South Africa has defeated New Zealand 12-11 in Paris to be crowned Rugby World Champions for a record fourth time.
South Africans will be celebrating well into the night as their team remains unbeaten in World Cup finals and has become the first to hold up the Webb Ellis Trophy four times.
For the New Zealanders, the 2023 Rugby World Cup has finished just as it started: by losing at Stade de France.
Though the All Blacks fought hard, they could not overcome losing their captain Sam Cane in the 32nd minute of the match to a red card.
Gentle rain at Stade de France set the tone of a low-scoring match characterised by hard-hitting defence.
New Zealand’s Beauden Barrett was the only try scorer and all of South Africa’s 12 points were scored by the foot of Handré Pollard.
The old rivals and rugby’s historic heavyweights went into the match with similar World Cup runs. New Zealand lost the competition opener to France and South Africa was outmuscled by Ireland before both teams fought out intense quarter-finals to make it through.
Two weeks before the competition, the All Blacks and Springboks faced off at Twickenham in London on August 25. The Springboks handed the All Blacks their heaviest-ever defeat, beating them comfortably 35-7. In that game too, an All Black was sent off with a red card – Scott Barrett in the 39th minute.
But a lot can change in two months. In an atmosphere of severe criticism of both coach Ian Foster and captain Sam Cain, New Zealand found their form when it mattered. They fine-tuned their defensive strategy and built upon each performance, dispatching Argentina with ease in the semi-final.
The team’s progress reignited rugby fever in the country that has dominated the rugby world over the last half-century. Flights from New Zealand to France rose to €3400 because of demand and schools told students they could ditch their uniforms and wear black.
Going into the match then, it was arguably South Africa whose too-close-for-comfort defeat in the semi-final by England seemed to reveal chinks in their armour and the limitations of their gameplan. But with players like Player of the Match Pieter-Steph du Toit, they were always a strong chance.
From the get-go, the All Blacks demonstrated they wanted to move the ball around but a yellow card in the 3rd minute to Shannon Frizell for foul play – which injured South Africa’s star hooker Bongi Mbonambi – handed the Springboks three easy points and a platform with which to dominate the opening period.
The All Blacks managed to survive the first ten minutes with 14 men on the field without conceding a try but penalties from both teams kept the scoreboard ticking over. After 20 minutes, South Africa led 9-3.
Again, in the 32nd minute, indiscipline got the better of the All Blacks, this time by Cane who, for committing a high tackle was given a yellow card that was later upgraded to red, leaving the All Blacks without their captain for the rest of the match.
Despite being one man down, the All Blacks did not crack before the break. They went into the sheds at halftime down 12-6 after a penalty each.
The Springboks returned from the break with high intensity, almost touching down twice on the right wing before captain Siya Kolisi was yellow-carded for a head collision on New Zealand’s Ardie Savea.
Again the pendulum swung back into New Zealand’s favour. A magnificent yet disallowed New Zealand failed to kill the All Black’s spirit. Beauden Barrett touched down on the corner five minutes later for the only try of the match, bringing the score to 12-11.
The remaining minutes were full of relentless New Zealand attack and exceptional South African defence.
After Cheslin Kolbe was given the match’s third yellow card, Jordie Barrett had an opportunity to put the All Blacks ahead in the 73rd minute but was unable to convert a penalty.
The Springboks held out and won their third consecutive game by a single point, demonstrating their skill at edging out close encounters.
Veteran warrior Sam Whitelock, who lifted the Webb Ellis Cup in 2011 and 2015, did not become the first player to have three World Cups on his proverbial mantlepiece.
Unlike Whitelock, South African captain Kilisi did get his fairy tale ending. Rumoured to be retiring after this World Cup, he played an outstanding match, bowing out of World Cup rugby with class.