It’s time for the big one. We analyse the 2023 Rugby World Cup final with our New Zealand vs South Africa prediction and preview.
Two of rugby’s oldest and fiercest rivals – and the two most successful teams in men’s Rugby World Cup history – will battle it out to secure a record fourth Webb Ellis Cup.
Historically, New Zealand have edged this fixture, winning 59% of their Test matches against South Africa. Sounds good, right? Well, such has been the dominance of the All Blacks throughout international rugby union history that it makes that win rate their lowest against any side.
Recent Test results between these two sides have been finely balanced too. Since the Springboks became world champions in 2019, the two nations have met six times, winning three games apiece.
That said, South Africa made a real statement in their most recent meeting just before the World Cup, defeating the All Blacks 35-7. The 28-point margin of victory wasn’t just a record win for South Africa over New Zealand, but a record defeat for the All Blacks overall. Only a 71st-minute try spared them the embarrassment of being ‘nilled’.
At the Rugby World Cup, where the two nations have won three editions apiece, it has been a similar story. New Zealand have won three of their five meetings, while South Africa won the only previous clash in a final between the two sides back in 1995.
New Zealand boast the best win rate in Rugby World Cup history (87%). South Africa boast the best win rate in knockout matches (79%).
New Zealand have scored at least one try in every World Cup match this century. South Africa have never conceded a try in a Rugby World Cup final.
Something has to give this weekend.
Route to the Knockouts
- Lost 13-27 vs France
- Won 71-3 vs Namibia
- Won 96-17 vs Italy
- Won 73-0 vs Uruguay
- Won 28-24 vs Ireland
- Won 44-6 vs Argentina
- Won 18-3 v Scotland
- Won 76-0 v Romania
- Lost 8-13 v Ireland
- Won 49-18 v Tonga
- Won 29-28 v France
- Won 16-15 v England
New Zealand and South Africa playing at a World Cup is rugby’s version of the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object. It remains as true in 2023 as it ever has.
We’ve already mentioned New Zealand’s try-scoring run, crossing the line at least once in every Rugby World Cup fixture since the 1999 third-place playoff against the Springboks.
Meanwhile, the Boks boast a miserly defence at the business end of the tournament, never conceding a try in a World Cup final and keeping their opponents without a try in almost half of the knockout fixtures they’ve played (47%), comfortably the best such rate of any team.
The All Blacks’ attack has once again been formidable. They average the most line breaks per game (13.5) and boast the best gainline success rate of any team (61%). All of this has helped them average 4.3 points per 22 entry – a full point more than the next-best team, South Africa (3.3).
South Africa’s ball carrying has been incredibly physical at this year’s tournament, with 11.5% of their carries committing three or more tacklers. With more opposition defenders needed to bring down Boks ball carriers, it leaves room elsewhere for their electric backs to capitalise.
The Springboks’ defence is their real strong point though, and it appears they are peaking at just the right time. South Africa stopped England from making a single line break in their semi-final encounter, the first time at this World Cup a team hadn’t conceded a line break in a game.
In the knockout stage of this tournament, South Africa have conceded 7.5 22 entries per game and conceded 1.9 points per entry. Of the eight teams to progress beyond the pool stage, they’re the only ones to rank better than the average for both categories.
By definition, if a team is good enough to reach a Rugby World Cup final, there won’t be a long list of weaknesses in their game. That’s certainly the case where New Zealand and South Africa are concerned.
However, it also follows that if you reach a final, even the slightest chinks in your armour are vulnerable given the quality of opposition, and there are certainly areas that the All Blacks and the Springboks will feel they can exploit.
The fact both sides have already lost a match in this year’s World Cup gives some clues on how their opponents can gain the upper hand.
When it comes to South Africa’s weaknesses though, New Zealand could potentially gain more insight from a match the Springboks actually won after England pushed them all the way in a hotly-contested semi-final, leading the match for a total of 74 minutes and 39 seconds. A large part of that was South Africa’s inability to deal with England’s relentless kick-and-chase tactics. The Springboks failed with 11 defensive catch attempts in that game – only in one other game this tournament has a team failed with more than seven (Argentina vs England, 12). Given New Zealand have the second-highest kick retention rate of any side this year (18%, England – 21%), Ian Foster may well instruct his players to follow a similar route.
While New Zealand have swept aside all challengers since their opening match – a first-ever pool-stage loss against France – that defeat will still give the Springboks something to work with, as will their final warm-up match before the tournament even began. A lack of discipline cost New Zealand dearly in both of those games, with their 14 penalties conceded against the Boks in Twickenham their joint-most in a Test match since November 2017 (16 vs Scotland). They also picked up three cards in that match, two yellow and one red, meaning they had a full complement of 15 players for just 52 minutes, even going down to 13 men at one stage. New Zealand’s ill-discipline was on full display once again in their quarter-final tie against Ireland, with two men sent to the bin, resulting in a match that was much closer than it otherwise may have been.
As you’d expect, we’re spoiled for choice when it comes to looking at standout players in a final. For New Zealand, we’ve gone for Will Jordan and Ardia Savea, two of their most critical players if they are to win that record fourth title.
Jordan has scored eight tries at this year’s tournament, more than any other player. In fact, it’s the joint most by any player in a Rugby World Cup campaign, alongside two Kiwis (Jonah Lomu in 1999, Julian Savea in 2015) and a Springbok (Bryan Habana in 2007). He’ll be chomping at the bit to get that ninth try and cement his place in the history books.
Ardia Savea is a bona fide all-action superstar. Recently nominated for World Player of the Year, the number 8 has made the second most carries (60) of anyone at this tournament, beating the most defenders (23) and being involved in more tries (three tries, four assists) than any forward. Quality of impact is where he shines though, ranking in the top 10 of players (min. 20+ carries) for both gainline success rate (75%) and percentage of carries where 2+ defenders are committed (73%).
The threat out wide for the Boks is as dangerous as any side in the world, but their main strength comes from their aggression, predominantly in the midfield and engine room of the scrum. Eben Etzebeth and Damien de Allende rarely take a backwards step and will be key to disrupting New Zealand’s attacking rhythm.
Only Tom Curry (9) has made more dominant tackles than either Etzebeth or De Allende (both 8), with the two Boks both registering 20%+ for their rate of making dominant hits. De Allende has also been a huge ball carrier for the South Africans, with 79% of his carries seeing him commit 2+ defenders, the best rate of any centre to make 20+ carries in the tournament.
There will be big battles all across the pitch in this final and whichever side comes out on top in these head-to-head matchups will likely get the upper hand, creating the space for the dancers to do the damage. Either that or it will be a straight-up slugfest, which would probably play into South Africa’s hands, as that suits their modus operandi to the tee.
New Zealand vs South Africa Prediction
Win prediction: New Zealand 47.2% – Draw 0.7% – South Africa 52.1%
Score prediction: New Zealand 23-25 South Africa
Just a few percentage points separate the two sides in Opta’s supercomputer prediction for this one. It makes South Africa the ever-so-slight favourites at 52.1%, while the chances of a New Zealand win sit at 47.2%.
In terms of how that plays out on the scoreboard ahead of kick-off, the model predicts the Boks to win an evenly-fought encounter by just two points, 25 to 23.
New Zealand vs South Africa Lineups
New Zealand head coach Foster has made one change to his starting lineup from the semi-final against Argentina. Brodie Retallick comes into the second row in place of Sam Whitelock, who drops to the bench.
New Zealand: 1 Ethan de Groot, 2 Codie Taylor, 3 Tyrel Lomax, 4 Brodie Retallick, 5 Scott Barrett, 6 Shannon Frizell, 7 Sam Cane (c), 8 Ardie Savea, 9 Aaron Smith, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 11 Mark Tele’a, 12 Jordie Barrett, 13 Rieko Ioane, 14 Will Jordan, 15 Beauden Barrett
Replacements: 16 Samisoni Taukei’aho, 17 Tamaiti Williams, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Samuel Whitelock, 20 Dalton Papali’i, 21 Finlay Christie, 22 Damian McKenzie, 23 Anton Lienert-Brown
South Africa head coach Jacques Nienaber has made two alterations to his starting XV ahead of the World Cup final at Stade de France on Saturday. Half-backs Faf de Klerk and Handre Pollard replace Cobus Reinach and Manie Libbok, who drop out of the 23.
South Africa: 1 Steven Kitshoff, 2 Mbongeni Mbonambi, 3 Frans Malherbe, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 5 Franco Mostert, 6 Siya Kolisi (c), 7 Pieter-Steph Du Toit, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 9 Faf de Klerk, 10 Handre Pollard, 11 Cheslin Kolbe, 12 Damian de Allende, 13 Jesse Kriel, 14 Kurt-Lee Arendse, 15 Damian Willemse
Replacements: 16 Deon Fourie, 17 Ox Nche, 18 Trevor Nyakane, 19 Jean Kleyn, 20 RG Snyman, 21 Kwagga Smith, 22 Jasper Wiese, 23 Willie Le Roux