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The greatest Rugby World Cup final? Huge expectations for All Blacks-Springboks showdown

South Africa Celebrates South Africa Celebrates - The Canadian Press

The ultimate Rugby World Cup final. That's the promise.

Saturday's 106th showdown between gigantic rivals New Zealand and South Africa has elevated rugby's biggest game — if that was at all possible — to a potential do-you-remember-where-you-were moment for everyone who follows the sport, young or old, from New Zealand, South Africa or elsewhere.

Through 102 years of games in a duel that's remained rugby's most ferocious even when there's no silverware at stake, the All Blacks and the Springboks have met head-on just once in a World Cup final before.

While that 1995 title decider provided a momentous day for a newly democratic South Africa, the reality is it didn't have the sheer rugby significance and context that this final at Stade de France in Paris has.

Rugby history will be made on Saturday, no matter what, with one of the World Cup's joint-most successful teams winning a record fourth title, a massive extra motivator in a contest that never, ever needs one.

Either South Africa coach Jacques Nienaber or New Zealand coach Ian Foster, both departing after the World Cup, will leave behind a magnificent legacy.

New Zealand's Sam Whitelock could become the first man to win three trophies to add to his All Blacks appearance record. Siya Kolisi, South Africa's first Black captain and a trailblazer for his country, is likely playing his last World Cup game and hoping to be only the second skipper to lead a team to back-to-back World Cup victories — after New Zealand great Richie McCaw.

There are a line of other big All Blacks and Springboks names heading into, or toward, retirement in an era-ending game for both squads. They will finish against the team they probably dreamed as kids of beating right here, in a Rugby World Cup final.

And above it all, defending champion and No. 1-ranked South Africa plays No. 2-ranked New Zealand, ensuring a final of epic proportions anyway is also, officially, a meeting of the two best teams in the world.

“This is a way to make history,” New Zealand flyhalf Richie Mo'unga said. "I want to be part of history. I want to bring the World Cup home. Whatever happens after that I don’t really care.

"I’m sure a lot of the other boys are like that, too. Saturday night, 9 o’clock, is where it’s at.”

NEW ZEALAND vs SOUTH AFRICA (New Zealand leads 62-4-39 overall; 3-2 in RWC)

New Zealand has the historic head-to-head superiority and has also won the last three of their five Rugby World Cup meetings. South Africa has won all three finals it has played in. The six games between them since rugby returned properly after the COVID-19 pandemic have been shared 3-3.

With a century of clashes to draw on, when the All Blacks have been clearly dominant overall, it's two Springboks victories that stand out — 28 years apart — as maybe the most consequential now.

The 1995 final is seared in both countries' and teams' minds, even if the 2023 players set for the second chapter were all too young to remember it or not even born then.

“I remember it very well,” Springboks coach Nienaber said this week. “I remember after the victory we were all in the streets.” Even with the weight of '95, Nienaber said this final is “probably the biggest rugby game there has ever been.”

For New Zealand, the memories of the mighty 1995 All Blacks and their unexpected loss to the old enemy desperately need to be purged. This final is the first chance, more than a quarter of a century later, for real, lasting closure.

“There weren't many days that go by when I didn’t think about that World Cup final,” New Zealand's 1995 captain Sean Fitzpatrick said in an interview in 2020. He stewed on that Johannesburg loss for years, he said. “The one that got away? That is one that got away from us."

The other game to take into account is the most recent, a pre-World Cup warmup that threw up a record 35-7 win for the Springboks — the All Blacks' worst defeat ever, and a bolt out of the blue. That set New Zealand, rugby's most successful team by the volume of its wins over 120 years, on a new, unfamiliar path at this World Cup; one of vindication, redemption.

The All Blacks will play in a record fifth Rugby World Cup final and, for the first time, are not the favorites in this rarest of rare games. The ultimate motivation is exactly the same as the teams that have gone before them, though.

“We get it from the history and the legacy of the (All Blacks) jersey, which is massive for us,” Foster said. “The people who have walked the journey we have walked are pretty special.

"We get it from the people we represent, our families and our past. Then, when we shut the door and get in a circle it’s also (a) group of people who are massively motivated to meet the standards we have set ourselves.”


AP Rugby World Cup: