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FEATURE Rugby's most thrilling rivalry will take centre stage in World Cup final

Rugby's most thrilling rivalry will take centre stage in World Cup final
7 months ago

England, Argentina, France, Ireland, Wales and Fiji might disagree, but the World Cup has landed the dream final.

France versus New Zealand would have been the game to ignite the imagination of the hosts and give the local market the ending their massive support and commitment to the tournament deserved, but the All Blacks playing the Springboks in a World Cup final is a chance for the greatest rivalry in the game to be put on the ultimate stage and for the sport to sell the most compelling version of itself to a global market.

There are plenty of old, classic rivalries in the international game. England versus France is always a spicy encounter – two nations who have a long history of having fought each other on the battlefield long before rugby came along.

Ireland and Wales have built an intensity of competition against one another over the last century and their Six Nations encounters can often carry an element of tension.

But there is nothing that can match the All Blacks versus Springboks for intensity, history, quality and impact.

All Blacks Springboks haka
The players of South Africa watch on as Aaron Smith of New Zealand leads the Haka prior to kick-off ahead of the Summer International match between New Zealand All Blacks v South Africa at Twickenham Stadium on August 25, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

 

There is a brutality to their rugby that no two other teams can consistently match. They play with a certain ferocity, speed and energy and it is probably fair to say when these two meet, that they tend to produce the sort of rugby that highlights all that is good about the sport.

They bring the best out of each other – the best out of the sport. Rarely, if ever, do these two produce a dud.

There’s plenty made about their contrasting styles: New Zealand’s love of playing fast, wide, ball-in-hand, high-tempo rugby compared to South Africa’s more direct and confrontational approach built around set-piece power and kicking accuracy.

To some extent that is broadly true, that they do see the game through a different lens. But it’s also not quite as defined as some make out and if we look at Tests between these two since 2018, the only thing that has been consistent has been that the games have been free-flowing, high scoring, brutal, creative, breathless and wildly entertaining.

These two have been going at each other for 102 years now and have played 105 tests against each other.

The respect they have for one another is deep and enduring. The respect they have for the rivalry they have built is equally deep and enduring.

The All Blacks, having won 62 to the Springboks’ 39 (there have been four draws) have the edge statistically, but the current playing groups wouldn’t feel like there is anything between the two teams.

Since 2018, they have played each other 10 times and the All Blacks have won five, South Africa four and there’s been a solitary draw.

In these last 10 encounters, both sides have averaged 25 points per test, and other than their last encounter, which the Springboks won by a record 35-7 margin at Twickenham two weeks before the World Cup, the games tend to go down to the wire.

The respect they have for one another is deep and enduring. The respect they have for the rivalry they have built is equally deep and enduring and as South Africa’s assistant coach, Deon Davids said the day after his team secured a place in the final: “As a kid, we grew up listening to the radio on the battles between the All Blacks and South Africa, listening to the stories of the heroes from both teams over the years.

“It has been part of our rugby history, the Springboks and the All Blacks, and every time we play each other it is always a special battle, and I don’t think this one will be different.

“I think it will maybe go to a different level in terms of the competition between the players – excellent talent in both teams.”

Assistant coach Joe Schmidt and forwards coach Jason Ryan of the All Blacks look on ahead of The Rugby Championship match between the New Zealand All Blacks and Argentina Pumas at Orangetheory Stadium on August 27, 2022 in Christchurch, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

 

His views were shared by his opposite number at the All Blacks, assistant coach Jason Ryan, who said the following day: “The history is a big part of it. It is not a secret that we love going to South Africa.

“It has been a big part of the All Blacks. It is just a special place to tour and they bring a special part of their game and that makes it a great rivalry and to be doing it in a World Cup final.

“That is when you want to be playing, coaching and setting yourself up for a gold medal and the history is going to be pretty special.”

Just how much this tournament, the game of rugby, needs an exhilarating final can’t be exaggerated. The French TV audiences for this tournament have been huge and no doubt too, the global data when it is finalised, will also show strong growth.

But what’s also true is that the international game will struggle to keep this new audience if it throws up a final that looks anything like the semi-final between South Africa and England.

The physicality was there, the commitment and passion of both teams undeniable, but strategically it was two teams desperate to play without the ball.

That was a contest that became gripping in the last 10 minutes, but only in the dramatic sense because the game was so close and the stakes so high.

It was, for the first 70 minutes, lacking in spectacle because it lacked variation, and it got nowhere near showcasing all the magical things about the sport.

The physicality was there, the commitment and passion of both teams undeniable, but strategically it was two teams desperate to play without the ball and grind their way to victory.

Jonathan Liew wrote in The Guardian: “Stylistically, the gulf between England and the very best in the world has rarely been wider. England kicked away 93 per cent of their possession on Saturday night, and spent a total of 73 seconds in the South Africa 22.

“They registered the slowest ruck speed of the entire tournament (narrowly beating the record mark they set against Samoa).

“It was the first time at this World Cup that a team played an entire match without registering a single line break.”

Kurt-Lee Arendse
Kurt-Lee Arendse scored a blistering individual try as England’s form continued to diminish, while the Springboks soared (Photo by Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images)

For those with skin in the game, none of that really mattered, but for the neutral, there was almost nothing to see. Its unlikely that any casual or new follower of rugby would have watched that game and fallen in love with the sport.

But give them New Zealand versus South Africa and they may be hooked for life. That’s the power of their rivalry and their ability to produce rugby that captures the imagination and excites the hard-core fans, the purists, the casual followers and the uninitiated.

And the bigger question that was already starting to be asked ahead of this tournament, is how New Zealand and South Africa can better take advantage of their rivalry in the modern landscape.

Under the current Rugby Championship scheduling, these two play each other twice a year, with South Africa hosting two Tests one year and New Zealand two the next.

Last year was the first and only time this format has been used – previously they used to host one each in any given year – and it clearly ignited conversations to see if there was potential to play around with that a little more.

The bigger question that was already starting to be asked ahead of this tournament, is how New Zealand and South Africa can better take advantage of their rivalry in the modern landscape.

If New Zealand are going to be in South Africa for two weeks, could that be extended and could something approximating an old-fashioned tour be possible?

And vice-versa when the Boks are in New Zealand. “We’ve been open with all the Sanzaar parties that that’s something that we’re having a look at, and how we can consider that sort of format for the future,” NZR chief executive Mark Robinson told Stuff in September.

“Clearly, there is interest in it from both unions, but it’s very early days around those conversations.

“That’s certainly part of the conversation at the moment, [for it] to be a more, you know, more traditional type of tour, but again there’s a lot of work to be done there.”

The World Cup final may be the first of many times this great rivalry is showcased in the next decade as the ultimate example of how compelling rugby can be.

Comments

45 Comments
B
B.J. Spratt 230 days ago

All Blacks by 35+ Simply The Best!

W
Warner 230 days ago

Backing BLACK ALL THE WAY TO AUSTRALIA 2027

Ihaha

Ka Mate
Ka Mate

F
Fritz 230 days ago

What is the next thing to do after an All Black won against the Boks. Switch the PlayStation off

B
Bob Marler 231 days ago

Well it certainly won’t take backstage!

T
Turlough 231 days ago

It’s actually a pretty boring final. It could have been England-NZ due to the ridiculous draw so we got the least worst option. NZ are not an attacking team like Ireland or France. They are a counter attacking team. THe aura of NZ is long gone I think neutrals were hoping for something different this time.

j
johnz 231 days ago

Whatever you say Gregor, I’m a kiwi and would have loved to see an NZ v France final. Two teams that play total rugby, with a stadium full of home fans. I have plenty of respect for SA, but their strategy does seem quite negative. Lot’s of muscle, scrum penalties, lineout drives and long range penalty kicks. Yeah but no thanks. Still, if it’s close in the second half and it’s raining - it might just be enough. I guess that will make it fascinating - will NZ’s 15 man game be the winner? Will they even be able to implement it? I guess we’ll soon find out.

J
Jon 231 days ago

The greatest challenge facing South Africa is rolling blackouts

The greatest challenge facing New Zealand is a revolt from its herds of sheep

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