Siya Kolisi charged on to the pitch with arms out wide, desperate for someone, anyone, to hug. Bongi Mbonambi was the first brought into his embrace, South Africa’s hooker having begun this game limping off with a knee injury now in cavorts, cock-a-hoop with the Springboks champions again.
Kolisi broke away in search of Cheslin Kolbe, finding the wing down on one knee in prayer. Kolbe had been able to watch the final moments, burying his head in his shirt like a child beneath a duvet, fearing his deliberate knock-on might cost Springboks back-to-back victories. His captain offered an arm on the shoulder before wrapping Kolbe up in a celebratory cuddle. After a night of madcap magnificence, South Africa had clung on.
All the while, Sam Cane remained seated, eyes shut, letting the pain wash over him. Cane had been a picture of focus emerging from the tunnel ahead of kick off, eyes fixed on the Webb Ellis Cup. That famous number seven was cast in vivid white against the deepness of the black shirt on his back as he gathered his side pre-match, taking pride of place at the front of the haka.
Just 28 minutes in, though, the dream of a lifetime came crashing down in a flash of red. Cane has had to shoulder so much criticism but has always stood tall and fronted up; here, that was his issue, a forceful connection with the head of a turning Jesse Kriel leaving the decision in little doubt. It was upgraded on review five minutes later – Cane the first man sent off in a World Cup final.
When asked about the threat of the Springboks’ seven/one bench split in the week in the context of their Twickenham warm-up defeat, Ian Foster had joked that his side’s failure to keep a full complement on the field was of rather more consequence. Recalling Scott Barrett’s sending off, Foster quipped: “We doubled up with their split by just playing with 14 men, and then 13 men, for parts of that game. We tried that clever strategy and decided we didn’t like it so we’re going to try a different strategy this week.” Old habits die hard.
Cane’s sending off followed the second-minute yellow card shown to Shannon Frizell, falling clumsily on Mbonambi’s leg. New Zealand were the first team to ever be shown two cards in a single World Cup final.
In the first half, New Zealand were most certainly outflanked. Kolisi was quiet as a carrier but immense defensively, at one point folding Ardie Savea in two just metres from the All Blacks line to allow Steven Kitshoff to contest and win a penalty. Pieter-Steph du Toit, meanwhile, was a one-man wrecking crew, picking on Jordie Barrett particularly with his lumberjack axe, cutting down New Zealand’s tallest timber repeatedly on his way to 28 tackles.
But just moments after the interval, Kolisi joined his captaincy counterpart in the dock. A thrust towards a landing Ardie Savea resulted in a clash of heads – the bulk of the force was directed to the chest, saving the South African from befalling Cane’s fate.
His 10 minutes in the bin served, Kolisi returned and could hardly believe his ears, the boos and jeers of fans both Kiwi and local unfamiliar to a figure of near universal popularity. Already down their openside flanker, New Zealand shed themselves of their blindside, Frizell replaced by old stager Sam Whitelock, on for one last rodeo alongside Brodie Retallick with the increasingly prominent Scott Barrett moved to six. Cane watched on shredding his nails.
Soon the skipper was back on his feet, celebrating as Mark Tele’a collected Jordie Barrett’s wide ball and then somehow contorted an offload away. Beauden Barrett stooped and scored to bring the All Blacks within one.
There was to be more drama. With Anton Lienert-Brown’s offload destined for a player in space on the right, Kolbe’s outstretched hand threatened to create one late twist. New Zealand threatened some All Black magic but it wasn’t enough, a final maul collapse enough for South Africa to secure the retention of their crown.
Kolisi gathered his players together in a circle of prayer, a bow of their heads in the unity of triumph. Cane looked into the distance, the disconsolate All Blacks players unable to look at one another. In this tale of two captains, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.