from that high, Kolisi, 32, will attempt to join New Zealander Richie McCaw as the only other man to captain squads to back-to-back titles.


"I never thought I'd be here playing the final in the same place that I saw John Smit lift the World Cup in 2007," said Kolisi.

"This is the stuff that you dream about. Honestly, I'd be lying if I said this wasn't one of my dreams to play in the World Cup final in France against the All Blacks."

Nienaber has given him some firepower to emulate McCaw's feats. Ten of South Africa's starting line-up ran out at the beginning of the 2019 final in Yokohama against England.

The 15 for Saturday's final crow a combined total of 987 caps, eclipsing the record set the previous week against England of 895 Test caps.

"This is an experienced team," deadpanned Nienaber. "They know exactly what to expect at the Stade de France on Saturday and what it will take to retain the title. 

"The players who will be playing in their first World Cup final have also proven their worth as warriors throughout this campaign and they are all ready for this massive occasion."


Handré Pollard - whose 77th minute converted penalty sunk England - starts in place of Manie Libbok who will not even feature on the substitute's bench.

Faf de Klerk - who was a substitute in the quarter and semi-finals - will be at Pollard's side.

Hooker Bongi Mbonambi will also feature after being cleared on Thursday by the organisers World Rugby of having used a racial slur against England's Tom Curry during the semi-final.

"Having considered all the available evidence, including match footage, audio and evidence from both teams, the governing body has determined that there is insufficient evidence at this time to proceed with charges," World Rugby said in a statement. 

The accusations added a somewhat tawdry strand to the usual tales of players retiring or operators on the verge of historic achievements such as New Zealand's Sam Whitelock who could become the first man to win three World Cups.


The 35-year-old, who was in the 2011 and 2015 teams, started in the semi-final sweep past Argentina but New Zealand head coach Ian Foster has eschewed sentiment and chosen Brodie Retallick to begin the final.

“Set-piece will be massive," added Foster who has also opted for an experienced team of players with a combined tally of 981 Test caps.

"In previous World Cups the execution of the roles in that area has always been critical. It's an area where we have a lot of confidence in our game.

"For all the pressure, for all the different occasions, rugby is quite a simple game. You have to do well on your own ball, you have to control the set-piece."

The last time South Africa and New Zealand met in a World Cup final came in Johannesburg in 1995.

President Nelson Mandela had famously appropriated the Springbok jersey - long regarded as one of the symbols of white oppression over the majority black population - and rallied the newly democratic country behind the South Africa team.


That victory entered mythology as a unifying moment.

"I didn't get to watch the game, I was four then," said Kolisi. "The significance of the game is huge. It opened a lot of doors for me and many others.

"It was a huge game for South Africa in general and that's why it's spoken about even to this day."

Nienaber's memories veered from the playful to the pragmatic.

"I was at university then," recalled the 51-year-old. "After the victory we were all in the streets.

"I watched the game about a year ago," he added. "It's amazing how the game has changed.

"There were over 80 kicks in that game. And they played with a leather ball. There wasn't any lifting in the line-outs so there were a lot of differences back then.

 "The ball in play was under 24 minutes. There was literally no rugby," Nienaber added.

"It was set-piece after set-piece. The game is a far better product now than it was back then, but I'm not taking anything away from the game."

Smart move. It is iconic.
Saturday night's final is unlikely to unleash such resplendent and enduring narratives.

But it will be compelling.