PARIS (AP) — Defending champion South Africa kicked its way to a record fourth Rugby World Cup title by beating New Zealand 12-11 on Saturday after All Blacks captain Sam Cane was the first player to be red-carded in a final.
Flyhalf Handre Pollard scored all the points for a Springboks side which repeated its 1995 success over New Zealand and denied the All Blacks their own chance to win a fourth title in their record fifth final.
Captain Siya Kolisi held the Webb Ellis Cup aloft, kissed his right sweatband, raised the trophy even higher and roared a victory cry loud enough to rattle windows in Johannesburg, Cape Town and everywhere else back home.
“People who are not from South Africa don’t understand what it means for our country. It is not just about the game. Our country goes through such a lot," Kolisi said. “I want to tell the people of South Africa, ‘Thank you so much’. This team just shows what you can do.”
Cane will fly home with regrets.
“Extremely gutted and disappointed," he said. “First of all, that the guys had to play with 14 men for the last 50-odd minutes, I thought the courage they showed out here tonight was incredible, the whole team are absolute warriors.”
Cane was issued the red card for a high tackle on center Jesse Kriel. Three other players were sin-binned — two Springboks and one All Black — in a chaotic match.
“I’d like to say well done to South Africa,” Cane said. "Back-to-back (champions), they have been a fantastic team.”
Fullback Beauden Barrett scored the only try of the game in the left corner, setting up a tense last 20 minutes.
He became the first player to score in two World Cup finals and scored the first try conceded by South Africa in a final. But flyhalf Richie Mo'unga’s touchline conversion attempt went wide and ultimately preserved the winning margin.
Both sides finished with 14 players as left winger Cheslin Kolbe was sin-binned for a deliberate knock on. Center Jordie Barrett took the penalty shot from nearly 50 meters wide of the right post but it sailed wide with Kolbe holding his head in his hands, unable to watch.
“It was a real arm wrestle,” New Zealand coach Ian Foster said “Incredibly proud of the way we fought and to get within a whisker of pulling it off is heart-breaking.”
Cane was sin-binned but referee Wayne Barnes pulled out the dreaded red after the punishment was upgraded late in the first half following a bunker review.
The All Blacks had already had a yellow card after three minutes to flanker Shannon Frizell. Springboks captain Siya Kolisi was sin-binned early in the second half, for another high tackle, evening the numbers with the score 12-6 to South Africa.
Saturday’s 106th showdown between the gigantic rivals was played on a wet field and pitted the two top-ranked sides.
Tennis stars Roger Federer, wearing a South Africa scarf, and Novak Djokovic were among the crowd of 80,065 who witnessed a gripping but scrappy game.
New Zealand scrumhalf Aaron Smith dived over in the left corner early in the second half but the try was ruled out. Mo’unga made a great break from midfield, dummied inside fullback Damian Willemse and fed Smith to dive over. But yet another TMO decision ruled out the try for a knock on in the buildup.
Kolisi's card was not upgraded and he came back on moments later with 25 minutes left to play. New Zealand was on top and a brilliant improvised one-handed looping pass from Jordie Barrett found wing Mark Tele’a, and he slipped two tackles before feeding Beauden Barrett in the left corner.
It gave New Zealand hope, but in the end Kolisi became only the second skipper to lead a team to back-to-back World Cup victories after New Zealand great Richie McCaw.
“There are no ways I can explain it. I want to give credit to the All Blacks. They took us to the end, they took us to a dark place," Kolisi said. "It shows what kind of team they are, to fight with a man down from early in the game. They put us under so much pressure."
When Barnes blew the final whistle, a tearful Kolbe looked up in relief, Kolisi put his hands on his head in jubilant disbelief, then hugged Kolbe while Cane was sat staring ahead in despair. South Africa coach Jacques Nienaber also looked tearful as his staff grabbed him in celebration.
The dream final was stop-started by a stream of penalties under steady rain.
Frizell was penalized for tackling hooker Bongi Mbonambi in a neck roll. Mbonambi hurt his right knee and was replaced by veteran Deon Fourie.
Pollard’s penalty went over, but losing Mbonambi was a big blow. With Frizell still serving his penalty, Pollard slotted over again when Codie Taylor failed to roll away.
New Zealand hit back in the 17th minute when scrumhalf Faf de Klerk was penalized for a tackle off the ball and flyhalf Mo’unga kicked the points. But Savea was pinged moments later for a foul on opposite number Duane Vermeulen and Pollard’s 40-meter kick crept over.
Calmness personified from Pollard, in contrast to Cane’s rush of blood. A TMO review showed him leading with his shoulder into Kriel’s face.
New Zealand withstood two yellow cards in a 28-24 win against Ireland in the quarterfinals, but never trailed in that game, and fell further behind in this one when Pollard’s penalty sailed over following an offside.
Seconds earlier, Cane’s foul was upgraded to a red following a bunker review and he sank his head into his hands.
Still, even with a player less, New Zealand almost scored the game’s first try in the left corner when center Rieko Ioane was tackled just in time by Kurt-Lee Arendse. A penalty for lock Eben Etzebeth was kicked by Mo’unga to make it a six-point game at the break.
But the All Blacks faced the whole second half — and the threat of South Africa’s ‘Bomb Squad’ — with a player less. Until Kolisi trudged off for a high tackle on Savea, again picked up by a TMO in overdrive.
Smith tapped his heart when he came off with 15 minutes left, having played his last game for the All Blacks.
Same for Nienaber, who heads back home a hero.
Typically, he deflected the credit onto his players.
“They have been in a World Cup final before, some of them have played their third World Cup now. The experience pulled them through," he said. "They are an amazing bunch of guys, they are all warriors.”
AP Rugby World Cup: https://apnews.com/hub/rugby
Jerome Pugmire, The Associated Press