It’s the two greatest rugby nations going head to head, with the winners becoming the first country to claim four men’s World Cups. Unlike boxing, rugby doesn’t have the notion of an undisputed champion but if ever there was a match to decide one, Saturday evening in the Stade de France would be it.
As Springboks assistant coach Mzwandile Stick explained 24 hours before the match: “The All Blacks have won the World Cup three times, we have won it three times, so this game is actually bigger than just a World Cup final. Whoever wins is probably going to have bragging rights for the next eight years.”
These two countries have rugby embedded in their national DNA more than any other. A game brought from the northern hemisphere during the colonial era has been seized upon, changed and improved post-independence with both nations long since surpassing their former colonisers.
With any other team, the constant refrains from South African players about how much it means to the people back home and how the Springboks represent something greater than themselves would come across as cloying and insincere. But the point is delivered so movingly and with such earnestness that you can’t help but get swept along by the sentiment.
These countries first played way back in 1921 (a 13-5 New Zealand victory in Dunedin) and more than a century later, they will meet for the 106th time on Saturday evening. New Zealand lead the all-time series with 62 wins to 39, and four draws, but South Africa will take heart from the most recent match-up – the record 35-7 thumping they handed their rivals at Twickenham just weeks before this World Cup started.
Although the rivalry has more than 100 years of history, its modern era can be traced back to one game, perhaps the most iconic rugby match of all time. On 24 June 1995, having recently returned from international exile following the long overdue downfall of apartheid, South Africa hosted the Rugby World Cup final at Ellis Park in Johannesburg.
By now, the story is legendary. The hugely-favoured All Blacks, with maybe the greatest rugby player of all time in Jonah Lomu, were shackled by the upstart Springboks, spurred on by a raucous home crowd. Joel Stransky’s drop goal deep into extra-time handed them a 15-12 win, the image of Nelson Mandela in a Springboks jersey and cap handing the trophy to South Africa captain Francois Pienaar became a photo seen around the world and united a divided nation.
Remarkably, especially given the fact that by the time the 2027 tournament rolls around it will have been one year shy of a quarter of a century since someone other than these two teams won the World Cup, Saturday will be the first time they have met in the final since.
Historically, the All Blacks are undeniably the greatest rugby team with an aura that surrounds them forged by years of complete and utter dominance. As if to prove that point, they have won the last four Rugby Championship titles despite being ‘in crisis’ during this cycle and being written off as a shadow of their former selves. The fact they have won 10 of 12 crowns since the Tri Nations became the Rugby Championship with the addition of Argentina in 2012 tells its own story.
However, the Springboks have become the ultimate tournament team. They have a better World Cup record than New Zealand, winning three of seven editions that they have entered, while victory at the Stade de France would take their strike rate up to an incredible 50 per cent.
When the lights shine brightest, South Africa know how to win games of knockout rugby. One-point triumphs over France in the quarter-final and England in the semi-final could be written off as flukes were it not for the fact that every four years, the Springboks prove that they are tournament animals with ice running through their veins.
There was understandable excitement about northern hemisphere teams – especially France and Ireland – finally getting their moment to shine this year. A legendary quarter-final weekend put paid to that but it’s hard to complain too much about what we got instead.
Rugby’s greatest rivalry is about to crown its undisputed World Cup champions. Settle in for the ride.