New Zealand v South Africa, Stade de France
South Africa and New Zealand arrive in the final of Rugby World Cup 2023 having each lost a pool-stage match against much-fancied opposition, Ireland and France respectively, who the other then defeated in the quarter-finals. But according to the statistics, the comparisons pretty much end there.
On paper, this is a match between one team, the All Blacks, who top the rankings when it comes to many supposedly key metrics, and another, the Springboks, who lead the way in just two.
While New Zealand boast the best red-zone efficiency (an average of 3.89 points per entry into the opposition 22) most line-breaks (13.5 per game) and most carries over the gain-line (84.5 per game at a tournament-leading 61%), they also have the second-best scrum success (94%) and the best lineout success (98%).
“Tonight the main battle was with our forwards,” scrum-half Aaron Smith explained after the 44-6 semi-final win against Argentina. “They were able to control the set-piece.”
The main beneficiaries of this attacking platform were wingers Mark Tele’a (two line-breaks, 14 defenders beaten, 98 metres made) and Will Jordan (pictured), whose hat-trick of tries brought his tally for RWC 2023 to eight - equalling the record of Jonah Lomu (NZL), Bryan Habana (RSA) and Julian Savea (NZL).
“It is pretty humbling, to be honest," Jordan said. "When you think about those guys, they were all huge legends of the game and, particularly in the position I play, really trail-blazed the way to play the game as a winger. So that’s pretty cool."
South Africa will be a different proposition defensively, though. They have conceded the third-fewest penalties (averaging 8.5 per match) and made the most dominant tackles (14.3 per match), led by second-row Eben Etzebeth and centre Damian de Allende with eight overall, second only to Tom Curry (ENG) in the tournament, while another second-row, Franco Mostert, missed none of his 19 tackles in the semi-final.
Then there’s the scrum, which has improved ominously as the tournament has progressed, with 100 per cent success on their own put-in against the heavyweight packs of France and England in the knockout stages, thanks in part to the Springboks’ much-vaunted ‘bomb squad’.
"Ox [Nche] and the guys behind him have been special," South Africa captain Siya Kolisi said. "We take pride in our scrums. It took a while.
Indeed, it was three scrum penalties in the second-half that finally broke English resistance. The decisive one, in the 77th minute, perhaps demonstrated the Springboks’ greatest quality – one that can’t be measured by statistics alone: their mentality.
“They are never out of it,” New Zealand defence coach Scott McLeod explained on Monday. “They come from a country where they are hardened and they know how to stay in the fight.”