“I really believe this is the best team that has ever played the game.”
Those was the words South Africa coach Heyneke Meyer used to describe New Zealand. Mind game or grudging admiration?
His New Zealand’s opposite number plumped for the latter: “He’s just about killed us with compliments,” said Hansen. “He’s a cunning wee devil is Heyneke.”
Pre-match coach jousting has been one of the lesser-appreciated highlights of this World Cup, played by men who know they can have a bit of fun at the game’s – and the press’s – expense before the real mud starts to fly.
Both coaches know they don’t really need to big up this game any more than it has been already. From Star Wars comparisons to claims of all-time greatness, everyone knows that these two teams will create a sporting saga this tournament can be proud of.
Every saga needs its sub-plot: South Africa’s Bryan Habana is aiming to overtake All Black legend Jonah Lomu’s all-time World Cup try record, while New Zealand’s brutally gifted winger Julian Savea is sprinting towards the record for a single tournament.
But it’s not the flying boys on the flanks who show just how the southern hemisphere sides have transformed the game of rugby. In terms of New Zealand’s handling skills, it’s hard to tell the difference between hooker and half-back, while behind the obvious South African grunt lies a deadly guile. Welsh fans won’t need reminding of Duane Vermeulen.
The greatest team in the universe versus the side with the best chance of wrestling them back down to earth. Perhaps it’s for the best that the Rugby World Cup has lost all its northern representatives: these sides are in a galaxy far, far away.