In 1995, Nelson Mandela sought to bring a country together via rugby; and in the World Cup final at Ellis Park, his dream came to fruition. Francois Pienaar’s men put in a memorable performance in a ferociously tight game to defeat the All Blacks 15 points to 12 and lift the Webb Ellis trophy in their first year in the competition.
Ellis Park is the home of another finale on Saturday, as the Springboks aim to topple New Zealand once again to lift the Rugby Championship trophy for the first time since 2009. In 1995, South Africa were underdogs to a team boasting the considerable talents of Jonah Lomu, and as we fast forward 18 years, history suggests that the men in green are very much up against it as they seek to clinch the most precious of scalps.
With the monkey off their backs, New Zealand are imperious
In the last few years, even with the talent of players like Jonah Lomu and Dan Carter at their disposal, there was a certain amount of vulnerability about the All Blacks. By this I do not mean for one second that they were not among the best – if not the best – rugby team on the planet. No, this vulnerability was built more around the fact that despite their prodigious talent, the All Blacks had not yet registered the victories required to assert their absolute dominance in the modern era.
The men in black had of course won the inaugural World Cup in 1987, but the Webb Ellis trophy had eluded them in 1991 and then again 1995. Then again in 1999, and again in 2003. And again in 2007. Simply put, for a team that considered themselves to the best, their record of winning World Cups left a lot to be desired. There were accusations of choking, and to be perfectly honest, these accusations were pretty much spot on. Then came 2011.
New Zealand hosted the World Cup in 2011, and despite a series of less-than-vintage displays as the host nation, captain Richie McCaw finally lifted the trophy that the country had waited years for. All of a sudden, the monkey was lifted off their backs. In the past, other teams knew that the All Blacks could choke, but in the months and indeed years that have followed 2011, it very much seems like that choking tendency has evaporated. Steve Hansen’s men have lost one game since lifting the Webb Ellis trophy; a highly improbable loss to England when all but two of the squad were suffering from the Norovirus.
Quite simply, at present the All Blacks look unbeatable and it will need the performance of a lifetime from the Springboks to topple the World Cup winners and Rugby Championship holders.
Springboks have no choice but to attack
One of the things that makes a South Africa win even less probable is that in order to clinch the title, the Springboks must garner a bonus point for scoring four tries whilst also preventing the All Blacks from securing a losing bonus point.
Unfortunately for the men in green, they have failed to beat New Zealand with four tries for the last nine years and with the All Blacks in this sort of form; that record doesn’t look like changing any time soon. What the Springboks must do though, is attack, attack, and attack. Their juggernaut pack must be used to move the dynamic New Zealand forwards around, and the ball must go wide – attempting to beat the All Blacks in an arm wrestle is only likely to end in failure.
History is on the Springbok’s side
One crumb of comfort for South Africa is that Ellis Park is one of the most formidable places to go and play rugby. Even New Zealand – the team to beat for so many years now – have only won there 3 times in 85 years, and the hostile Ellis Park crowd will want to give their team the best chance possible.
The players will have to work with the fans to make Ellis Park a real cauldron; and that means hitting the ground running. Anything less than a million-mile-an-hour frenetic start will not be enough, with the All Blacks possessing the minerals to soak up all but the most insurmountable pressure.
Whatever the result, it’s going to be worth watching
This game could be the game of 2013. We’ve seen Wales conquer England in the finale at the Six Nations. We’ve seen a rampant Lions team destroy a lacklustre Australia in the Lions tour decider. It’s now South Africa’s turn to upset the applecart, and a win against the current holders, world champions and IRB-ranked world number-one’s would be the perfect way to do precisely that. It’s too close to call, and another South African victory at Ellis Park would be one that lived long in the memory. No doubt Mandela would approve.