South Africa's flanker and captain Siya Kolisi lifts the Webb Ellis Cup after South Africa won the France 2023 Rugby World Cup Final match between New Zealand and South Africa at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, on the outskirts of Paris, on October 28, 2023. (Photo by Anne-Christine POUJOULAT / AFP) (Photo by ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP via Getty Images)
The Springboks were singing in the rain in Paris last night, retaining the William Webb Ellis Cup by beating the All Blacks 12-11 in a closely-contested, dramatic and often excruciatingly intense final. As they sang, so an exhausted South Africa sang with them — often long into the night.
The fans were helped along by increasing quantities of whatever drinks were to hand. It was a happy, raucous night throughout the length and breadth of the land but in Paris, the city in which the Springboks won the cup 16 years ago, the celebrations were wild.
It’s been a nerve-shredding few weeks for South Africa’s increasingly hopeful supporters. Although the Springboks lost their pool game 6-11 to Ireland, once they reached the knock-outs, the Boks beat hosts France, 29-28 in the quarter-finals, and then snuck home — 16-15 — by the finest of margins against England in last weekend’s semi-finals. View all the latest World Cup stories here.
Surely another win, against an All Black team that had trounced Argentina 44-6 in their semi-final, was unlikely? Surely another one point win was from the outer reaches of statistical fantasy?
Leading 12-6 at half-time, it was a smash-and-grab win built on traditional Bok virtues: kamikaze defence, a never-say-die attitude and the ability not to be intimidated by either the opposition or the moment.
The Springboks probably inched the first half, helped by Handré Pollard’s unerring boot that saw him kick three penalties in the first 20 minutes and four in the first 40. His first kick just grazed the inside of the upright before going over, and his second wasn’t entirely convincing either. As the half grew, however, his accuracy grew with it.
His steady boot was backed up by yeoman forward effort, despite the early loss of hooker Bongi Mbonambi, who was replaced by Deon Fourie as early as the fourth minute. The man-of-the-match, Pieter-Steph du Toit, was immense in the tackle and the South African back three of Damian Willemse, Cheslin Kolbe and Kurt-Lee Arendse were brave under the high ball.
South Africa were helped by the fact that New Zealand flanker Shannon Frizell was yellow carded early. So, too, was New Zealand skipper, Sam Cane. His tackle of Jesse Kriel (who has had a remarkable tournament) was upgraded to a red, meaning he was off from the 27th minute and the All Blacks played for more than 50 minutes with 14 men. Cane’s red-carding in a match of this importance will haunt him forever.
South Africa, too, suffered from yellow cards. Skipper Siya Kolisi was carded in the 45th minute, while Kolbe was shown his marching orders seven minutes from the end. His touchline agonies were so intense that he hid his head in his jersey, unable to watch as the clock wound down and the Boks tried to protect their one-point lead.
Kolisi’s sending off coincided with the New Zealanders’ best period of the match. Despite the rain, which seemed to lessen as the match progressed, they continued to play their pattern of high-tempo, slick-handling rugby. Their faith in their pattern seemed to have been rewarded with a try to scrum-half, Aaron Smith, after a silky outside break by fly-half Richie Mo’unga, that was disallowed for a knock-on back at the line-out where the move began.
Still, at this stage of the match it was looking increasingly ominous for the defending champions. The All Blacks were playing more enterprising rugby. They were winning the battle for both territory and possession, with the Springbok line-out looking as wobbly as a drunk man walking home in the early hours of the morning. A score that wouldn’t be disallowed was surely only a matter of time.
And so it proved. With 20 minutes to go, Beauden Barrett dotted over in the far corner after dancing feet (and a pass that appeared to go forward) from increasingly influential winger Mark Tele’a. The conversion was missed — so the Boks held onto their slender one-point lead — but the momentum was with New Zealand, whether they were without skipper Cane or not.
Despite this, Jordie Barrett missed a long-range penalty a few minutes later and suddenly all of those watching in pubs, sports bars, shebeens and taverns across the land had the same thought: “Might we just be able to sneak another improbable win?”
With bravery, composure and a little luck, they were. It was an incredible win after an incredible run. Let’s not forget they were only ahead 6-3 at half-time against Scotland and were behind 13-15 until shortly before the end against England. But this was a side with remarkable reservoirs of self-belief. They are warriors. And they are heroes, although Du Toit, in answering the television interviewer’s questions, was careful not to get too carried away. “I’m quite happy with the win,” he said.
As for the fans, they were more than happy. They were ecstatic.