Seven weeks ago, hosts France kicked off the tournament with a 27-13 victory over New Zealand. It was a match that was closer than the scoreline suggests, and one that set the tone for the tournament.
This weekend, at the end of a dramatic and hard-fought Rugby World Cup final between South Africa and New Zealand, it was Siya Kolisi who lifted the Webb Ellis Cup.
The previous day, England signed off from a competition in which they had exceeded expectations with an almost equally gritty and hard-fought bronze final victory over Argentina.
This is the tale of two finals.
New Zealand v South Africa
South Africa became the first rugby nation to win four men’s Rugby World Cups, and the second, after opponents New Zealand to claim back-to-back titles. They remain undefeated in Rugby World Cup finals; and they are the only side ever to get the better of New Zealand in the showpiece match. They have done it twice, now, in 1995 and again in 2023.
And they have done it the hard way. After qualifying for the knockout phase from a difficult pool, they beat France by a single point in the quarter-final; then England by a single point in the semi-final; and then they held on, scoreless in the second period, to beat New Zealand 12-11 in the final – all their points coming in the first half via the unerring boot of Handré Pollard.
In defeat, the All Blacks set new records, too, though they would, no doubt, have traded any of them for the Cup.
Captain Sam Cane was shown the first red card, for a dangerous tackle on Jesse Kriel in the 27th minute, in the decisive match in 10 men’s tournaments across 36 years.
And, when Beauden Barrett dived over for the game’s only try in the 58th minute – the only points of a stifling tussle of a second half soon after the retiring Aaron Smith had a score in the same corner ruled out for an earlier knock-on – he became the first player to score a try against the Springboks in four finals.
Richie Mo’unga missed a difficult conversion from out wide. Then, Jordie Barrett was unsuccessful with a long-range penalty after 74 minutes. Either score would have taken New Zealand into the lead. It was that kind of small-margins match.
In tight games like this, where defences rule, it’s no surprise that Pieter-Steph Du Toit, who played like it was 2019, should be honoured with the Mastercard Player of the Match award for his colossal 28-tackle performance.
England v Argentina
Sixteen points from captain Owen Farrell, and tries for back row Ben Earl and hooker Theo Dan saw England claim the bronze final with a 26-23 win over Argentina.
As it was 24 hours later, it was fitting – at the end of a scrappy, stop-start, always enthralling and all-in encounter at a slippy Stade de France – that the Mastercard Player of the Match award should go to Sam Underhill after a 24-tackle defensive masterclass.
Steve Borthwick’s side were first to get to grips with the conditions. Earl’s converted try and two Farrell penalties put them 13-0 ahead in the first 13 minutes. And they were 16-3 in front with 35 minutes on the clock, before Argentina started putting some phases together.
Three quick tries in the eight minutes either side of half-time, via Tomás Cubelli and Santiago Carreras for Los Pumas, before Dan’s chargedown score with 44 minutes gone, set the scene for a tense final half-hour, as Argentina kept scoreboard pace with England, but could not quite close the gap.
Replacement Nicolás Sánchez, an interception try-scoring hero against Wales in the quarter-final, had a chance to level the scores with a penalty 12 minutes of an energy-sapping encounter remaining. But he fired wide, and England held on as the clock ticked down.
So, Rugby World Cup 2023 ended as it had started seven weeks ago, with a thunderous, titanic clash between two sides with great expectations. But, in the end, there could be only one. And it is South Africa who will head to Australia in four years time as defending champions. Until then…