Treble of one-point wins make Springboks the masters of fine RWC margins


PARIS, France — This group of Springboks are the masters of fine margins. Three one-point knockout stage wins, the narrowest trio of victories led to Siya Kolisi lifting the Rugby World Cup for the second time in succession. Bottle the mental strength behind their 12-11 win over New Zealand in this incredible final and you’d make a fortune.

It was one of the greatest rugby matches we’ve seen, as the Springboks became the first team to win four men’s World Cups. It was a nerve-wracking match, expertly refereed by Wayne Barnes, in a match where TMO calls were crucial, a match of such minute detail but won by the unwavering focus of the Springboks.

This will be a World Cup final immortalised by close-up shots of anguish and exhilaration, alongside the minutiae of rugby’s law book.

When the full-time whistle blew, there were a series of snapshots showcasing why this game is brutal and beautiful in equal measure. You had Sam Cane, the All Blacks captain, with a vacant stare. He’d already sat out 52 minutes of the match after receiving a red card in the first half. Then there was Cheslin Kolbe, the Springboks winger, who was sin-binned in the 73rd minute for a deliberate knock-on, hiding his face in his shirt, unable to watch the final moments.

As the full-time whistle blew, Cane stayed sat on the bench, a head full of white noise and regret. Kolbe stood up, finally able to see the pitch, and saw his teammates running around, finally able to breathe through the tension of this match. Siya Kolisi’s first act as double-winning Rugby World Cup captain was to run to Kolbe and hug him.

Nostalgia is threaded through sport, and these finals are as much a reflection on the journey to the final as it is the occasion itself. You had victorious World Cup captains of yesteryear watching on, the great John Smit sitting alongside Francois Pienaar in the Stade de France stands, just two faces among the 80,065 who were there to witness this group of Springboks go back-to-back.

Kolisi’s place in rugby’s pantheon of greats was already secured long before this tournament, but again he was monumental both on and off the pitch. You can’t help but be impressed by this role model, the sort of figure where you want children all over the world to sit and listen to his views on the world and the sport. But he won’t think of himself, it’s not his way. That’s the lifeblood of this Springboks team, the importance of the collective over the individual.

“People who are not from South Africa don’t understand what it means for our country,” Kolisi said. “It is not just about the game. Our country goes through such a lot. We are just grateful that we can be here. I want to tell the people of South Africa ‘thank you so much’. This team just shows what you can do. As soon as we work together, all is possible, no matter in what sphere – in the field, in offices, it shows what we can do. I am grateful for this team, I am so proud of it.”

But this was a match where TMO decisions were paramount – Barnes judged the final brilliantly, but each TMO call was nuanced, complicated and balanced by split-second contortionist acts from these remarkable players.

South Africa were the better of the two teams. They had to cope with losing starting hooker Bongi Mbonambi to an injury after just three minutes as All Blacks flanker Shannon Frizzell’s lazy cleanout saw him leave his weight on Mbonambi’s leg. Frizzell was sin-binned, Mbonambi out of the match, and the Boks’ makeshift hooker option Deon Fourie had to play 77 minutes.

The second moment which swung the balance of this match came in the 28th minute when Cane caught Jesse Kriel with a high shot. Cane was sin-binned but put under review. Cane sat there motionless waiting his fate. As he was informed of the decision to upgrade it to a red, he sat back in his chair, head in hands, devastated. The call was that there was a high degree of danger, no clear obvious mitigation. The All Blacks would have to go more than a half with 14 men. “There’s so much hurt right now, it’s hard to find the words to explain it,” Cane said afterwards. “It’s something unfortunately I’m going to have to live with forever.”

The Springboks went into the break with a six-point, 12-6 lead thanks to four Pollard penalties and started again in the ascendancy in the second half. But again a flashpoint interrupted the flow, with Kolisi shown a yellow card in the 45th minute after he made contact with Ardie Savea’s head. This time, though, it remained a yellow. The explanation was along lines of “force going through body, change in dynamic over the tackle”.

The All Blacks had chances, Richie Mo’unga dropping the ball with a narrow gap on the left in the second half springs to mind, so too the disallowed try for New Zealand which Aaron Smith’s had finished off after another break from Mo’unga, which was chalked off because of a knock-on in the build-up. But the one that did count moved the All Blacks to within one point as Beauden Barrett dived over in the 58th minute, the first try ever conceded by the Springboks in their fourth World Cup final. Mo’unga missed the touchline conversion, the match at 12-11 to the Boks.

The Boks had their own chances, but it was the All Blacks chasing it hard in the closing stages, with Jordie Barrett missing a long-range penalty, but they were buoyed by playing against 14 men in the 73rd minute with Kolbe sin-binned but they just couldn’t get field position to get a shot at glory.

The stadium had already called the match before the final scrum had been completed. The green and yellow lights were already circling the top of the Stade de France as the two teams packed down for the final scrum and throes of the final.

Du Toit was magnificent with 28 tackles. “I guess as a team we like drama,” he said afterwards. “We have had drama for the last few years. It helped us a lot as a team to get through the drama and cope with it and it shows the resilience of the team and the whole of South Africa.”

There were other monumental shifts: Duane Vermeulen at 37 years old was superb, while the impact Kwagga Smith made helped keep the Boks’ foothold in the match. Others like Ox Nche built themselves into World Cup folklore with destructive performances off the bench, while the match was perfectly judged by Faf de Klerk and Handre Pollard in the half-backs. The 7-1 split on the bench also helped tilt the balance of the match in the Boks’ favour and though a risk by only having Willie le Roux as a specialist back among the replacements, it paid off.

In the end we were back where we started the tournament. All those nail-biting knockout matches, the performances of Portugal, Fiji all blended into the trophy staying in the same hands. Everything changed, everything remained the same. The World Cup is back in South Africa for the next four years and this group is cemented as one of the greatest to ever play the sport.

This will be the last time this Springboks team plays together. After this tournament Jacques Nienaber heads to Leinster, others will walk into retirement.

But tonight, the Paris sky was lit in the green and gold of this magnificent team. “I wouldn’t change the script,” Kolisi said. For all the distractions, the various innovations, they still find a way to get over the line when it matters. Three one-point wins saw them through the knockout stages, and that’s down to unrivalled mental strength.

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