South Africa produced a magnificent defensive display to edge 14-man New Zealand 12-11 in a compelling arm-wrestle of a Rugby World Cup final and win the Webb Ellis Cup for a record fourth time.
Only a single yellow card had been shown in nine previous World Cup finals, but the crackdown on foul play in the game led to four being handed out over 80 minutes of intense rugby played out in front of a crowd of 80,065 at the Stade de France on Saturday.
All Blacks skipper Sam Cane suffered the ignominy of being the first player to be sent off in a title decider when his card for a high tackle was upgraded to a red after a bunker review just before half-time.
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Despite playing for three-quarters of the match a man short, however, the All Blacks stuck to their ball-running game plan and scored the match’s only try through Beauden Barrett to get within a point of the lead just before the hour mark.
The Springboks, led by man of the match Pieter-Steph du Toit, managed to hold firm under huge pressure over the final quarter and Handre Pollard’s four first-half penalties proved sufficient to add another title to those of 1995, 2007 and 2019.
South Africa’s triumph kept the trophy in the southern hemisphere for the fifth straight tournament, and Siya Kolisi became only the second captain after All Black Richie McCaw to lift it twice.
“There are no ways I can explain it. The All Blacks took us to the end, they took us to a dark place,” Kolisi said.
“Credit to my boys too for the fight. I am just grateful we could pull it off.
“There is so much going wrong in our country, and we are like the last line of defence and we can show that we can achieve so much together.”
All Blacks flanker Shannon Frizell was the first to be shown a yellow card as early as the third minute for a clearout on Bongi Mbonambi that forced the Springboks hooker off the rain-sodden pitch with a leg injury.
Flyhalf Pollard kicked the penalty and added another in the 12th minute as New Zealand waited nervously to hear whether Frizell’s yellow would be upgraded to a red.
Frizell did come back on and helped New Zealand win a penalty that Richie Mo’unga slotted over to cut the deficit but Pollard replied with a 46-metre effort to give South Africa a 9-6 lead at the end of the opening quarter.
New Zealand were down to 14 men again just before the half-hour mark when Cane clattered head-first into Springboks centre Jesse Kriel, but this time there was no reprieve and the All Blacks skipper sat out the rest of the game.
Pollard kicked his fourth penalty after the red card was confirmed and even though Mo’unga replied with another three-pointer before the break, the Springboks went into half-time a man up and with a 12-6 lead.
No team had ever recovered from a half-time deficit to win a World Cup final, and the Springboks came out flying in the second half, looking to drive home their advantage.
Kolisi was sent to the sin-bin in the 46th minute for a high tackle on Ardie Savea. However, New Zealand scrum-half Aaron Smith thought he had scored the first try of the match eight minutes later after a brilliant break from Mo’unga.
That score was called back for a knock-on earlier in the move, but Beauden Barrett was awarded a try four minutes later despite winger Mark Telea looking to have fumbled the ball forward in the tackle before the fullback touched down.
It was the first try South Africa had conceded in four World Cup finals, but Mo’unga missed the conversion from wide-out and the Springboks held on to the lead.
Kolisi had, by now, returned to the fray after his card was not upgraded, and South Africa brought their famed “bomb squad” off the bench to relieve fatigued forwards.
South Africa winger Cheslin Kolbe was the fourth player to be yellow-carded seven minutes from time, but New Zealand’s Jordie Barrett struck the subsequent 48-metre penalty attempt wide of the posts.
New Zealand had also been hoping to win a fourth World Cup, and coach Ian Foster thought the way the cards for Cane and Kolisi played out had been a decisive factor.
“The game has got a few issues it’s got to sort out,” he said. “That’s not sour grapes. There were two similar incidents, one was a red, one was a yellow, and that’s the game.”
A distraught Cane said he “would have to live forever” with the red card he received.
“We have been at the tournament for two months, and anything around the head has ramifications,” Cane told reporters.
“I am not here to say whether it is right or wrong, it can’t be changed. Unfortunately, it is something I will have to live with forever.”