Almanac Rugby Union – 2023 Rugby World Cup: 28 years later, All Blacks out to square ledger

 

 

When Nelson Mandela presented the William Webb Ellis trophy to Springboks captain, Francois Pienaar, in 1995 there was little doubt of the significance. The world’s most famous former political prisoner wanted the world to see that he was heralding a new dawn for the Rainbow Nation.

Indeed, that image is often cited as among the most iconic sporting moments of the twentieth century. Clint Eastwood thought it sufficiently Hollywood to put his version on the big screen.

The losing team that day has very different memories. Many of the All Blacks players were struck down with a mysterious ailment on the morning of the match. Rumours flew. Innuendo followed.

There was a simmering anger in the Shaky Isles. After success in the inaugural tournament, the ABs had now gone into a further two iterations as favourites and come away empty handed. Indeed, it would be a further three disappointments before they broke through again in 2011 and 2015.

In the previous nine finals we’ve had the same two teams square off twice on three occasions;
NZ v France 1987 and 2011
Australia v England 1991 and 2003
South Africa v England 2007 and 2019

Now there is a fourth two-time matchup.

For those unfamiliar with the history of rugby, these two teams have been the benchmark, in a similar way to Germany and Brazil in football.

Not only are they the two most successful teams at World Cups, but they have winning records against every other team. In the head to head, it is the ABs who reign supreme but one can imagine a time where there may be parity, or indeed tilt towards the South Africans.

Despite all the recent talk of the rise of the Irish and the French, history shows they are a long way off the pace against these two titans. When the ABs despatched the Irish in their quarter final, it broke many an Emerald heart but really came as no surprise. Southern dominance at World Cups is as predictable as anger at refereeing decisions.

The following day, in their quarter final, the Springboks kept the script going when they beat the hosts. No amount of “sacre bleu!!!” was going to save the day for the French.

On the plus side, those two games were two of the best ever. The four powerhouses of world rugby went at it hammer and tongs.

The other two quarter finals in Marseilles produced something sparkle but were not a patch on what we were treated to in Paris.

The Flying Fijians deserve high praise. They were still in the game against England at the full time siren. Their last desperate efforts were stymied, but, my word, what a tournament!

The first semi-final was a fizzer. The Argentineans were never going to threaten the ABs.

As for the second, while English fans may feel critical decisions cost them a game they controlled for at least three quarters, they were reminded it’s an eighty minute game.

The Springboks hit the front for the first time at the 78 minute mark. That’s why they are a benchmark team. That’s why they have 3 titles to the solitary one for the Poms. That’s why they’ll be going for their fourth this weekend.

It’s almost immaterial who lifts the trophy in Paris on Saturday night (Sunday morning our time). It is a clash of the titans who define this sport. Both will have legacy tales regardless of the result. It will probably be a very different affair to 1995. Perhaps, it will be eerily similar. In the end, I don’t think it matters.

What matters is that at the start of the tournament there was a lot of chat about the North putting one over the South, and yet, at crunch time, the Northerners were shown to be interlopers.

I’m looking forward to a defining moment in the compelling story of rugby. Rugby is a passion in both South Africa and New Zealand. Passion is a good thing. Let’s hope it gets harnessed and we get something approaching some Mandela magic in the City of Light.

 

The 2023 Rugby World Cup final will be played at 5.00am AEDT on Sunday 29th October.

 

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Grew up playing the rugby codes in suburban Sydney. Moved to Melbourne during the Carey era so becoming a Shinboner was the natural call. Still love the game they play in heaven. Took an interest in MLB a few years back and have become infatuated with America's pastime.

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