Defending champions South Africa face arch-rivals New Zealand in an eagerly awaited Rugby World Cup final on Saturday with both teams in the all-southern hemisphere clash aiming for a record fourth title.
The Springboks and All Blacks have reached the final at the Stade de France thanks largely to dramatic quarter-final victories over France and Ireland, both of whom were fancied to make the latter stages.
After northern hemisphere teams topped all four pools, hopes were high that the Webb Ellis Cup would head to Europe for the first time since England won in 2003.
But it was not to be. Wales joined France and highly favoured Ireland in an early departure after falling to Argentina — who went down heavily to New Zealand in the semi-finals — and England lost a hard-fought semi-final to the Boks.
England, who had defied pre-tournament expectations to reach the last four, claimed third place with a 26-23 victory over Los Pumas on Friday.
– Southern hemisphere domination –
So, once again, the Cup will head southwards, to one of the two teams that has already won it three times.
South Africa have never lost a World Cup final, winning in 1995, 2007 and 2019, but coach Jacques Nienaber predicts this final will be “grind”.
New Zealand lifted the trophy in 1987, 2011 and 2015, but lost that 1995 final to the Springboks in a moment made special by Nelson Mandela’s rallying call as South Africa embarked on its arduous voyage away from the dark days of apartheid.
The feeling remains that the Springboks are playing for more than personal glory.
“This is what we live for, it’s about the people who are dreaming to be in our position in the communities back in South Africa,” said assistant coach Mzwandile Stick on Friday.
“We just want to do everything in our power to make sure we are reuniting those people.”
– Once in a lifetime –
Nienaber, whose Boks lost 13-8 to Ireland in pool play, said a final pitching the two rivals together, each with a chance to rewrite history, “will never happen in our lifetime again”.
“The All Blacks have won the World Cup three times, we have won it three times, so this game is almost bigger than just a World Cup final,” added Stick.
“Whoever wins is going to have bragging rights for the next four years.”
All Blacks coach Ian Foster, whose team went down 27-13 to hosts France in the opening game of the tournament, said: “We all remember the last final between us, which was an epic, and hopefully this one will be the same.
“Then you do the maths and we’ve got three World Cups each and someone is going to win four, so it’s a special occasion, isn’t it?”
Recalled to the Springboks’ starting XV are Faf de Klerk and sharp-shooting Handre Pollard, who kicked 22 points to help South Africa to a thumping 32-12 victory over England in Japan to win the World Cup four years ago.
It is a remarkable journey for 29-year-old Pollard, who failed to make the initial 33-man squad, but was called up as a replacement for the injured Malcolm Marx.
Hooker Bongi Mbonambi also starts, having been cleared by World Rugby of having used a racial slur against England’s Tom Curry in last weekend’s semi-final, much to the ire of the English.
– ‘Back-to-back’ –
Nienaber also plumped for seven forwards among the replacements, a gamble because it leaves him short of cover in key positions.
Star winger Cheslin Kolbe is prepped to cover half-back while Kwagga Smith can also play positions in the backline.
“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,” said Nienaber, who employed the same 7-1 bench split in a record 35-7 victory over the All Blacks in a pre-tournament war-up.
Foster had no issue with the Boks’ approach, saying: “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.”
Foster made just one change to his starting XV, Brodie Retallick replacing Sam Whitelock in the second row, while tighthead prop and Nepo Laulala replaces Fletcher Newell on the bench.