As the curtain comes down on the 2023 Rugby World Cup we dig into the key stats and talking points from the final weekend, run through the best facts from the campaign and reveal our Team of the Tournament.
Forty-eight games later and the 2023 Rugby World Cup is complete. All that remains now are the victory parades and autopsies. South Africa’s indomitable desire to win was too much for the All Blacks to overcome in the end and it is the Springboks who go back-to-back to claim a record fourth title.
In our final blog of the tournament, we’ll start off by dissecting the two games from the weekend (don’t forget England are now the third-best team in the world) and then look at 15 of the best stats from the campaign.
We’ll also reveal our Team of the Tournament. Spoiler alert: Championship-winning teams don’t always need superstars.
New Zealand 11-12 South Africa
Heading into this year’s Rugby World Cup, South Africa had only ever won one match in the tournament by a single point. In 2023 they won ALL of their knockout games by that slim margin.
There were moments in each fixture that helped them on their way, none more so than when All Blacks skipper Sam Cane became the first player to be sent off in a RWC final. He was dismissed for a dangerous high hit on Jesse Kriel, leaving New Zealand with 14 men for 53 minutes.
Despite their numerical disadvantage, it was Ian Foster’s men who played all the rugby and were it not for a couple of wayward kicks at goal it would be Auckland priming itself for a ticker-tape parade rather than Cape Town.
In the end, South Africa had to turn to their defence to win out. Pieter-Steph du Toit put in a monumental performance. His 28 tackles is the joint most by any player in a men’s Rugby World Cup match this year and the most by any player in a men’s final, overtaking the 18 made by Richie McCaw against France in 2011.
Overall South Africa made 209 tackles, the most ever by a team in a men’s Rugby World Cup final, surpassing the 158 they made against England in 2019 (33% more!). It wasn’t a faultless display in defence by any means – only twice before have they missed more than the 37 tackles they missed in this final. But for once the All Blacks were unable to fully capitalise on the opportunities they created.
The unsung hero of South Africa’s fourth World Cup triumph was super sub, Kwagga Smith. He turned over or disrupted 41% of the defensive rucks he hit in the World Cup, the best rate of any player to hit 20+ defensive rucks. The 30-year-old also won 10 turnovers in total (including three in the final), at least three more than any other player.
Argentina 23-26 England
England took an early lead in their third-place play-off with Argentina and although they failed to push on and dominate like the All Blacks had against the Pumas the week before, they will still be glad to have finished the job off, something they couldn’t do in their semi-final against South Africa.
It was an improved contest from the pool stage clash but still not a match worthy of too many column inches. Kick-tennis was the order of the day again. In fact, England made 45 kicks in the match, their most at this year’s Rugby World Cup, overtaking the 43 they made against the Pumas earlier in the tournament. Overall, a total of 83 kicks in play were made during the match, the joint second most in a match at this year’s World Cup.
England’s victory secured a fifth top-three finish in their men’s World Cup history, something only this year’s finalists have managed more often (New Zealand – 8, South Africa – 6), and something that looked unlikely on the eve of the tournament, despite their kind draw.
Sam Underhill was an injury replacement for Jack Willis earlier in the World Cup, yet this was his first appearance. He didn’t miss the chance to stake his claim for future recognition and picked up the Player of the Match gong for his efforts. The flanker made 24 tackles in the match (zero misses), a record by an England player in a men’s Rugby World Cup match, breaking a record he shared himself with Mako Vunipola (both made 20 vs Australia in 2019).
In reality, these sides know they have catching up to do on the top four teams.
Both say farewell to some stalwarts as they usher in a new era with a firm eye on the 2027 Rugby World Cup in Australia.
Top XV Stats from the 2023 Rugby World Cup
- South Africa won their fourth men’s Rugby World Cup, more than any other nation – overall, the Springboks have won half of the World Cups they’ve been involved in (4/8) and have won on all four occasions they’ve reached the final.
- New Zealand have now scored at least one try in every match at the tournament this century, last failing to cross the try line in their final match of the 1999 tournament (vs South Africa).
- New Zealand beat 266 opposition defenders over the course of the 2023 Rugby World Cup, tying Australia’s record as the team to evade the most tackles in a single edition of the men’s tournament (also 266 in 2003).
- England made 251 kicks in play over the course of the 2023 Rugby World Cup, the most by any team in a single edition of the men’s competition, overtaking the 245 made by Argentina in 2007.
- South Africa made 209 tackles vs NZ, the most by a team in a men’s Rugby World Cup final, overtaking the 158 they made vs England in 2019. They made 974 tackles overall during the World Cup, the most by any nation in a single edition of the men’s competition.
- Wales made 253 tackles during their opening pool match, the most any side has ever made during a men’s Rugby World Cup match, surpassing Georgia’s tally of 218 against Australia in 2019.
- Wayne Barnes became the first referee to officiate in five men’s Rugby World Cups – Barnes also extended his record as the referee with the most matches officiated in the competition (27).
- Sam Whitelock made his 26th RWC appearance during the final – the 2023 tournament saw him set a record for most World Cup appearances, overtaking Richie McCaw and Jason Leonard (22 each) as the player with the most appearances in the men’s competition.
- Will Jordan scored eight tries in the 2023 Rugby World Cup, equaling the record for most tries in a single edition of the men’s tournament alongside Jonah Lomu (in 1999), Bryan Habana (in 2007) and Julian Savea (in 2015).
- Beauden Barrett became the first player to score a try in two separate men’s Rugby World Cup finals, with his try being the first South Africa had conceded in a final in what was their fourth such appearance.
- Sam Cane became the first player to be sent off in a men’s Rugby World Cup final – each side received two cards over the course of the final; previously no nation had received more than one in a final.
- Mark Telea beat 40 defenders in the 2023 RWC, becoming just the second player to beat 40+ in an edition of the men’s competition (Jonah Lomu, 1995 and 1999); his tally of nine defenders beaten vs South Africa was the most by any player in a final (Lomu 8 vs SA, 1995).
- Ardie Savea beat 27 defenders in the tournament, among forwards, only Jake Polledri (27 in 2019) has beaten as many in a single men’s RWC; Savea made 22 carries vs South Africa, the most of any player in a men’s final (19 by Billy Vunipola vs SA in 2019).
- Pieter-Steph du Toit made 28 tackles against New Zealand in the final, the joint most by any player in a Rugby World Cup match and the most by any player in a men’s final, overtaking the 18 made by Richie McCaw against France in 2011.
- Argentina’s Marcos Kremer made 92 tackles in the 2023 Rugby World Cup, setting a record for the most tackles in a single edition of the men’s tournament, overtaking the 83 made by Taulupe Faletau in 2011.