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FEATURE Will All Blacks or Springboks taste World Cup glory at Stade de France?

Will All Blacks or Springboks taste World Cup glory at Stade de France?
7 months ago

Let’s start where we left off. The legendary Boxing trainer Freddie Roach once said, “Styles make fights. That ‘Fighter A-Fighter B’ logic is way too simple. Styles make fights. Every fight is different.” Nothing could be truer of the World Cup final between the two traditional giants of the game, and those most ancient of foes, South Africa and New Zealand.

The two philosophies of the game are fundamentally different. Not Good versus Evil – that would be far too simplistic. But where a kid growing up in New Zealand will learn how to run and pass and offload, in South Africa the same youngster will be educated in the noble art of tackling. Where movement and individual skills come first in the Land of the Long White Cloud, in the Rainbow Nation it is all about mano-a-mano physicality and defence. Put the two together, and you have the classic recipe – boxer versus fighter, the master-of-ringcraft against the one-punch knockout artist.

The raw stats from the current tournament only confirm the historical status quo:

  • Along with two other movement-based sides (Ireland and Scotland), New Zealand are one of only three nations to average over 1,000 metres gained per game. The Kiwis top the charts with an average of 13 clean breaks.
  • Along with Ireland, Scotland and Fiji, the All Blacks are one of only four sides to average over 19 minutes of active time-of-possession per game; one of four to achieve more than 50 per cent lightning-quick ball (along with the two Celtic nations and Argentina); one of five to average more than 90 rucks built (with all of the above).
Richie Mo’unga of New Zealand runs with the ball during the Rugby World Cup France 2023 semi-final match between Argentina and New Zealand at Stade de France on October 20, 2023 in Paris, France. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Now look at South Africa’s stats by way of contrast:

  • An average of 693 metres per game gained, with only 16 minutes of active time-of-possession and five and-a-half breaks per game, lowest of all the quarter-finalists bar England. And we know what the men in white wanted to do with the ball – kick the leather off it, until the cows arrived back home, in the dark of dusk.
  • The Springboks only build an average of 64 rucks per game, but they create the most pressure on the opposition breakdown – allowing a tournament-low 4.23 second average ruck speed. Two of their prime pilferers (Kwagga Smith and Deon Fourie) feature in the top five of the turnover charts.

The closer the game gets to source, the more profit the Springboks show: they are the first train into the station with the most penalties won at scrum-time (16) and the most opposition lineouts stolen (20). They can also claim a significant advantage in discipline over New Zealand, with a +3.0 penalty-differential per game compared to the Kiwis -0.4, and only one card given up to the All Blacks’ five.

Where the All Blacks will be wanting high ball-in-play, longer phase-counts and more movement on attack, the Springboks will be looking to keep the game closer to set-piece, using their powerful defence to disrupt attacking rhythm and create turnovers.

One of the keys for New Zealand will be the ability to play through the midfield between the two 40-metre lines early.

The first 20 minutes will be critical. At Mount Smart Stadium in the Rugby Championship, New Zealand leaped out of traps and had established a 17-0 lead by the end of the first quarter. In the pre-tournament warm-up at Twickenham, South Africa was only 7-0 up on the scoreboard at the end of the first quarter, but their opponents were already battered and bleeding terminally from two yellow cards. From minutes two to 23, the All Blacks did not even leave their own half of the field.

So, what ‘tells’, or signs of success should we be looking for? One of the keys for New Zealand will be the ability to play through the midfield between the two 40-metre lines early, with ball-in-hand. Some top coaches, Wales’ Warren Gatland and England’s Steve Borthwick among them, tend to look at that zone as an uninhabitable no-man’s-land. For them, to emerge from your network of trenches and start running is the equivalent of committing rugby suicide.

Fortunately, the movement-based sides like Ireland, Scotland and New Zealand do not agree with the arid, ‘scorched earth’ policy. In Auckland, the All Blacks started as they meant to go on from the first kick return:


It looks very much as if Richie Mo’unga is pointing upfield for the kick, but Will Jordan is confident enough to pick off the single chase by Faf de Klerk and make it across the midfield minefields under heavy fire. On the next phase, Shannon Frizell busted the line, and the sequence lasted for a full four and half minutes of breathless ball-in-play time before Aaron Smith scored in support of another break by Jordan:

The try was prefaced by another audacious raid across the no man’s land between the 40s:


Having dodged the hail of machine-gun fire, the All Blacks are in good attacking shape, with both of their main distributors in play, a forward pod beyond them and the full width of the field available away to the right.

The men in black received a big bonus from their high kicking game in that first quarter:



The first high bomb is raining down on Makazole Mapimpi, the second on Willie le Roux, and neither of these players have been first choices ever since the match in Auckland.

If New Zealand get out to as strong a start as they did at Mount Smart, it will be very hard for the Boks to come back at them. South Africa will not look to run and pass their way across the 40s. They depend on a mix of the kicking game, and penalties from scrum and breakdown to bypass it instead.

From this point of view, they will be trying to build on the prior success of their starting tighthead prop Frans Malherbe in the match-up with young Ethan de Groot:


The first clip comes from the Rugby Championship encounter, the second from the later game at Twickenham. De Groot sets habitually with a low left elbow and it means he struggles with changes of angle or scrum height against opponents as powerful as Malherbe or France’s Uini Atonio. He gave up two penalties to Atonio on opening night and three to the Springboks strongman in West London.

The first penalty enabled South Africa to cross the 40s without fuss and keep New Zealand pinned in their own 22 for the next 25 minutes. Those minutes included another two penalties against the young Highlander:


In the snapshot, De Groot is long-legged and in no position to resist pressure from Malherbe. The man from the Cape is poised to strike, scrumming straight with his feet underneath him.

When you add the meteorically-rising Ox Nche and Trevor Nyakane to the bench it could prove a heady mix of scrum power for the Kiwis to counter. If the game boils down to scrum and maul and breakdown, New Zealand may just find the Springboks too hot to handle. As their forwards coach Jase Ryan explained, “The physicality is a big challenge. They really pride themselves on their physicality and they are good at it. It’s a big part of what they do.

“They’ve also brought some good variation in some of their line-outs and their defence is right on. They are pressuring teams and they are good around the breakdown.

“They are just playing to their strengths. It’s a big part of what they do. It’s worked for them. We’ve got a good plan. The referees will make their decision on what they see. Those pictures have got to be clear, especially in big moments.

“[Nche] is some human, isn’t he? Wow. He is pretty strong at what he does but we’ve got a pretty good plan we believe in as well. We’ll be up for it.”

The real problem for the All Blacks is that if they are the ones to fall behind early, they could start to play too much football in their own end of the field. That can be fatal against a set of outside backs who are primed to ball-hawk, and make the most of every breakaway opportunity:


In both games so far this season, the winners moved out a big early lead which they never relinquished. In Auckland, the All Blacks boldly grabbed the first quarter by the scruff of the neck, running the ball back through the minefield in between the two 40-metre lines and tiptoeing expertly between the hail of bullets, the rat-tat-tat of the Springbok rush defence.

If their set-piece remains solid and they can move beyond four or five phases without offering the army of pilferers in myrtle green-and-gold any encouragement, New Zealand can take control of proceedings and their skill in an open-field will be too much to resist.

But if the Springboks get ahead or keep the score tight until the hour mark, the balance tips in their favour. If they can win penalties from scrum and breakdown and strictly limit the number of opportunities the All Blacks receive in unstructured situations, a small leak will become a gusher, however many Kiwi fingers are stuck in the dyke. The Bomb Squad and relentless South African expertise in the basics of set-piece and defence will see to that.

A second consecutive World Cup triumph will mark the current batch of Springboks as worthy successors to the tourists of 1937, the first-ever to win a Test series in New Zealand. Back in the day, the big Bok scrummagers like the brothers Louw, ‘Boy’ and Fanie, were able to take scrums in lieu of lineouts, now their descendants are opting for scrums when the mark is called after a fair catch. The patriarch of the South African game Paul Roos would be nodding in silent approval. His telegram to skipper Philip Nel 86 years ago read simply, ‘Skrum, skrum, skrum.” On Saturday evening in Paris, that would do very nicely indeed.


Derek Murray 234 days ago

The story in a nutshell.

One thing I object to is the idea that SA play for their country more than other teams. I’ve always admired how much pride Kiwis take in the AB jersey. Same could be said for any proud rugby nation. This one won’t be decided because one group of players and coaches love their team more - it will be who executes their very different game plan better

CT 234 days ago

The only thing that counts is the next 80 minutes all of this is nice to know but has no value the boks will win by at least 1 point it’s their modus operandi

Mzilikazi 234 days ago

Very good, Nick. Yes, agree first 20 mins critical. Coaching either side I would want to win the toss, and kick off deep. Make the opponent exit as badly as possible. And don’t do an Ireland and concede a stupid penalty at the breakdown.

Bob Marler 234 days ago



Graham 234 days ago

Nick, both at Mt Smart and Twickenham, the side losing of the first quarter was undercooked. Leave those two periods away from analysis as it won’t happen again either way. Could you give your analysis on the second half of both games? I think that might be the pointer. This WC will not be won or lost in the first 20 minutes. It’s going to be down to the wire another Stransky drop goal of the AB equivalent which is going to win this cup.

Jon 234 days ago

Ah, I see! Nice setup Nick. I certainly didn’t see this bench coming, it is certainly going to add even more impetus to those stats (great addition by WR btw) you highlight.

I wonder if last years RC aren’t a better indicator of what might be seen in the final though. I can definitely see an intercept or two occuring.

Dave 234 days ago

Very clear from this article that Nick Bishop did not grow up in SA. How can he write so confidently about how SA boys are brought up to play rugby when he clearly has 0 idea? The arrogance and ignorance is astounding.

Forward pass 234 days ago

Funny you say in NZ they grow up running and passing and in SA they grow up tackling Nick. The team stats have NZ having done more tackles than SA. Maybe when those running passing players got older they learnt how to tackle.

Otagoman II 234 days ago

Heavy SA legs for the final? 7 forwards on the bench with no half replacement. For the first time since Mt Smart I feel confident about the ABs. Look for Frizell to have a big one along with Cane and Savea on defence.

Scott 235 days ago

The scrum video clips are interesting as Tyrell Lomax, Brodie Retallick, Codie Taylor, and Shannon Frizell (half the pack) are not packing down in any of them.

Lomax left the match injured after 10 minutes at tighthead and the other 3 did not play.

So how relevant are these clips, especially with Nepo Laulala being named reserve tighthead over Newell?

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