This was a proper arm-wrestle fought out at an awe-inspiringly high level of skill and physicality and for All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen it was the perfect riposte to those in the Six Nations community who believe the sunshine boys down south are nothing more than flat-track bullies.
Maybe he was a little smug as he addressed his post-match media conference but Hansen had just engineered back-to-back knockout victories that showcased his side’s ability to perform at the highest levels in styles and conditions so contrasting it beggared belief.
From a nine-try humiliation of France in the quarter-final that was cavalier in its delivery to the roundhead attrition of this hard-fought, rain-soaked narrow defeat of the Springboks in the semi-finals, New Zealand have once again exhibited their unrivalled mastery of the sport. This was their 13th consecutive World Cup win that puts them within 80 minutes of becoming the first side to successfully defend the Webb Ellis Cup and having experienced just three defeats since Richie McCaw last lifted the gold pot on home soil in Auckland four years ago, Hansen has pretty much earned the right to be a little preachy.
“The Rugby Championship has taken a few smacks from people up this way, but it is a physical competition, as we have just seen,” Hansen said.
“If you have not got physicality you cannot play and if you have not got skill you cannot play. I am delighted at the composure the players showed in a do-or-die game but tribute should be paid to South Africa who played a full part.” Tribute was also paid to captain McCaw and the leadership skills honed over three World Cups as captain but which got off to a bumpy start in 2007 with an infamous quarter-final defeat to France.
“We’ve probably got the greatest skipper and greatest player the All Blacks and maybe the world has had, without getting ahead of ourselves,” Hansen said of McCaw.
“As a young captain in 2007 he was criticised a lot and I know that hurt him. But he’s grown, we’ve grown a leadership group that has a massive amount of self-belief.
“Kieran Read, Conrad Smith, Dan Carter, Sam Cane; there’s a number of guys. We’ve had moments where we had to keep that self-belief. And I can think of one against Ireland (the last-gasp 24-22 victory in November 2013 that broke Irish hearts in Dublin).
“Then in those moments it’s just about the process. ‘What have we got to do right now? What do we do next?’ And it becomes the norm.
“You’ve got four or five guys who have played around 100 games. You’ve got guys on the park who can do that for you. It’s a learned skill like anything, and self-belief is a massive thing.” Fly-half Dan Carter epitomised that self-belief and now approaches his final Test as an All Black before heading to Racing Metro at the age of 33. That it will be his first World Cup final appearance having missed out in 2011 through injury will make the occasion especially poignant but this will be no send-off for a fading great, Carter is still at the very top of his game.
“He’s in the form we need him right now,” assistant coach Ian Foster said of Carter. “Over a career, it’s hard to say he’s in his best form. But for someone who’s gone through what he has to control the team in the way he does, it’s outstanding.
“He’s reaping the rewards of really hard work. To see him out there running around freely, it’s outstanding.”