Ben Smith These items are huge.
8:59 AM ET
- • FT’s rugby writer from 1995 to 2009
• Also writes for the International Herald Tribune and the Sunday Herald
This Saturday’s Rugby World Cup final between England and South Africa will be the culmination of a four-year cycle that began as the All Blacks toted the trophy around Twickenham in 2015.
A lot has happened since then; England recorded an emphatic 18 game win-streak under the new stewardship of Eddie Jones, finished fifth in the 2018 Six Nations and slowly resurged thereafter, climaxing with a dominating win over the All Blacks in the semifinals last weekend.
South Africa took a different journey. The Springboks appointed, and later sacked, Allister Coetzee as head coach, before giving the nod to Rassie Erasmus — who has turned the Springboks into a hard-to-beat powerhouse.
One of those two sides will be crowned champions this weekend, but here is a ranking of the eight Rugby World Cup finals that precede the matchup, and why one in particular is the best of them all.
Ben Smith 8. South Africa 15 – England 6, St. Denis, Oct. 20, 2007
England were just happy, and slightly disbelieving, to be there after being crushed 36-0 by the Springboks in the pool stage. They had, to their great credit, ground their way to the final on the back of sheer commitment, Jonny Wilkinson’s boot and a remarkable ability to make opponents — first Australia in the quarters then hosts France in the semis — play exactly the way they wanted. Their misfortune was that the Boks, whose smoothly efficient passage to the final was marked by the understated way they celebrated every victory, were more than happy to play that way as well, and were exceedingly good at it.
With Victor Matfield ruling the lineout, South Africa crushed the life out of England and the game, too — the one time it threatened to escape, Mark Cueto’s touchdown at the corner was ruled no try. Giving that it would at least have forced the Boks to open up slightly, instead South Africa were able to grind their way to a win by five penalties to two. The 2019 rematch can only be better…can’t it…..
Ben Smith 7. Australia 35 – France 12, Cardiff, Nov. 6, 1999
This was the one that, aside from the pleasure of a last pop at now England head coach Eddie Jones, mostly likely prompted Warren Gatland’s musings about finalists being hungover from playing the game of their lives in the semifinals.
France had done just that in the lead-up to the 1999 final, having beaten the All Blacks against all odds six days earlier and now needing to prepare for unexpected opposition. Australia dominated from the start. They led 12-6 at halftime and steadily built their advantage thereafter with tries from Ben Tune and, after sublime handling from George Gregan, replacement forward Owen Finegan.
Ben Smith 6. New Zealand 8 – France
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