A gallant All Blacks team has battled to second place at the Rugby World Cup- beaten 12-11 by South Africa in Paris.
The All Blacks were hit with a yellow card to Shannon Frizzell in the third minute and a red card to captain Sam Cane in the 28th minute- playing 52 minutes with just 14 players.
They were also hampered by the TMO at important junctures, including having a try to Aaron Smith ruled out.
Liam Napier’s preview
“First with the head, then with the heart.”
Bryce Courtenay, in his novel The Power of One, uses boxing parlance to depict a ring craft – and life – strategy that hovers over the All Blacks’ date with World Cup destiny in Paris.
The All Blacks have largely spent this defining week plotting, preparing, training for the Springboks. They know what’s coming from the defending champions and will therefore attempt to run their 15 forwards ragged from the outset. The All Blacks know how pivotal the set piece scrap will be and while Nepo Laulala’s selection on the bench points to the decisive scrum battle, they won’t conform to a slugfest.
Come kick-off, though, the heart, emotion, passion, will take hold for the All Blacks. How could it not on an occasion such as this?
The ferocious glare in Sam Cane’s eyes as he led the team out of the Stade de France tunnel in their two contrasting knockout victories speaks to the fire burning within. The All Blacks captain has emerged through the furnace to earn this chance to lead one final blaze of glory.
“In terms of the head and strategy we’re in a really good place and with that comes confidence,” Cane said calmly.
“There will certainly be a high level of intent and emotion to start the game but there always is. We’ve played two knockouts in a row – effectively more – so I trust we’re in a good spot there.
“The boys have done a lot of physical and mental preparation. Although it’s a final it’s another game where we have to trust ourselves. It’s a fine balance but the team is in a good spot with it.
“Our mindset is that we’re going to have to put out the best performance we have all year. If we do that, we’ll give ourselves a good shot.”
So much of this team’s turbulent journey from the depths of their struggles last year has been built on heart, resolve, and resilience.
When everyone told the All Blacks they couldn’t, they still believed. When they suffered successive losses to the Springboks and France nine weeks ago and were widely written off in this tournament, they still believed.
The nous of the reformed coaching team, with forwards coach Jason Ryan and experienced assistant Joe Schmidt’s mid-2022 additions, have been influential in redirecting the All Blacks to a place where they again have fundamental pillars they can trust.
Unlike Courtenay’s novel, though, the All Blacks have proven the inherent power, the inner strength, of their collective. No one person is responsible for their united underdog revival.
Collective resilience was at the heart of the heroic defensive effort that withstood Ireland’s 37 phases at the death of their quarter-final epic.
Having navigated that treacherous path to the finale, the All Blacks will put their hearts on the line one more time against the Boks.
We’ve heard about the heartfelt speeches from senior figures that set the tone earlier this week. With nine departing players and the vast majority of the coaching team moving on after this match, there is a deep, perhaps unspoken, desire to honour those respected figures in the best possible way.
Richie Mo’unga is one of those approaching his last dance before departing to Japan for the next three years.
“For me, this is a way to make history. I want to be part of history. I want to bring a World Cup home,” Mo’unga said. “Whatever happens after that I don’t really care at this stage.
“It’s been some journey. We’ve been really motivated to fill this black jersey. We have players and coaches that want to see the potential in this team. With getting little blocks in our game right, a big part of our DNA and what makes this team tick, and how we can play at a high quality has been a big driver. The off-field stuff has created that on-field bond too.
“Through all that we’ll look back and smile about what a journey it’s been and how exciting it all comes down to this last game.”
While this is the most experienced All Blacks team to contest a World Cup final, 18 of the 23-man squad have never contested this pinnacle stage before. As midfield rock Jordie Barrett acknowledged, nerves will be prevalent.
“It’s a question I’ve been asking a lot of senior players because I haven’t been to a World Cup final before,” Barrett said. “This week we’ve just been enjoying the week, enjoying each other’s company and understanding it’s a new beast, different conditions, new challenge, World Cup final, different opposition, playing against the world champs and it doesn’t get any better than that.
“We started the tournament slowly and we’ve built a bit of momentum but that doesn’t guarantee anything. The best teams have been the best teams on the night. That’s going to be no different.”
Emotions stretch to the All Blacks soaking in the overwhelming messages of support from Ranfurly to Raglan.
Ian Foster, having lived through it all, touched on the backlash to beloved support spectrum the team has experienced.
“We’re generally a conservative bunch. We’re cynical at times. We show our love and support by criticising and yet it’s swung around a little bit,” Foster said. “Suddenly there’s a lot of excitement from our country.”
The history, old and recent, between the All Blacks and Springboks elevates this decider to another level. The repeat of the 1995 final. The race to be crowned the first four-time men’s world champions. From Ellis Park to Mt Smart Stadium and Twickenham, the All Blacks and Boks share three wins each from their last six tests. Their contrasting tactics that pits brute force against the need to speed further heightens intrigue.
One team seeks successive global titles. The other the ultimate redemption.
“Fire in the belly, ice in the head,” All Blacks loose forward Dalton Papali’i said earlier this week.
Strike the delicate balance between the head and the heart and the All Blacks could join their illustrious 1987, 2011 and 2015 comrades in the World Cup pantheon.
How to follow the World Cup final action
When: 8am, Sunday
Follow live updates: nzherald.co.nz
Listen to commentary: join Elliott Smith on Newstalk ZB, Gold Sport and iHeartRadio, or catch the ACC on iHeartRadio or Hauraki.
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