World Cup final: Old foes to face off but who will come out on top?
The rugby gods have spoken, allowing the two best ranked teams in the world to go toe-to-toe in a last dance like no other
The Springboks and the All Blacks will have the last tango of this Rugby World Cup here on Saturday evening and kick-off cannot come soon enough.
The wait for the tournament's climax at the Stade de France has been interminable, not just because of the sheer duration of the tournament, but a finals week that had more twists and turns than Alpe d'Huez.
For old foes the Springboks and the All Blacks it is a potential date with destiny in their pursuit of a record fourth RWC title. The rugby gods have spoken, allowing the two best ranked teams in the world to go toe-to-toe in a last dance like no other.
The Boks have had a couple of close brushes over the past two weekends.
Their high kicking can-can against France proved energy sapping, while their late cavort with England said as much about their ability to troubleshoot as it did about their can-do spirit.
Given how they were dominated by England for large parts of the semifinal last week, the Boks may well have to overcome fatigue.
Do they have enough left to lift the Webb Ellis Cup?
Sure, the All Blacks had a bruiser against Ireland in the quarterfinals, but they are ferns dripping fresh morning dew compared to the embattled Boks who have had skirmishes on and off the field.
The Boks will have to dig deep and summon whatever they have left.
They did it two weekends in a row and can do so again, argued World Cup winning captain John Smit.
“They find a way,” said Smit, who is here as a television pundit.
“Against France, Victor (Matfield) and I walked down to the field with 20 minutes to go thinking it was done. Against England it looked even more done. We said to each other with 20 to go we need to go down to the field because the previous week when we did so things turned around.
“They found a way again in a game in which they were never in it. That is the sign of a championship group,” said Smit.
He believes the muscle memory from the last two weekends and indeed from their most recent experience in a RWC final will stand them in good stead.
“This team has definitely improved as a group since 2019. Having won in 2019 it obviously put them under pressure to go back-to-back. But they got better and better and they've solidified more as a group.
“We've seen probably a group that has walked the hardest road to a World Cup final ever,” said Smit about the Boks who by final whistle on Saturday would have played all the other teams ranked in the top six.
The Boks might also draw from their last tangle with New Zealand on the eve of the RWC when they beat them 35-7.
That now seems a long time ago but the Boks, as they did in London for the first time, assembled seven forwards and just one back on their bench.
This week around France there has been a rash of fake bomb threats.
The potency of the Bomb Squad in recent weeks, however, has been there for all to see.
In a week in which picking sides became a near obligation, the Boks named a team in which the bench is a throwback from their record win at Twickenham.
A seven/one bench again, but fewer gasps this time.
Willie le Roux will be in such hulking company there is little chance of him being mistaken for Snow White.
The Bok bench, however, does not come sans risk, but it's a gamble they are prepared to accept.
Head coach Jacques Nienaber would have run the numbers involving the potential peril. This week he spoke a lot about mitigating risk, but a seven/one bench split does go a long way to boxing yourself into a corner.
In fact, it is from the corner that the All Blacks emerged to resurrect their RWC ambitions after a torrid few weeks before and at the start of the tournament.
Much, however, has passed here under the 37 bridges of the Seine since they came unstuck in the RWC opener.
The improvements they've made, especially at the breakdown, have given them another gear in attack.
No, his name is not Rico, but Will Jordan and he will break the RWC try-scoring record for one tournament should he dot down against the defending champions.
The Boks, however, have a history of shutting down All Black wings who come with a reputation.
Jordan's matchup with Cheslin Kolbe will be keenly observed, but perhaps more compelling and significant in the overall scheme of things is the one between scrumhalves Aaron Smith and Faf de Klerk.
Expect them to bark and snap at each other's heels.
The All Blacks also owe much of their restoration to their defiant defence. They were near demonic in that department against Ireland and the Boks will likely face a similar door slamming exercise.
Don't expect Ardie Savea, Sam Cane and Co to disappear quietly into the night.
The tighter the margins at the Stade de France, the greater the scope for post-match fallout.
Given what has transpired for much of this week it is perhaps a twist of irony that the match officials are all English.
Wayne Barnes may very well be the best ref in town but he is human.
If you are to take a cynical view of Barnes you'd have to ask does his memory go back a year, or 16? Both Nienaber and opposite number Ian Foster would have thoroughly studied his ways.
Whatever the result, it will be the final whistle for Nienaber as it is for Foster, who will make way for a break-dancing successor.
They are both desperate to waltz to the exit.
New Zealand — Beauden Barrett; Will Jordan, Rieko Ioane, Jordie Barrett, Mark Telea; Richie Mo’unga, Aaron Smith; Ardie Savea, Sam Cane (captain), Shannon Frizell; Scott Barrett, Brodie Retallick; Tyrel Lomax, Codie Taylor, Ethan de Groot.
Substitutes: Samisoni Taukei’aho, Tamaiti Williams, Nepo Laulala, Samuel Whitelock, Dalton Papali’i, Finlay Christie, Damian McKenzie, Anton Lienert-Brown.
South Africa — Damian Willemse; Kurt-Lee Arendse, Jesse Kriel, Damian de Allende, Cheslin Kolbe; Handré Pollard, Faf de Klerk; Duane Vermeulen, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Siya Kolisi (captain); Franco Mostert, Eben Etzebeth; Frans Malherbe, Bongi Mbonambi, Steven Kitshoff.
Substitutes: Deon Fourie, Ox Nche, Trevor Nyakane, Jean Kleyn, RG Snyman, Kwagga Smith, Jasper Wiese; Willie le Roux.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant referees: Karl Dickson, Matthew Carley (both England)
TMO: Tom Foley