South Africa claimed back-to-back Rugby World Cup titles in October as they added the 2023 title to their 2019 crown. This victory was forged in fire, with the Springboks showing the toughness, grit, and teamwork that has become their hallmark over the last eight years.
To frame it in just those words, however, would be doing this squad a disservice. While it was indeed all those things, it was also a masterclass in tactical awareness, one that showed the skill, strength, and speed of the players to show through when needed, especially in the quarter-final win over the French.
The question isn’t if this South African team is the best in the world right now. Instead, the question is if this South African team is the best rugby team ever.
The ‘Boks Do It The Hard Way
There has never been a World Cup winner that went through a demanding series of teams as the 2023 Springboks. Losing to Ireland in the most epic pool stage match of all time was just the start for this team. They then handled a Scotland team that would have been good enough to do some damage in the knockout rounds before drawing the French in the quarters.
This is a generational France team – albeit without the silky skills at 10 of Romaine Ntamack – and in Antoine Dupont, they have a player looked at by many as the best in the world regardless of position. This was followed by an overachieving and determined England team in the semi-final and the always-talented All Blacks in the final. That is four teams that could legitimately have won the tournament (and Scotland) that the ‘Boks had to beat. The ability to continually rise to a challenge, to take no off weeks, and to find fight where other teams would come up empty are hallmarks of this South Africa team that will live long in the memory.
Winning every single knockout match by just a single point takes unbelievable resolve. It also takes bags of talent and a team full of leaders. It is that leadership that came to the fore in this World Cup, with player after player knowing their role and executing at the highest level.
Siya Kolisi was outstanding as the ‘Boks captain. His ability to come back into the side in a third of the time it usually takes for an ACL recovery was nothing short of miraculous. While he isn’t yet the force of nature he is at his very best, his leadership was everything to this group.
He led a team of leaders. Eben Etzebeth, Handre Pollard, Bongi Mbonambi, and Faf de Klerk (as strange as he is) are all leaders. In the final, Pieter-Steph du Toit put on a clinic against the All Blacks as he amassed about 1,000 tackles (probably half of those on the dangerous Jordie Barrett). This is the same Du Toit who almost lost his leg a few years ago after suffering complications from an injury.
When Bongi went off three minutes into the final, there was no panic. With Malcolm Marx – the best hooker on the planet – already ruled out of the World Cup, the bench spot at No. 2 was held down by a 37-year-old converted flanker who made his Springboks debut last year. Deon Fourie played 76 minutes of the final at an astonishing level, showing that the Springboks are thinking multiple steps ahead of every other country in their recruitment and strategizing for these games.
This is a blueprint that cannot be copied at the current time. No other team – not even New Zealand – has the number of players with streamlined yet varied skill sets of the ‘Boks. Even if they did, there is something about the drive of the South Africans, the feeling that they are playing for something bigger than themselves, that makes this team almost impossible to best on the biggest stage in their sport.