As the championship match of the 2023 Rugby World Cup ticked into its last half minute, South Africa’s Springboks, the defending champions, girded themselves for a brutal final stand. Arrayed against them were New Zealand’s iconic but troubled All Blacks, scrapping desperately for a victory that just weeks before few had expected would be possible.
A minor infringement forced a scrum — a mass wrestle for the ball — and gave the All Blacks an opportunity to overcome a 12-11 deficit. On the sideline, Cheslin Kolbe, a Springbok sent off with a yellow card, pulled his jersey over his head in despair. In the crowd, tears streamed down the face of a fan with a South African flag draped around his neck.
The next 30 seconds would determine whether the All Blacks or the Springboks would become the first team to win four men’s world titles. The scrum began, then collapsed. Seven seconds remained. The scrum reset. One Springbok snatched the ball and was inundated by grasping All Blacks. The players fell in a writhing heap. The whistle blew. The game was over. The Springboks had won.
This year was supposed to be different. Before the start of the World Cup in September, the All Blacks were rebuilding and the Springboks had lost key matches, while Ireland and France topped the world rankings and seemed likely bets to seize the World Cup crown, which would have been the first for either nation.
But over seven weeks of grinding competition, in a demonstration of the lingering strength of rugby’s traditional champions, the All Blacks and, finally, the Springboks dispatched their challengers, making for the most shocking and yet the least surprising championship in recent memory.
That was, in large part, because victory for the Springboks is often about more than rugby. The first and only time they had faced New Zealand in a World Cup final before this year was in 1995, after the collapse of the apartheid regime that had repressed the country’s Black population — a system for which rugby had long been the symbol.
After taking the South African presidency, however, Nelson Mandela used the Springboks to help unify the nation, giving them the motto “One Team, One Country.” Their victory in 1995 in Johannesburg against New Zealand was a moment of transformative fusion.
“When the final whistle blew, this country changed forever,” Francois Pienaar, the Springboks’ 1995 captain, told The Observer.
That year, a 4-year-old Siya Kolisi was growing up in poverty in a crowded South African township. Born to teenage parents and raised by his grandmother, Kolisi encapsulated as a child the precarity of post-apartheid South Africa, which has struggled with corruption and instability.
As Kolisi grew, however, he proved a gifted rugby player, eventually becoming the first Black captain of the Springboks, whom he led to victory in the 2019 World Cup. In the process, he became a “beaming light” of possibility to Black South Africans, said Gcobani Bobo, a former Springbok and a rugby analyst.
That personal and collective history inspired Kolisi and the Springboks through this year’s tournament, too. “So many lost their lives for me to be free and lost their lives for me to put on this jersey,” Kolisi told the BBC in October.
In the quarterfinal, South Africa overcame France in a Paris suburb, handing a devastating loss to the tournament’s host. Despite the country’s obsession with rugby, with many of the sport’s top athletes competing for its deep-pocketed clubs, France has never won a World Cup title. This year, however, the team was captained by Antoine Dupont, arguably the world’s best player. French fans had hoped that he might finally take the team across the line.
Those hopes were jeopardized early, when Dupont fractured his cheekbone in the group stage. In a sign of his determination to win, he donned a protective cap and returned to the field against South Africa.
The trademark spark of France’s golden boy, however, couldn’t overcome the Springboks’ mission. After falling just short, Dupont crumbled to the field, covered his face and mourned yet another French loss.
After dispatching France, the Springboks’ historic purpose bolstered them against New Zealand, as well, fortifying them as they battled meters from their try line, helping them hold on just long enough for Kolisi to become the second captain in history to win two World Cup titles.
Bobo recalled how, as a child, his father saw the Springboks as an “untouchable jersey” that symbolized “the old regime.” Now, he said, he is raising his own son. “And the only thing he knows about the Springboks is Uncle Siya, the captain of the world champions.”
For the All Blacks, the loss was crushing. The world’s most famous rugby team, New Zealand has in recent years been stalked by horrific performances, encapsulated by losses to Ireland on its home soil, in Dunedin and Wellington, in 2022 — the first time the All Blacks had lost a home series since 1994.
The losing streak grew so bad that the team’s coach, Ian Foster, was nearly fired. His job was saved only when the team dispatched the Springboks in their Johannesburg fortress soon after the defeats to the Irish.
Still, New Zealand Rugby, the sport’s national governing body, pushed Foster to fire two of his assistant coaches and announced his eventual replacement, signaling that it did not expect success in the World Cup. The All Blacks rallied to their embattled coach and, gradually, began to win again.
The victories were spotty, marred by a draw to a flailing England and a subsequent defeat to the Springboks. Nonetheless, they had the makings of a defiant comeback. That rise culminated in a quarterfinal victory over Ireland that symbolized how far they had come.
Captained by the inimitable Johnny Sexton, Ireland had entered the tournament No. 1 in the world. After decades of losing in World Cup quarterfinals, tens of thousands of fans thronged to Paris to watch their heroes break that curse.
Yet the All Blacks could not be overcome. By the end, all it would have taken was one Irish try. But through 37 Irish assaults over the game’s final five minutes, the All Blacks endured, amassing a staggering 100 tackles in the final quarter as they rebuffed every assault and sent Sexton, who had said he’d retire after the tournament, off the field for the final time.
As he did so, his son walked with him, trying to reassure a teary father whose professional hopes had been crushed. With his arm around him, Sexton’s son leaned in and said, “You’re still the best dad.”
Later, the All Blacks dominated their semifinal with Argentina, so sure of victory that they chose to fight while short one man at the end, seemingly to minimize the risk of a player being injured. The decision proved ironic. In the team’s subsequent clash with South Africa, Sam Cane, the All Blacks’ captain, collided with a Springbok’s head and became the first player to receive a red card in a World Cup final.
With Cane dispatched from the game, his team was forced to fight for 51 minutes at a player disadvantage. Even then, New Zealand kept pushing, throwing waves of black against walls of green until its efforts produced a try: the first ever scored against South Africa in a World Cup final. Suddenly, the title was within reach: a last opportunity to vindicate a team and a coach once reviled as the worst in modern New Zealand history.
But in the clash between the All Blacks’ quest for redemption and the Springboks’ drive for history, South Africa won out. The All Blacks botched their kicks, missed their penalties, squandered their chances.
As the game ended, they stood unmoving and disbelieving amid scenes of South African jubilation. On the sideline, Cane folded his hands over his mouth and grappled with the loss of his shot at vindication.
“There’s a lot of heartbreak in the sheds right now,” he said afterward in a news conference, referring to his teammates in the locker room. He added: “It’s something, unfortunately, I’m going to have to live with forever.”
“Anyone in the All Blacks is motivated by history,” said Scotty Stevenson, a New Zealand rugby analyst and biographer of multiple All Blacks. But the disappointing defeat, he said, shows the All Blacks “don’t dominate the way they used to,” after decades of being the best in the world.
Now, as New Zealand mourns that lost supremacy, the Springboks are savoring a victory that carried their nation with it.
“There is so much going wrong in our country,” Kolisi told ITV. “We are the last line of defense.”