The stage is set for one of the most highly anticipated rugby clashes in history. The 2023 Rugby World Cup final, taking place this Saturday, features the reigning champions, the Springboks, facing off against their arch-rivals, the All Blacks.
The Springbok squad set to face the mighty All Blacks in the title-decider is the most experienced in the team’s history, boasting a combined total of 987 caps among the matchday 23.
One of the standout features of the final is the selection of Handré Pollard and scrum-half Faf De Klerk, who will become the most capped Springbok halfback pairing in history when they take to the park at Stade de France. It will be their 25th time together, bettering the mark they previously shared with Joost van der Westhuizen and Henry Honiball.
With Pollard returning from injury to take centre stage in the final, we are reminded of his introduction to the Green and Gold, back in 2012.
Even though no nation other than South Africa or New Zealand has lifted the Web Ellis since 2003, the Springboks and the All Blacks have not met in a World Cup final since the famous battle at Ellispark in 1995.
The junior teams have, however, battled for the U20 title, 11 years ago.
An 18-year-old Pollard, still in matric at Paarl Gimnasium, received a call up that year to the Junior Springbok squad for the u20 World Championships, which South Africa hosted, also to replace an injured player. In that instance it was flyhalf Johan Goosen. That was like-for-like, not quite the flyhalf for a hooker exchange that took place earlier during the 2023 Rugby World Cup when he replaced Malcolm Marx.
The Junior Boks faced a challenging pool-stage match against Ireland and went down 19-23 at a wet Doctor Danie Craven Stadium in Stellenbosch to a team that included future stars like Tadhg Furlong, Tadhg Beirne, Iain Henderson, Josh van der Flier, and Jack Conan. They were all part of the Irish team that recently beat South Africa in a Pool B clash at the World Cup.
Still, South Africa managed to qualify for the u20 semi-finals by beating England 28-15. That Roses squad included Kyle Sinckler, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Billy Vunipola and Hendry Slade, who ran out for England in France.
In the 2012 semi-finals, Pollard’s exceptional skills were on full display as the Junior Boks beat Argentina 35-3. He contributed 12 points from the kicking tee as South Africa’s win secured the team a highly anticipated showdown against the unbeaten All Blacks’ u20s for the title of world champions.
Now, Pollard finds himself in a situation eerily reminiscent of 2012. That year, a young Pollard was phenomenal in the Junior World Championship final, scoring 15 points, including a memorable drop goal, as South Africa brought New Zealand’s four-year reign to an end with a historic 22-16 victory.
In 2019, Pollard achieved the pinnacle of rugby success, lifting the Webb Ellis Trophy with his Springbok teammates in Japan. There, together with Steven Kitshoff and Pieter-Steph du Toit, who were also in the South African team in 2012, he became one of just 15 players to have won both the junior and senior World Cups, which solidified his status as a rugby legend in the making.
If South Africa lifts the Web Ellis Trophy again this Saturday, Marvin Orie‘s name will be added to that prestigious list. He was also part of the 2012 vintage and has performed well in the Springbok pack, alongside his Tygerberg teammate Eben Etzebeth, who is a year older and runs onto the field for a 119th time on Saturday.
Etzebeth is the most capped Springbok in the squad for the final and only the seventh Springbok to reach 100 tests, after Percy Montgomery, Jean de Villiers, John Smit, Tendai Mtawarira, Bryan Habana and Victor Matfield.
He, along with the experienced Springbok squad, will aim to etch their names into history once again, and help South Africa to become only the second country to go back-to-back as Rugby World Cup winners.
The All Blacks, who won the World Cup in 1987, 2011 and 2015, boast an impressive lineup with 1 387 combined caps, which includes Sam Whitelock (152), Aaron Smith (124), Beauden Barrett (122), and Brodie Retallick (108), who have all passed the century-mark for their country.
Whitelock and Smith played together for their entire school careers at Feilding High School, between 2002 and 2006, and the Barrett brothers have been playing together their entire lives.
If New Zealand wins on Saturday, Whitelock would become the only player ever to lift the Webb Ellis trophy for a third time.
Deon Fourie adds only 12 caps to South Africa’s collective total, having made his international debut last year against Wales, when he became the oldest player ever to earn his first cap for the Springboks, just three months shy of his 36th birthday. He may be the player with the second-fewest caps in the matchday squad, but he is a vastly experienced campaigner, having made his Super Rugby debut way back in 2008.
Jean Kleyn is the player with the fewest caps in the Springbok squad, having run out in the green and gold six times since making the move back from Ireland, for whom he played five tests after moving to Munster in 2016. Klein was born and bred in Johannesburg and matriculated at Hoërskool Linden in 2011.
Bongi Mbonambi joins Adriaan Strauss at number four on the list of hookers with the most starts for SA with his 35th start, which moves him past Malcolm Marx. John Smit, South Africa’s Rugby World Cup winning captain in France in 2007, leads the way with 81 starts for the Springboks.
Apart from the current four Springboks who played together in the SA u20 team in 2012, there’s a large group of players who were teammates in the SA Schools group that year.
Pollard was selected for that team, as well, alongside Ox Nche, Malcolm Marx, and Jesse Kriel. That was the year Marx kickstarted his illustrious career at hooker, having previously played as a flanker. That trio would have played against the likes of André Esterhuizen and Jasper Wiese at the Craven Week that year.
In 2009, Siya Kolisi, Frans Malherbe, Steven Kitshoff, Eben Etzebeth, and Bongi Mbonambe were all part of the Craven Week, laying the foundation for their futures in professional rugby and marking the start of their journeys competing against or alongside one other.
As the last dance in France draws ever closer, the spotlight shines brightly on the Springboks, who will need to draw on all their experience in the race against the Kiwis to become the first nation to win the World Cup for a fourth time.