One of New Zealand and South Africa will become the first team to win the men’s Rugby World Cup four times when the two sides meet in the 2023 final.
Both sides have been beaten on their way to the Stade de France decider, bouncing back from pool stage defeats to edge two tight quarter-finals.
The All Blacks were then irresistible in a semi-final thrashing of Argentina, while the Springboks survived a nervy arm-wrestle against England.
It will be the first time that two great rivals have met on rugby’s biggest stage since 1995, when South Africa secured their first Webb Ellis Cup on a famous, transformative day for both the sport and a country.
Here are three key areas that could prove crucial to deciding the final:
All Blacks’ attack vs Springboks’ defence
This is an encounter between probably the best attack in the world against almost certainly the most ferocious defence – a fitting battle for the World Cup final. The All Blacks have won the gainline more regularly than any other side in the competition, while offloading more efficiently than any other side and finishing their chances at an outstanding rate. South Africa, meanwhile, make more dominant defensive collisions than any other team and scramble superbly – less than five percent of their missed tackles lead to tries.
South Africa’s hard outside blitz offers opportunities if you are able to transfer the ball to the edge at speed, typically a strength of the All Blacks: New Zealand (12.3%) are one of only five teams to play more than play wider than the second receiver more than ten per cent of the time. That said, two of the other four are Ireland (20.9%) and Scotland (15.8%), two attacks that South Africa fared well against earlier in the tournament.
Where New Zealand have had success against South Africa in the past is with their varied kicking game. Both Barrett brothers, Richie Mo’unga and Will Jordan all have a full set of clubs in their bag – there is no side better at hiding their kick choices with subtle changes at the line, with their playmaking quartet’s ability to execute under pressure unmatched. Having utilised a number of kicks in a rampant first half performance to beat the Springboks in the Rugby Championship, Ian Foster’s side barely used the tactic at all during the pair’s warm-up meeting at Twickenham, perhaps holding back a couple of variations for this tournament.
South Africa have plenty more to their game than just scrum-time expertise, but there is no doubt that it is a crucial element of their strategy. It was the impact of Ox Nche, Vincent Koch and co. that transformed their semi-final against England, and having loaded up with seven bench forwards, Jacques Nienaber will expect a similar impact in the final.
The All Blacks have lost just 2.6% of their scrums via a penalty, the third lowest rate in the competition, avoiding significant territorial gains for their opposition. Denying South Africa success is crucial. Their kick to contest strategy relies on being able to make advancements from penalties. If the All Blacks can deny them the ability to make progress via the boot, it will force the Springboks to play more expansively having opted for Handre Pollard’s solidity over Manie Libbok’s silkier skills.
Sustaining that effort across the 80 minutes will be key. The All Blacks have made a change to their bench as a nod to Ox Nche’s threat particularly – the experienced Nepo Laulala replaces the rawer Fletcher Newell and will be tasked with ensuring there is little drop-off when the impressive Tyrel Lomax is replaced.
You can also expect New Zealand to put all sorts of pressure on Faf de Klerk, the sole specialist scrum half in South Africa’s matchday squad, around the fringes. An early injury to De Klerk would almost certainly prove fatal to the Springboks’ chances.
Shutting down Savea
Perhaps no player exemplifies New Zealand’s brilliance more than Ardie Savea, the number eight brilliant in most facets. Only Bundee Aki has made more than Savea’s 60 carries, with the All Black winning the gainline with three-quarters of his runs into contact, 15 per cent more often than any of the rest of the top ten busiest carriers at the tournament, all the while dealing with more than one tackler 75% of the time. His blend of footwork, speed and strength make him virtually impossible to corral. Savea has the potential to produce a truly match-swinging performance.
The All Blacks are intelligent with their usage of him, too. Savea will often peel away from the back of a maul or be utilised in midfield to get favourable opportunities to carry from launch plays – see his try against Italy, when he left isolated hooker Giacomo Nicotera clutching air with a matador’s swish, or Will Jordan’s hat-trick score in the semi-final, when Argentina bit in on the number eight and allowed him to deftly send his wing through an inside gap.
The tough Handre Pollard should help solidify the fly half channel, and South Africa are sure to try and spread their best tacklers. Pieter-Steph du Toit, Eben Etzebeth and Franco Mostert’s long limbs are likely to be useful in combatting a carrier so effective at using late changes of direction to extricate himself from contact.
Defensively, Savea is a breakdown menace. Caelan Doris and Manuel Ardao are the only two individuals to have had more defensive ruck arrivals at this World Cup. Given their confidence in their kicking game and defence in structure, South Africa are likely to be unafraid to load up the breakdown with bodies and sacrifice their attacking options to prevent turnover ball with which the All Blacks so often thrive.