Rugby World Cup final: South Africa urged to be inspiration but rebuilt New Zealand eye happy end to 'difficult' journey

South Africa have been urged to inspire the next generation of Siya Kolisi by claiming World Cup bragging rights in rugby’s greatest rivalry.

Each side has lifted the Webb Ellis Trophy on three previous occasions heading into Saturday’s final at the Stade de France, ensuring one of them will be crowned the most successful nation in the tournament’s history. For the Springboks it is the opportunity to continue bringing together the country’s disparate communities, a motivation Kolisi insists provides the ‘why’ for the defence of their title.

“I believe we are a purpose-driven team, we’re not a trophy-driven team,” South Africa’s first black captain said before England were edged 16-15 in the semi-finals. Kolisi himself grew up in poverty in a Port Elizabeth township yet has risen to become one of the game’s biggest stars and a standard bearer for the Springboks’ evolution from a symbol of apartheid to unifying force.

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“This is what we live for. It’s about the people who are dreaming to be in our position in the communities back in South Africa,” assistant coach Mzwandile Stick said. “We just want to do everything in our power to make sure we are reuniting those people. For a guy like Siya, coming from where he did… wow. No doubt in 20 years there will be a lot of Siya Kolisis, boys who have got here irrespective of background.

South Africa captain Siya Kolisi greets fans during a South Africa training session.South Africa captain Siya Kolisi greets fans during a South Africa training session.
South Africa captain Siya Kolisi greets fans during a South Africa training session.

“It is like a fairytale story when you talk about Siya, but it surely does change people’s lives, whatever their background, if you have your head in the right place, if you have a goal and keep chasing it. The All Blacks have won the World Cup three times, we have won it three times, so this game is almost bigger than just a World Cup final. We just want to make our people proud because the messages we get are very special.”

How much South Africa have left in the tank after titanic knockout matches against France and England is the biggest unknown heading into the Paris showdown. New Zealand, in contrast, routed Argentina in the semi-finals without breaking sweat and, as well as having the luxury of bringing key personnel off early and avoiding any injuries, the schedule has given them an extra day’s rest.

When the rivals last met in August the All Blacks were crushed 35-7, but they have rebuilt impressively since then and are favourites to avenge that bleak Twickenham evening. “It has been very difficult journey,” said wing Will Jordan, who needs one more try to break the record of eight tries scored at a single World Cup. It has taken a huge amount of drive to turn it around to get it right. It’s a special group here and we have always been committed towards being the best team we can be.

“In 2022 we were a bit astray but we have come out of the fire a bit and I guess the big thing for us now has been the consistency has been found. We have been able to put back-to back performances together, which is probably what was missing before. The challenge for us against South Africa is to be able to go three big games in a row. It’s been a challenging period but it’s where we want to be now.”

Ethan de Groot of the All Blacks runs through drills.Ethan de Groot of the All Blacks runs through drills.
Ethan de Groot of the All Blacks runs through drills.

In terms of team selection, Brodie Retallick has won the vote to start in the second-row for New Zealand. Retallick comes in for Sam Whitelock in the only change from the All Blacks side that overpowered Argentina 44-6 in the semi-final last Friday.

Whitelock replaced Retallick against Argentina but now moves to the bench for Saturday’s final at the Stade de France in Paris. The 35-year-old Whitelock will become the first man to play in three World Cup finals, should he come off the bench.

Tight-head prop Nepo Laulala replaces Fletcher Newell on the All Blacks bench. Brothers Scott, Jordie and Beauden Barrett all feature in the starting XV, which openside flanker Sam Cane captains.

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For South Africa, Faf de Klerk and Handre Pollard have been named in their starting line-up. The return of half-backs De Klerk and Pollard are Springboks head coach Jacques Nienaber’s only two changes from the side which started in last week’s 16-15 semi-final win against England.

Former Sale scrum-half De Klerk, 32, now playing in Japan with Yokohama Canon Eagles, and Leicester fly-half Pollard, 29, are among 10 starting players who began the 2019 final against England. De Klerk and Pollard will become the most experienced half-backs in Springbok history, partnering each other for the 25th time and surpassing Joost van der Westhuizen and Henry Honiball.

Mbongeni Mbonambi will start at hooker after being cleared by World Rugby on Thursday morning of racially abusing England’s Tom Curry during last week’s semi-final. The game’s governing body announced it had found insufficient evidence to pursue the allegation and had closed the case unless additional evidence comes to light.

Nienaber has included 15 players in his squad who appeared in the Springboks’ record 35-7 win against New Zealand at Twickenham in August. Second row Franco Mostert and prop Steven Kitshoff are the only two forwards named in the starting line-up who did not start in the 2019 final, with both featuring off the bench.

“This is an experienced team with several players who played in the last Rugby World Cup final and who know exactly what to expect at Stade de France on Saturday and what it will take to retain the title,” said Nienaber. “The players who will be playing in their first World Cup final have also proven their worth as warriors throughout this campaign and they are all ready for this massive occasion. We know we are in for a colossal battle. Every point and inch will count in this match and we know it will take another top-class effort to come out on top on Saturday.”