Paris — Defence, discipline and set-piece mastery again proved key as South Africa ran out back-to-back winners of the Rugby World Cup in France.
The Springboks, with iconic captain Siya Kolisi to the fore, beat New Zealand 12-11 in a gripping final for a record fourth title, the All Blacks reduced to 14 men on 29 minutes after the sending off of skipper Sam Cane for a high tackle.
It was the Boks’ third successive knock-out victory by a single point: they edged hosts France 29-28 in a thrilling quarter-final and England 16-15 in the semis thanks to a last-gasp Handre Pollard penalty.
Pollard hit four penalties in the final to underline the importance of an accurate goal kicker and cap an amazing recall to the Bok squad after missing the initial cut through injury.
Coach Jacques Nienaber and director of rugby Rassie Erasmus, who was in charge when South Africa won in Japan four years ago, continued their effective use of a forwards-heavy bench, the so-called ‘bomb squad’, but insisted they were not “geniuses” when it came to selection.
“From 2018 we thought we had the ability to win the 2023 World Cup,” the departing Nienaber said, with the Boks now facing a rebuild into the next World Cup in Australia in 2027, but sure to rely on the bedrock of their gameplan.
The Boks, who lost to Ireland in pool play, faced five of the other top six teams in the world rankings in France.
There had been great expectations for the French and the Irish, who topped their pools, the hosts notably beating the All Blacks in the opening game of the tournament seven weeks ago.
Wales and England also finished top in their respective pools, meaning a northern hemisphere group sweep for the first ever time.
Then came two monumental quarter-finals: the Boks edging France and New Zealand outsmarting Ireland in a clash of the top four teams in the world thanks to a lop-sided draw made in December 2020.
The final that the French and large travelling Irish contingent wanted will now come in the shape of what will be a highly-anticipated opening match of the Six Nations, in Marseille on February 2.
“If there is alignment and striving towards a common goal then great things can be achieved” – more here: https://t.co/fXvs6XZbH2 👍#StrongerTogether #Springboks pic.twitter.com/ji8SxHPBeC
— Springboks (@Springboks) October 29, 2023
Wales crashed to Argentina, who went on to lose to England in the third-place play-off.
So the William Webb Ellis Cup stays in the southern hemisphere, England the sole team from the north to have won it, back in 2003.
Australia will host the 2027 World Cup, but failed to shine in France, losing pool games to Fiji and Wales to seal an historic early exit.
Coach Eddie Jones, irascible as ever, was mired in rumours he had held pre-tournament talks to take over from the departing Japan coach Jamie Joseph.
Jones, whose wife lives in Japan, denied all, but on Sunday was reported to have quit as Wallabies coach to leave Rugby Australia with everything to do in the coming four years.
A tale of two tiers
The next edition of the tournament has been expanded to 24 teams from the current 20, opening up the door of opportunity to more Tier II nations, but also raising the prospect of more heavy one-sided results.
Of the Tier II nations in France, only Fiji reached the knockout stages, beating Australia in the pool for the first time in 69 years on the way, but they also lost to Portugal.
World Rugby also announced plans for a new bi-annual international competition from 2026, comprising a top division of 12 teams from the Six Nations and the southern hemisphere’s Rugby Championship.
Two further countries – thought likely to be Japan and Fiji – will be invited to make up the dozen, and matches will be played in July and November.
There will be a second division also made up of a dozen teams, although promotion and relegation will not come into operation until 2030.
World Rugby president Bill Beaumont said agreement on the global calendars and their content was “the most significant development in the sport since the game went professional”.
“We wanted to play for something far bigger than us”@Springboks captain Siya Kolisi reflects on their World Cup win at the #WorldRugbyAwards pic.twitter.com/KzDPc3iSyB
— World Rugby (@WorldRugby) October 29, 2023
“(It is) a historic moment for our sport that sets us up collectively for success.”
Perhaps more pressing for World Rugby is the contentious issue of refereeing.
The introduction of a bunker system whereby a yellow card can be upgraded to red by an off-field television match official, as was the case for Cane in the final, has proved controversial.
There have been differing results in officiating around the tackle, leaving many teams and supporters frustrated at what they see as unfair decisions.
“The game has got a few issues it’s got to sort out,” said New Zealand coach Ian Foster.
“That’s not sour grapes. There were two different situations with different variables and one was a red card (Cane), one was a yellow (Kolisi on Ardie Savea).”
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